Kifune Shrine's iconic stone staircase

Kibune and Kurama are two small valley towns that are nestled at either side of Mount Kurama in northern Kyoto and are connected by a five-kilometer forested trail around the mountain that is popular with tourists; taking around two and a half to three hours to complete at a leisurely pace. The area has been well-visited for centuries as a place of pilgrimage to its various holy sites, not to mention as a tranquil and fun escape from the bustling urban sprawl of nearby cities Kyoto and Osaka.

Today the area, which can be reached from Osaka in around 90 minutes via the Keihan Railway and the Eizan Railway, boasts many attractions including but not limited to the aforementioned hiking opportunities, a multitude of shrines and temples, impressive natural features and great food. With all this such a short distance from western Japan's largest city, it promised to make for a great day-trip that I was eager to experience for myself.

Boarding the Keihan Limited Express bound for Demachiyanagi Station
The reserved car is rather nice

I started my journey from Kyobashi Station in central Osaka where I boarded a train on the Keihan Main Line to Kyoto's Demachiyanagi Station, and from there transferred to the Eizan Railway which took me on a picturesque journey up into the foothills and to Kibuneguchi Station. Kibune town is a 20-minute walk or 5-minute bus ride from the station. Note that although I started at Kibune and hiked towards Kurama, the journey in the opposite direction is equally enjoyable and very popular.

The Eizan Railway heading towards Kibune
Arriving at Kifune Shrine

Before beginning the hike, it was time to explore Kibune, which is very much visit-worthy in its own right. Sauntering along the town's charming main street eventually brought me to the focal point that the town grew up around, Kifune Shrine. The old shrine is dedicated to Tamayori-hime no Mikoto, the Goddess of water, and it is said that many centuries ago she sailed up-river from Osaka Bay and landed at the point where the shrine now stands. Accordingly, the shrine is heavily associated with water.

After ascending the shrine's iconic lantern-lined stone staircase, I arrived in the main courtyard where I got my hands on an omikuji water fortune. This special kind of paper fortune slip requires holders to place it on the surface of the complex's perimeter well. As the slip floats and absorbs water, the fortune is revealed, after which visitors are to tie the paper on a nearby stand to complete the process. After floating and tying my own fortune, I walked further through the picturesque shrine admiring some of its beautiful buildings and soaking up the jovial atmosphere that prevails here.

Kifune Shrine consists of multiple precincts, and next I rejoined the main street and walked ten minutes further along to Okunomiya, the back part of the shrine where the Goddess' boat is said to be buried. Being significantly quieter than the main section of the shrine, Okunomiya had much more of a tranquil feel to it and provided a pleasant contrast with the buzz prevailing further towards the center of town.

Visitors in the main area laying their omikuji on the water's surface
Writing on the omikuji paper emerges when the sheet gets wet
The fortunes tied nearby
On the way to Okunomiya
Okunomiya

Following an exciting exploration of Kifune Shrine it was time to eat before beginning the hike that would eventually lead me to Kurama. I meandered back through the town and arrived at Nakayoshi, a restaurant where I enjoyed what turned out to be a memorable food experience.

Every year from June to September, Nakayoshi and many more of Kibune's restaurants offer kawadoko, in which customers eat on platforms specially erected just centimeters above the Kibunegawa river that flows at the side of the main street. A popular attraction in these parts, the kawadoko experience allows diners to enjoy their meal to the rhythm of the trickling water flowing underneath whilst achieving almost complete relief from the summer heat.

For my meal I was served a delectable kaiseki set of traditional Japanese cuisine including raw and cooked fish and mouth-watering tempura. The food, enjoyed in the most magical of settings, made for a fantastic experience that is a must for those visiting the area during summer.

Kawadoko at Nakayoshi
A glorious traditional Japanese feast

Energized from the delicious meal, I was now ready to begin the hike from Kibune to Kurama via Mount Kurama. The trail is accessed by walking over a small bridge in the center of Kibune town, and to enter I paid a 300 yen donation fee. The hike starts relatively steep, but the winding trail evens out within 30 minutes towards the small mountain's summit. Along the way visitors come across various temple halls and effigies before arriving at one of the hike's most famous features, Kinonesando.

Literally meaning 'tree root path', this small stretch of the trail is covered in rugged tree roots that protrude from the ground in an eerie yet beautiful display of nature's power. While extra caution is needed not to trip on this part of the hike, it makes for great photo opportunities.

Around town
The mountain's winding paths
Beautiful scenes near the mountain's summit
Kinonesando tree root path

The gradual descent of the mountain now began, and after negotiating more winding paths I arrived at the main precinct of Kurama-dera. This Buddhist temple is known not only for its impressive buildings and the nice views of the surrounding valley that can be enjoyed from its courtyard, but also as a popular spiritual power spot.

A visitor kneels on the power spot in front of Kurama Temple's main hall
Heading down from the temple towards Kurama town

After exploring the main grounds of Kurama-dera, I descended the final 30 minutes of the trail to where it eventually reached its conclusion at the majestic Niomon gate in the town of Kurama. Exhilarated from the hike but also in need of some relaxation, I made the short walk from here over to Kurama Onsen.

This onsen boasts an outdoor bath that affords bathers the chance to relax while taking in nice views of the surrounding mountains. I washed off and proceeded to take a long soak in the bath's water, after which I took the free shuttlebus that the onsen coordinates to transport visitors between the complex and Kurama Station.

The majestic Niomon signals the end of the hiking trail
Kurama Onsen

Tengu are mythical goblin-like creatures with long noses that are said to live on Mount Kurama. They are believed to be generally good but not always, generally alternating between benevolence and mischief.

Whether ultimately good or bad, the little imps are revered in this area, and outside Kurama Station stands a large tengu statue erected in homage to them. Getting up close to the statue (which is especially notable for the length of its protruding nose) allowed me to appreciate some of the mythology surrounding Mount Kurama, and made for an interesting, if brief, final stop before leaving this magical area and heading back towards Osaka.

Passing the tengu statue outside Kurama Station
The journey back to Osaka begins

Access

To Kibune

From central Osaka (e.g. Yodoyabashi or Kyobashi stations), take a limited express on the Keihan Main Line to Demachiyanagi Station (around 50 minutes, 470 yen, frequent departures) and then the Eizan Railway Kurama Line to Kibuneguchi (30 minutes, 420 yen, 3 trains/hour). Frequent buses depart from in front of Kibuneguchi Station to central Kibune. The one way journey takes around five minutes and costs 160 yen.

To Kurama

From Demachiyanagi Station take the Eizan Railway Kurama Line to Kurama (30 minutes, 420 yen, 3 trains/hour).

The Kyoto Osaka Sightseeing Pass (Greater Kurama and Kibune Area) is available only to foreign visitors and offers one day of unlimited travel between central Osaka and the Kurama-Kibune area along the Keihan and Eizan railways, with all the train lines on the map below covered (except the Osaka Loop Line). The pass also offers discounted entry to certain attractions. The pass costs 1500 yen and can be purchased at certain tourist information centers (including at Kansai Airport) and hotels in Osaka and Kyoto, as well as from overseas travel agents.

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