Travel Log #6: Hiking in Kyoto

Kyoto is touted for its staggering array of temples and gardens, many of which are national treasures and UNESCO World Heritage Sites, but even older and grander are the mountains encasing the city on three sides. It is here that the adventurous spirit may find hiking trails to keep the mind and body entertained for days.

Just beyond the densely packed neighborhoods of Shugakuin, in the eastern suburbs where I’m staying, superbly green mountains erupt into the grey-blue sky. With this view tantalizingly close, almost within reach from my second story apartment window, it quickly became a driving force during my free time to find a way into those mountains.

After several scouting missions through the narrow side streets, I managed to find a sign written in Japanese depicting a number of personified animals fleeing a forest fire – many of them appeared to be crying as they ran. I took this to be a trailhead, and upon returning the following day, found I was correct.

Neighborhoods here literally sprawl right up to the edge of the mountains, and the trail picked up almost right off the sidewalk. The hike became strenuous after only several minutes as the trail relentlessly ascended. Within no time, the hills became silent save for the crunching gravel underfoot and puff of my breath.

Moss covered sandstone, dignified pines with perfect posture, and slowly tumbling creeks fill one’s view. Removing nearly all traces of the city streets and their myriad of vehicles below, the green velvet umwelt of the Japanese animal kingdom draws you in – mind, body, and spirit working in unison to reach a point of unanimous satisfaction.

As it turns out, I was climbing one of the many trails of Mt. Hiei, this one part of the Kyoto Trail system. Mt. Hiei has a deep history within Japan, as on these very hills the first temples of the Japanese Buddhist Tendai sect were erected – a belief system that arose over 1,000 years ago.

Monks seeking enlightenment and purity of the mind and body would run in sandals of woven grasses up these hills to different temples. Others practicing a more ascetic life style would walk for upwards of 100 days, offering prayers at the many temples and shrines along the way.

When finally I arrived at a scenic vista high up in the hills, there stood a stone monument to Mizunomi Taijin, erected in memory of a battle he fought and lost long ago over water rights. To the west, all of Kyoto spread out like an inland sea of tiny buildings, churning between where I stood, and the distant opposing mountains obscured by the hazy sunlight.

On this first hike, I spent at least four hours acquainting myself with the terrain and modestly marked trails. Since then, I have returned regularly spending anywhere from an hour to almost all day discovering things about the mountains and myself.

I have also found my way to other nearby climbs like Mt. Daimonjiyama, locally renowned for bestowing one of the most expansive views in all of Kyoto. The trails of this mountain extend deep into the Higashiyama range revealing waterfalls, shrines, and monuments.

When thinking of Japan travel, the technicolor Tokyo nightlife, bullet trains, and the quaint kimono-clad Geishas of Kyoto often dominate the imagination. What I have found to be of great aesthetic, cultural, and historical value is the topographic wonderland that surrounds all of these developments. 

If you ever come to Japan, bring hiking boots. In the quiet seclusion of the hills, the Japan that underlies all the hubbub and predates the earliest of visitors can be glimpsed, if only for a passing moment. 

By Anthony Vitale