On the hills northeast of the beautiful Japanese city of Kyoto lies the mountain-side villages of Kibune and Kurama. I read about these two villages while looking for day trips out of Kyoto — and other than choosing the popular nearby cities of Nara or Kobe, I thought a trip into the slightly more rural part of the city would be more exciting. I heard about its serenity, mountain-top temples and river-dining; and I wanted to experience this side of Japan.
I was visiting Japan at the tail-end of summer with my mother, and after spending a few days soaking in the beauty of Kyoto, we decided that we’d make a trip to the mountainous regions to enjoy the cooling fresh air; and maybe, just maybe, hike the trails through its mystical forests.
I was intrigued by the myths that surround the area of Kibune and Kurama — tales of legendary warriors; and the King of Tengu, leader of the folk creatures/demons that live and guard the forests. I couldn’t wait to explore such a magical place.
The trip to Kibune and Kurama takes about 40-minutes from central Kyoto — with trains to the villages starting from the Demachi-Yanagi Station on the Eizan Kurama Line. A one-way trip costs JP¥420~US$4; and we alighted the train at Kibune-guchi Station for our first stop at the village of Kibune. The village is about a 20-minute walk from the train station, but since we were earlier than the earliest scheduled bus (that costs JP¥160~US$1.5 per way to the center of town); mum and I took a peaceful stroll along the two-lane mountain road to the village, passing by tall cedar trees and flowing streams.
To get to Kurama, the train goes all the way to the last stop on the line at Kurama Station; and the station is located in the center of town. Most people visit Kibune and Kurama to make the hike over the mountains from one village to another.
First village stop — Kibune. This small village is known for the Kifune Shrine, dedicated to the God of water and rain — I guess that’s why it’s blessed with an abundance of water from the Kibune River that flows right through the village. Come summer, the ryokan and restaurants along the town’s main road set up platforms over the river for visitors to enjoy a meal. It’s a great way to beat the summer heat, and is extremely relaxing.
When we arrived, the shops and restaurants were just beginning to set up for the day so the village was relatively quiet with only the sound of rushing waters down the river. The first thing we did was head to Kibune’s famous shrine, because early morning is the best time to visit — when it is peaceful and devoid of visitors!
We were one of the first people to visit the shrine that day. A flight of stone steps lined with red standing lanterns lead to the main hall, where the God of water and rain (Takaokami no Kami) is enshrined — giving protection to those heading out to sea, and for good weather.
If you want your fortunes told, a counter in front of the shrine allows you to purchase a fortune telling sheet for a small price. It is an empty piece of paper, but once soaked in water (you can do that in the small pool near the shrine), your fortunes will magically appear! The writings are in Japanese, but a QR code on the sheet will lead you to an app that offers translations in English, Chinese, Taiwanese and Korean. Mum and I had a go, and we were happy with ours!
There are three shrines in total at Kibune, and the order of visit is — the Main Shrine (the first shrine along the road), Okunomiya (the matchmaking shrine at the end of the road), and Yui no Yashiro (a shrine for wishes, mid-way between the first two shrines).
River-Dining at Hirobun
After visiting the Kifune Shrine, it was time for our first meal of the day. I timed our visit to Kibune with the river-dining experience (kawadoko) at Hirobun in mind — I wanted to try the Nagashi Somen, which are white somen noodles that slide down bamboo pipes with streams of cold flowing water. It is extremely popular, and wait time can get as long as 2 hours. I was there 15 minutes before opening time at 11am and was second in line; and within minutes, a snaking queue formed behind me.
The restaurant allows diners onto the over-river platform in batches, and after waiting for a few minutes at the waiting area, we were seated facing the bamboo pipes for our session. Bite-sized servings of noodles then started streaming down the pipes at intervals; and we had to fish it out of our designated pipe, dip it into a soba sauce, and eat it immediately. The noodles flow down pretty fast, so if you miss it… well, you miss it. There were about 10 portions of noodles that flowed down until the pink colored one appeared, marking the end of our meal.
The Nagashi Somen meal at Hirobun costs JP¥1300~US$11.5 per person, and is only available in the summer months. Mum and I were stuffed, but it’s really just noodles so it might not be quite enough for some people. Hirobun (and almost all the restaurants in Kibune) also offers Japanese set lunches (kaiseki) — which is popular in Kyoto.
Hiking the Kibune-Kurama Trail
After lunch, it was time to check-out the sacred mountain trail from Kibune to Kurama. Entry from the Kibune trail-head costs JP¥300~US$2.5, and includes the entrance to the Kurama-dera Temple at the other end. The path brings hikers over the hill that separates the 2 villages, and takes about 2 to 3 hours depending on fitness levels. It is said that the trail is dotted by secluded temples, historical sites and lots of cedar trees. I wish I could write more about it, but mum backed out at the last minute and we took the train to Kurama instead.
However, during my visit to the Kurama-dera Temple on the Kurama side of the trail, I left mum at the temple and made my way up to the top of the hill. It was a relatively easy hike and I would have loved to complete it, but it made more sense to backtrack and head back to the temple. I guess I will have to be satisfied with doing half the trail!
Next village – Kurama. The short train ride from Kibune-guchi Station to Kurama Station costs JP¥210~US$2. Just in front of the station is a huge statue of the face of Sojobo, the King of the Tengu. His long nose and bright red scowling face is really intimidating, and his image can be found all over Kurama — in paintings, masks and souvenirs sold around the village. Mount Kurama is believed to be the home of the Tengu, mythical beings (or demons) who live and guard the mountains and forests around the area.
Kurama is best-known for its hot-springs (onsen), and the 8th century Kurama-dera Temple. The temple is just a few minutes walk from the train station, and was our first stop upon arriving at the village.
The beautiful Kurama-dera Temple is built on Mount Kurama, and provides a calming and spiritual atmosphere for those who come to the mountains to find peace. The temple is surrounded by forest wilderness and requires an approximately 45-minutes walk up the stone steps to the main temple (with many smaller temples dotting the path) from the village of Kurama at the foothill. Mum and I decided to take the easy way up the mountain, and got on the cable car that services the temple, costing JP¥200~US$2 per way.
After a short walk through the pathway circling the mountain from the cable car station, we arrived at the main temple of Kurama-dera. The view is gorgeous from up there, and it is a great place to sit, relax, and admire the surrounding scenery. There is a six-pointed star (representing the human eyes, ears, nose, mouth, body and heart) at the courtyard in front the main hall, and it is believed that standing in the center of the triangle will awaken your inner reiki. I felt as if all these mysterious powers surrounding the temple adds to the captivating myths of creatures and demons that roam these forests.
Just behind the temple lies the popular trail that runs through the mountainous forest towards Kibune. As mentioned earlier, I made a quick hike up to the top of the hill and back again to the temple, just to get a feel of the trail.
After the spiritual visit to Kurama-dera Temple, we decided to stroll around the village of Kurama to enjoy its cooling air. The village was almost empty during my visit — I felt as if I was walking through an abandoned (but beautifully preserved) town lined with traditional wooden houses. We walked towards the end of the main road where the famous Kurama Onsen is located. I’m not a fan of the onsen so I decided to skip the experience (mum decided to forgo it too), but I heard that the Kurama Onsen lives up to its name of being the signature experience of any trip to Kurama — a therapeutic dip through nature’s hot springs in the midst of the surrounding beauty and fresh mountain air. It is sure to rejuvenate and reinvigorate the body, mind and soul. After our walk around Kurama, we headed back to central Kyoto.
Mum and I had a lovely time spending more than half a day exploring Kibune and Kurama. We visited in the summer when the most popular activity was dining over the river, but the villages offer something different in other seasons too — beautiful snow covered trees in the winter, and leaves of red and gold during the fall. It is really hard to truly explain how tranquil and lovely Kibune and Kurama is, and the pictures don’t do it enough justice… so I guess you’ll just have to visit and experience its beauty and adventures for yourself.