Mt. Kurama is easily one of the best day trips outside of Kyoto. Magical temples, a mystical history, lush cedar forests, an outdoor onsen and an easy day hike are all at your fingertips.
The Mt. Kurama area is accessible by train from Kyoto Station.
Take the private railway Keihan Line to Demachiyanagi Station and transfer to the Eizan Dentetsu Line. Get off at Kurama Station.
Mt. Kurama is known for being the birthplace of reiki, a holistic healing art started in the early 1900s and still practiced widely today. But Mt. Kurama has a history steeped in mystical beliefs.
It is believed that tengu, mythical creatures from Japanese folklore, still haunt the area. Once believed to be evil, they are now seen as protectors of the natural world. Thought to be both kami and yokai—divine spirit and ghost—tengu are depicted with both human and bird-like characteristics.
Outside of Kurama station you will be greeted by an enormous statue of Sojobo, king of the Tengu, said to have originated in Kurama. His long beak has been reinterpreted into a curiously long red nose.
A 15-minute walk from the base of the temple is Kurama Onsen, thought to be the best natural hot spring in the Kyoto area. It features one rotenburo, or outside bath, for each gender, as well as various indoor baths. The complex also includes a restaurant with reasonably-priced Japanese cuisine. A free shuttle bus is available from the station.
Kuramadera is the main temple of the area, sprawling down one side of Mt. Kurama.
The temple was founded in the eighth century, but its origins are mysterious. It is said that a monk traveled to Kurama after learning of its mystical powers in a dream. He built Kuramadera to harness the unique spiritual power of the area. Although it was controlled by various Buddhist sects throughout the ages, it is dedicated to esoteric beliefs and mountain worship today.
You can pay 200 yen to take a short cable car up the mountain to reach the main building. If you'd like a more intimate look at the complex, you can hike up the mountain path.
At the top, the mountain plateaus into a vast courtyard where the main buildings stands. The view of the mountains and valleys beyond is amazing.
Past the main hall, a trail continues up and over the mountain to the village of Kibune on the opposite side of the mountain. The hike is lovely, and leads to a few smaller temples that are part of Kuramadera .
Halfway through the hike, you'll encounter a special grove of trees. Their roots are unable to penetrate the hard ground and have woven together in a mesmerizing pattern.
If you include the walk from the base of the temple, the hike to Kibune is 3.9 km and takes about two to three hours. It's not too difficult, and includes wooden steps and handrails in more difficult areas both ascending and descending the mountain. Come in August, when it's not as hot as the city, or autumn, when the trees are at their best.
Once in Kibune, you should continue your mountain pilgrimage and visit Kifune-jinja . It's hard to miss the entrance to Kifune-jinja: a long stone staircase lined with red lanterns. The sight is absolutely stunning in any season.
The shrine is dedicated to the god of water and features a special paper fortune. At first it appears blank, but once placed on the water of the shrine's fountain, your fortune magically appears.
Kibune is a lovely village and worth a closer look. Local Kyoto people would come to Kibune to escape the heat of the city. It's known for the kawadoko, or decks, that are built over the Kibune river, and are a natural form of air-conditioning. During the summer, you can enjoy a traditional Japanese meal atop a kawadoko, a truly unique experience.
If you happen to be in Kurama in late October, try not to miss the Kurama-no-Himatsuri, or Kurama Fire Festival , which takes place annually on October 22. It is undoubtedly the most exciting of Kyoto's festivals, as bonfires are lit in front of each home, and locals parade down the street holding pine torches in a dramatic parade.
There are many more tantalizing places and events in the Kurama area. It is a full day trip away from the Kyoto city center, although if you plan to soak in the onsen and go on a hike, you might best consider an overnight visit.