Kurama (鞍馬) is small town nestled in a valley in the Kitayama mountains to the north of Kyoto; Kurama temple (Kurama-dera, 鞍馬寺) stands atop the ridge between Kurama and Kibune (貴船), another small town in the neighbouring valley. It was to this temple that the young Yoshitsune-no-Minamoto was exiled upon the death of his father Yoshitomo-no-Minamoto at the hands of their arch-rival clan, the Taira; the young boy’s life was spared by Taira-no-Kiyomori, on the proviso that he was trained as a monk to live a life of piety.
Big mistake. As it turned out, Kurama was a terrible choice of temple to which to banish him; for, in the valley behind the temple, lies the Tengu Forest. The tengu are a mischievous race of red-skinned, long-nosed forest spirits who dwell in Japan’s forests and mountains. They are fierce protectors of the forest realm, known for spiriting away lone wanderers and intruders, playing tricks on Buddhist monks, and sometimes even eating young boys who don’t listen to their parents and wander off alone… yet they also, when the chips are down, seem to come down on the side of the good and righteous. So when the young Yoshitsune started training secretly in their forest in order to one day avenge his father’s death, they recognised a noble spirit with a noble cause and the Tengu King himself – Sojobo of Mt Kurama, the greatest of the Tengu Kings – trained Yoshitsune in the arts of swordsmanship and battle strategy.
Thus did Yoshitsune become the greatest swordsman history has known, and when he was finally ready he left the temple and descended to Kyoto where he gained the loyalty of the giant warrior monk Benkei by defeating him in single combat on Gojo Bridge. The pair were inseparable ever after both throughout the Genpei War in which Yoshitsune claimed his revenge as the Minamoto destroyed the Taira, and then to their bitter end as they made their last stand in Hiraizumi against the forces of Yoshitsune’s disloyal half-brother Yoritomo. Benkei eventually died standing upright in a hail of arrows on the castle bridge while Yoshitsune completed seppuku (a samurai’s ritual suicide – an honourable death for one defeated in battle) within. Yoshitsune, this most tragic of heroes, is the most beloved character in Japanese history and the story of his partnership with Benkei has much in common with that of Robin Hood and Little John.
The Kurama to Kibune hike passes through this magical Tengu Forest and it does have a somewhat spooky, otherworldly feel to it; the canopy is dense and networks of tree roots crisscross on the path, and it’s easy to see how it came to be known as a spirit forest. It’s also one of the best places to see Kyoto’s famous autumn colours, with the maple leaves turning a fiery and defiant red before the onset of winter.
The hike itself if pretty straightforward; from Kurama station (last stop on the Eizan line), walk up the town’s only road and you’ll see the huge temple gate on the left. You have to pay a 200 yen entry fee, and from there it takes about forty minutes to climb up Mt Kurama to the temple.
The path is in good condition but is a fairly steep climb; there is a cable car which can take you halfway up if you don’t fancy the walk. Once you’ve looked around the temple and taken in the views, go through the gate around the far side of the temple to find the forest path, and it takes another hour or so to descend through the forest to Kibune on the other side. From Kibune, it’s another couple of kilometres down the road to Kibuneguchi (貴船口) station (one Eizan line stop south of Kurama).
Kibune has a famous shrine (Kifune shrine, up the lovely lantern-lined flight of steps on the left side of the road as you walk up through the town), and is also famous for Kawadoko dining – this happens in summer, when restaurants erect wooden decks directly over the flowing waters of the river and under the shade of the trees overhead. If you do the hike in winter and fancy a warming soak in some hot springs at the end, go in the reverse direction as Kurama has a famous onsen at the top end of the town. With a bit of time to check out Kurama temple and Kifune shrine, and enjoy a Kawadoko meal or a soak in the onsen, this Kurama to Kibune hike makes for a cracking half-day out from Kyoto.
(If you find the tengu as fascinating as I do, you might also want to check out Mt Takao in Tokyo)
For more Kyoto hikes, see here
For hikes near the Japanese capital, see my hiking in Tokyo page
Have you done the Kurama to Kibune hike, or do you have any questions? Leave a comment below!