July 20, 2008

Kyoto - Kibune/Kurama & Gion

Sunday was one of my best days of wandering in Japan. We have now been to Kyoto several times, exploring Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion) and Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion), picnicking at the Imperial Palace grounds during Cherry Blossom Season, and boating and hiking in the western part of Kyoto called Arashiyama. Most recently, I was in Kyoto for the pre-Gion Matsuri festivities.

This weekend, on the advice of a co-worker, I decided to head to the Northern part of Kyoto to do some hiking in and between the mountainside villages of Kibune and Kurama. What a great way to spend an afternoon.

(And yes. The picture above is of ancient stone Buddha statues near Kuramadera Temple, wearing Miffy bibs. Naturally.)

After taking a quaint "electric railway" from a station in the Northern part of Kyoto, we pulled into Kibuneguchi Station, with the rugged green mountains all around. The narrow uphill road leading into town (a one lane road, with two lanes of traffic plus lots of us on foot!) winds through a forest of towering ceder trees, up the mountain, and alongside the Kibunegawa river with its many small waterfalls. Numerous ryokan dot the path, shielded from the road by bamboo fences and screens. Each serves (pricey) lunches on tatami platforms that are constructed above the river. It is quite a spot. Further up the hill, Kibune also has a beautiful ancient shrine called Kibune-jinga. The best part was the vermilion colored lamps that line either side of the steps up to the shrine. The shrine, with the mountains in the background and the forest around it, is an impressive location.

Afterwards, I set off on the hiking path to Kurama. This was a steep and serious hike, particularly on this sweltering day. There were lots of groups of hikers, making for nice camaraderie on the path, with the most oft-grunted expression to passing groups being "atsui, desu ne!?" (it's hot, isn't it!?). Luckily, the rest areas were also ancient shrines in wooded glens, each of which had running cool water that you could scoop onto your hands and face. The most striking part of the hike were the overgrown twisting tree roots that made for an obstacle course at times. (Legend has it that the 12th century warrior Minamoto Yoshitsune was trained among these paths by a demon-like creature known as a tengu. Sure seemed like a good training ground to me!)
As the path descends downwards on the Kurama side, you encounter this stunning beautiful vista of Kuramadera Temple and the mountains. It was really breathtaking.

The path then drops you right into the temple courtyard. Kuramadera was founded in 770, and is a magnificent spot, sitting about half way up the mountain on the Kurama side. From there, it was an easy jaunt down, with wide gravel paths that carry you into Kurama, a laid-back mountain village.

It had been a terrific day, but it was about to get even better. On the train on the way back I met two older Japanese school-teachers who were coming from a fancy lunch at one of the Kibune river-side ryokans (the classic ladies-of-leisure lunch spot, I gathered). We had such a nice conversation in broken Japanese-broken English, talking about our days, Japan, and our families. When we got back to Kyoto they actually invited me to join them for tea and dessert!

This was, of course, completely unexpected, and it is difficult to put into words how nice it is to connect with perfect strangers in a foreign language and place. It bears noting that this was not the first time since being in Japan that we have been taken with delightfully sweet random acts of kindness (although prior to this, they had been directed to our children!). Oh, and at tea-time," I cooled down with the monstrous shaved ice, green tea, and mochi ball concoction shown above.

Afterwards, I had planned to head back to Kobe, but my new friends had given me some recommendations on their favorite close-by Kyoto sites in the Gion area, so I switched course at the last minute and did some more solo wandering.

Among their recommendations were Hanamikoji-Dori, a very well preserved ancient street. It was a great spot for a Sunday stroll, and you could hear the wooden clop-clop of the traditional clogs along the cobbled streets. Lots of specialty shops, neat doorways, lanterns, and roofs. Their second recommendation was the nearby Yasaka-jinja, (yet another) beautiful shrine:

As I wandered further through the streets, with the sun now starting to set, I spotted this group of geisha, and got a look at the towering Yasaka Pagoda. I also hiked up to take a look at the gigantic Kiyomizudera Temple.

Later that evening, I walked back along the river and wandered through Ponto-cho, a hipster (yet old-school) alley near the river in Kyoto that houses scores of restaurants and bars.

What had started as a day of hiking through the mountains and ancient temples, ended with quite an adventure through many more of the beautiful sites in Kyoto. It felt like two different, but great, days. And making new friends was quite the added bonus. (Finally, I have come to the conclusion that you could literally spend weeks and weeks in Kyoto, and never run out of new things to see.)


Lisa said...

WOW! that sounds like an incredible day. No wonder it's your favorite...so far...what a wonderful way to end a weekend. The hike looked beautiful and you looked great!

Semsavblanc said...

Thank you so much for sharing your wonderful day. My husband & I were in Kyoto in March for two nights on a whirlwind tour of Japan and loved it sooooo much. We are going back again early next year and had planned to stay longer (maybe four nights). Your blog has made me want to stay for a year! Summertime looks even more wonderful than winter.
Thank you again..

The Kasdan Family said...

My pleasure! Kyoto is really an amazing place.

So nice to hear from someone out there reading...!

tornadoes28 said...

Great pictures. Those statues wearing bibs are Jizo Boddhisatva statues. Jizo is the known as the protector or guardian of children and travelers. When they have bibs or there are offerings such as stuffed animals around them, then it is a Jizo for the children. You will find them all over Japan.

The Kasdan Family said...

Neat. Thanks for the interesting info!

jmgesq said...

Ahhhh...the kindness of strangers! What a wonderful day.