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.

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The guardian foxes of Mt Inari

There are so many places you could go hiking in Kyoto and I certainly don’t know about them all, but I did cover a lot of ground during my time in the city and here are my suggested hikes and write-ups of them:

Kyoto Hiking Trails

The Kyoto Isshu Trail
Mount Hiei
Mount Atago
Mount Kurama
Lake Biwa Canal
Shogunzuka
Mount Inari
Upper Daigo temple
Daimonjiyama
Takao

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 south-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.

Also see my hiking in Tokyo page and the excellent Hiking in Japan blog for further inspiration.