Hiking in Kyoto

Kyoto hiking: Lake Biwa from Mt Hiei

One of my favourite views when hiking in Kyoto: Lake Biwa from Mt Hiei

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.

Hiking in Kyoto: Mt Kurama

Autumn colours on Mt Kurama

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.

Fox statues at Fushimi Inari

The guardian foxes of Mt Inari

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.

The Kyoto Isshu Trail

Isshu Trail map
The Kyoto Isshu Trail covers some 70km in the mountains around the edge of Kyoto, officially consisting of four courses and easily broken up into various day hikes with convenient access.

Kyoto Isshu Trail: Fushimi Fukakusa Course

View of Mt Oiwa solar plant & Fushimi Momoyama Castle
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.

Mount Hiei

Lake Biwa from Mt Hiei
Mt Hiei is Kyoto’s most sacred (and second-tallest) mountain with an enormous temple complex (and various other random things) at the top and nice views of Kyoto and Lake Biwa.

Mount Atago

River & mountain views in Arashiyama
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.

Mount Kurama

Large tengu head at Kurama station
The enchanted tengu forest of Mt Kurama plays an important role in Japanese folklore, as well as being a great place for a hike.

Lake Biwa Canal

The Biwako Canal in Yamashina, Kyoto
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

Heian Shrine viewed from the Shogunzaka trail
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.

Mount Inari

View of Kyoto from Fushimi Inari
Home to the famous Fushimi Inari shrine, Mt Inari has a number of good hiking options and should be on any Kyoto itinerary.

Upper Daigo temple

The view from Kami Daigo
The upper section of the famous Daigoji temple’s reached via a steep trail up through the forest to the top of the ridge.

Daimonjiyama

View from Daimonjiyama
The site of one of the annual spirit bonfires on the slopes above Kyoto to mark the end of the O-bon festival, and one of the best viewpoints of the city.

Takao

View of the river valley from Jingo-ji
A lovely little village in the mountains with great hiking options and beautiful temples.

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:

Higashiyama & Gion
Fushimi Inari & Tofukuji
Philosopher’s Path, Nanzenji & Ginkakuji

Useful Links

Search Agoda for hotel deals in Kyoto

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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