Kyoto, famous the world over for its temples and shrines, its traditional tea houses and secretive geisha, has another side altogether which isn’t so well known – with forested mountains on three sides, Kyoto is a hiker’s dream. The mountains are close at hand and well served by public transportation, meaning with just a short bus or train ride from the city centre you can find yourself hiking through a forest, your goal perhaps a mountain-top shrine, a spirit bonfire site, or maybe just a famous lookout point. Maybe you don’t have a particular goal in mind, but there’s still every chance you might stumble over some shrine or temple tucked away in the hills, perhaps still in daily use or perhaps abandoned to the forest, the overgrown Buddha statuettes or torii gates reminiscent of scenes from the Lord of the Rings.
Here you can hike through the enchanted forest of the tengu on Mt Kurama, where the legendary Japanese tragic hero Yoshitsune became the world’s greatest swordsman under the tutelage of the Tengu King, or you can hike up the sacred mountains of Mt Hiei and Mt Atago – the latter ever-so-slightly the taller following their quarrel over the beautiful spirit of the Katsura river down in the valley, after which Hiei struck Atago on the head and thus left him with the prominent bump still visible upon his summit; here you can hike to Jingo-ji temple in Takao and rid yourself of your bad karma by loading it into small clay kawarakenage discs and throwing them from the top of the mountain down in to the valley below; here you can live for years and never exhaust the hiking possibilities, never see every temple and shrine hidden away in the nooks and crannies of the mountains. And here you can spend the day out in the mountains and still be back in central Kyoto in time for dinner in Gion or beers under Sanjo Bridge. It really is a magical city, and a fantastic place for a day-hiker.
The hiking in Kyoto ranges from one or two hour jaunts, up to the 70km Kyoto Isshu Trail (Kyoto Circuit Trail). The Kyoto Isshu Trail is particularly noteworthy – it’s a 70km trail which runs through the mountains around the edge of the city, from Fushimi Inari shrine in the south-east all the way round to Katsura in the west. It’s divided into four ‘courses’, each of which can be done as a long day hike or subdivided into shorter sections. I did eventually complete the whole route, though I did the various sections at completely different times as and when I could – it’s a great trail as you can pick out a section or two according to the transportation, where you’re staying, which sites along the route you’re interested in, and so on. Most of the other hikes I’ve listed are part of the trail, doable as branches off the trail, or cross the trail at one of its significant points; so if you’re really keen to do some hiking in Kyoto, start by reading up on the Kyoto Isshu Trail.
A recent addition to the Kyoto Isshu Trail, the Fushimi Fukakusa course is appended to the Higashiyama Course. It’s much more urban than the rest of the trail, but includes some interesting cultural & historical points of interest.
The city’s tallest mountain (on account of the bump on its head, explained by a local legend of mountain love rivalry) is visible behind the popular Arashiyama district, and accessed either from there or the lovely village of Takao.
The Lake Biwa Canal takes water from Japan’s largest lake through the mountains to the Kamo River in Kyoto and is a good length for a hike from one to the other. It’s especially nice in spring due to all the cherry blossoms along its banks.
Shogunzuka’s one of the many points of interest along the Kyoto Isshu Trail, and works well as a quick stand alone hike up the Higashiyama mountain ridge to take in the views over the city.
Kyoto District Walks
In addition to the mostly mountainous hikes above, Kyoto’s also a really rewarding walking city generally. Here are a few suggestions for sightseeing through traditional/temple districts on foot:
Check out my quick guide to Kyoto
Search for hotel deals in Kyoto
Airbnb also has many options in Kyoto, though local rules mean you may only be able to book at weekends depending on the time of year. If you’ve never used it before you can get a 30 dollar discount if you sign up with this link
See also my hiking in Tokyo page and the excellent Hiking in Japan and Ridgeline Images blogs for further inspiration; if you’re also heading to Korea or Taiwan, check out my pages on hiking in Seoul and hiking in Taipei
Make sure you have a good insurance policy; World Nomads offer flexible travel insurance you can buy even if already overseas – most travel insurance companies won’t cover you if you’ve already left your country, and this can be a crucial point as I once found out the hard way in Thailand
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