The Kyoto Isshu Trail (Kyoto Circuit Trail)
The Kyoto Isshu Trail, 京都一周トレイル (Kyoto Circuit Trail) is a 70km hiking trail in the mountains around the edge of the city. Although the name basically translates as ‘Kyoto circuit trail’, it doesn’t actually consist of a full loop because Kyoto has mountains on three sides – the valley is open to the south (where the southern edge of Kyoto meets neighbouring Osaka and Nara). This means the Isshu trail goes around the city’s eastern, northern, and western edges, mostly in the mountains and mostly in the forest, but in a couple of places also passing through some farming areas (i.e. rice paddies) and outlying residential districts, and includes Kyoto’s most famous mountain (Mt Hiei) and passes by Kyoto’s highest mountain (Mt Atago) which can also easily be included as a side quest. The trail also takes you to (or close to) some of Kyoto’s most important shrines and temples, including Fushimi Inari shrine (the eastern end of the trail), Enryaku-ji (on the summit of Mt. Hiei), and Nanzen-ji.
It would certainly be possible to do the full Kyoto Circuit Trail in four or five days from one end to the other while camping or using the accommodation available along the route and carrying all your stuff with you, but there are also various points with good transportation connections to central Kyoto meaning you could stay in Kyoto itself while hiking a leg of the trail per day – travelling back to town in the evening, and then next morning travelling back to where you left off and continuing on to the next section. Of course, you can also pick and choose individual legs between certain train stations / bus stops as half- and one- day hikes.
In my case, when I was living in Kyoto my first apartment was very close to Fushimi Inari on the east side of the city and so I made a pretty thorough exploration of Fushimi Inari and the other hills on that side – while doing so, I kept seeing the trail boards for the Kyoto Isshu Trail, worked out what it was and started following it in places, and eventually decided I should try and cover the whole thing. Having already covered a good chunk of it by that stage, I broke the remainder into a series of hikes and worked my way through them.
The Isshu trail’s well-maintained and has regular trail boards which are numbered and show (approximate) directions to the neighbouring posts in each direction. These are waist-high wooden posts, generally placed at junctions in the path, with the number and a small schematic map on top:
Don’t rely on navigating only by these posts – sometimes the next post is 20 minutes away and sometimes it’s only 30 seconds away and you can easily go right past, as the maps on them don’t show distances and sometimes it isn’t obvious. On one occasion I missed a post (it was only about 50 metres from the previous one) and continued walking for 20 minutes before backtracking and spotting it. It was after that that I discovered there were official Kyoto Isshu Trail maps (available from the main bookstores in town):
There’s a large bookstore called Maruzen located in the basement of the BAL building in central Kyoto on Kawaramachi-dori (河原町通), between Sanjo-dori (三条通) and Shijo-dori (四条通), which stocks the maps (as well as having a decent English-language selection if you’re in the market for some reading material). I highly recommend getting your hands on these maps! I’m not in the business of ripping other people’s content off so obviously I’m not going to display the maps themselves here, but here’s a small section of one of them so you can see how useful they are:
As you can see they’re fully contoured maps, and between them they cover the mountains on all sides of the city; the Isshu Trail’s the bold red line, and the numbered red circles show the exact location of each trail board so between the maps and the boards navigation is pretty easy. These maps also show other hiking trails in green, so they’re extremely handy for hiking in Kyoto even if you’re not actually doing the Isshu Trail. Go buy ‘em!
There are four maps, so you can just get the one or two that cover the section you’re planning to do; they cost 500 yen apiece, except for the smaller Nishiyama map which is 300 yen. In Maruzen, look for the maps section (labelled 地図); within that, look for the shelves marked 山丘 for the hiking maps. It might be easier just to ask the staff!
For the purposes of this write-up, I’ll go from east to west (though of course you can go either way) and will break the trail up into the same four sections as the official maps:
Red: Higashiyama course, 東山コース (eastern mountains)
Green: Kitayama Toubu course, 北山東部コース (northern mountains, eastern section)
Blue: Kitayama Nishibu course, 北山西部コース (northern mountains, western section)
Yellow: Nishiyama course, 西山コース (western mountains)
*The trail was recently extended with the addition of the Fushimi Fukakusa course, appended to the Higashiyama course. I’ve covered that in detail in a separate post here
Also, as these have been covered very well by a couple of other websites, rather than doing a board-by-board break-down I’ll mostly give an overview of each section and make suggestions for good bits to do as stand-alone hikes, or how to break it up as a multi-day hike.
See here for a detailed description of the whole Kyoto Circuit Trail, numbered trail board by numbered trail board; combining this with my write-up and the relevant map should ensure that you don’t miss any boards or otherwise get lost.
And see here for an excellent description with plenty of photos of the Higashiyama course and the first part of the Kitayama Toubu course; unfortunately the writer never did the second part of the Kitayama Toubu course, but the site does provide a link to another hiker’s blog post about the Nishiyama and Kitayama Nishibu courses which you should find useful. Again, combining these sites with mine and with the relevant maps should ensure you know where you’re going!
Kyoto Isshu Trail Higashiyama course
Trail boards: 東山1 – 東山74
(plus trail boards 東山F1 – 東山F35 for the Fushimi Fukakusa course)
Kyoto’s Higashiyama district is home to many of its most important temples and shrines. If you go to Kiyomizu Temple, you’re on the slopes of the Higashiyama mountains; these are also the same mountains that you see just behind the traditional Gion district.
The Higashiyama hiking course starts from Fushimi Inari shrine in south-east Kyoto, goes north from there along the Higashiyama ridge behind Kiyomizu Temple and Gion to the viewpoint at Shogunzuka, and eventually descends to make contact with urban Kyoto again in the Keage district, near the famous Nanzen-ji temple. From there it climbs back up the ridge again before bringing you down to the Philosopher’s Path and Silver Temple area; a detour here brings you to the excellent viewpoint at the spirit bonfire site on Daimonji-yama. After that it passes through a residential area and takes you to the foot of Mt Hiei, then climbs again all the way up to the upper station of the Mt Hiei cable car; this is the end of the Higashiyama section. See here for the board-by-board description.
If you want to visit Kiyomizu temple, it’s a short detour from board 19. Another detour option is on Mt Daimonji; the main course descends west from board 45 down to board 48 near the Philosopher’s path, but at board 45 you can instead head northwest to the bonfire site and then down to the Silver Temple from there; see my Daimonjiyama hike page for details of that route.
(Note that the newer Fushimi Fukakusa course was appended to the Higashiyama course, and starts further south at Momoyama from where it runs north to connect with the main Higashiyama course at Fushimi Inari. It’s much more urban than the rest of the trail and can be skipped unless you’re a history buff (it hits a couple of important sites) or – like me – you just really want to do the entire trail! See here for full details)
Higashiyama is the longest of the four sections of the Kyoto Isshu Trail, at 24.6km. It also involves quite a lot of vertical ascent and descent, including the climb up and down Mt Inari (160m, or 233m if you include the Fushimi Inari summit loop), up and down the Higashiyama ridge (around 400m), and up Mt Hiei (760m, or 848m if you detour to the summit proper). While this is definitely doable in one long day, you’d need a good twelve hours and you’d have to start early as it ends with you on top of Mt Hiei – there’s nowhere to stay up there (as I once found out), so you have to be there in time to catch the last cable car down the mountain (or be happy to camp up top). Quite aside from that practical matter though, you’ll probably want to have a bit of time to check out Fushimi Inari (unless you plan on a separate visit there another day), enjoy the views from Shogunzuka and perhaps Daimonji-yama, take the detour to Kiyomizu Temple, or visit Nanzen-ji or the Silver Temple. So for these reasons, unless you’re really keen to do the whole thing in one go, I’d break it into two legs. The website I linked to above (here it is again) describes the Higashiyama course in three one-day sections – Fushimi Inari to Keage, Keage to the Silver Temple, and the Silver Temple to the top of Mt Hiei – but personally, I would combine those latter two as individually they only take a few hours i.e. break it into Fushimi Inari to Keage, and Keage to Hiei.
Fushimi Inari to Keage is three to four hours (but easily significantly longer if you explore Fushimi Inari), and then Keage to the top of Hiei is six or seven. If you make an early enough start to reach the top of Hiei with at least four hours left before dark (if you’re fast), you can also do the first part of the Kitayama Toubu course and extend the hike down the other side of the mountain to Ohara (大原). It’s a fair way – you should allow up to twelve hours for Keage through to Ohara. See here for more detail on hiking from Hiei to Ohara. If you’re planning on staying at accommodation / camping along the route, Keage’s the obvious place for the first night and Ohara’s the obvious place for the second night; if you’re aiming for Ohara but find yourself at the top of Hiei without enough time to continue (or if the weather turns nasty, etc), the cable car provides you with an exit point and a connection to the train system.
Budget allowing, a great hotel to stay at in Keage would be the Westin Miyako which is located directly opposite the Keage Incline, near Nanzen-ji temple, and is right on the route of the Kyoto Isshu Trail. And if you’re staying elsewhere in town, Keage station is on the Kyoto city Tozai subway line. In Ohara, there are a few ryokan available (see the options here) and it would also be a sensible place to camp.
Kyoto Isshu Trail Kitayama Toubu course
Trail boards: 北山1 – 北山46
The Kitayama eastern course takes you from near the top of Mt Hiei along the ridge separating Kyoto and neighbouring Shiga prefecture, and then drops down to the village of Ohara (see here for picture guide from Hiei to Ohara). From there it goes up & down over the Ebumi Pass to Shizuhara village, then up another ridge and finally down again to the wonderful Kurama / Kibune area and ends at Ninose (here’s the board-by-board description).
If you’re starting from Ohara it’s only a couple of hours to Kurama, so you could also then visit Kurama temple and do the hike from Kurama to Kibune. These two hamlets have various ryokan and hot springs, and in summer Kibune’s restaurants offer dining on platforms erected directly over the flowing water of the river. Definitely a nice area to spend an afternoon or stay overnight; if you do want to stay there, Agoda has one ryokan listed in Kurama (Kurama Onsen) and one in Kibune (Kibune Hiroya). On the other hand, if you start from Ohara and are pushing on to do more of the Kyoto Isshu Trail, you can continue from Kurama to Ninose and onwards to Takao in one go. That makes it a pretty full day’s hike (some 24km, official estimated walking time of 11 hours), and Takao is the next sensible place to camp or stay in the local ryokan (which I can’t recommend from personal experience, but always liked the look of it when walking past due to the setting; it’s listed on Agoda)
If you’re doing the Kitayama Toubu course from its official starting point on top of Mt Hiei, then Hiei to Kurama (or the course’s official end at Ninose) is appropriate for a one-day hike (full official length is 17.9km & estimated walking time of around 8 hours) – you can’t start super-early, as you need to take the train to the mountain in the morning and the cable car up, all of which will take a while. If you want to go to the summit proper, you can take the ropeway up from the cable car station, or detour up the abandoned ski slope at board 3; at the top you’ll find an observation tower at the upper ropeway station, a garden museum, and a large car park (replete with vending machines). While I don’t like finding an expanse of concrete at the top of a mountain, it does afford you some good views; the summit itself is in the trees at the back of the car park, with a big concrete block and communication tower arrangement on it (see summit detail maps below with detours in blue, or my Mt Hiei page)
Also, if starting from board 1, make sure that you take the correct cable car up the mountain! There’s one cable car – the Eizan cable – on the Kyoto side from Yasehieizanguchi Station (Eizan line), and another one – the Sakamoto cable – on the Shiga side from near Sakamoto Station (Keihan line) or Hieizan-Sakamoto Station (JR Kosei line).
You need to take the one from the Kyoto side, not only because this brings you to the correct starting point for the trail, but also if you go up on the Shiga side you’ll find your way blocked by Enryaku-ji temple. While there are shuttle buses connecting the two areas, they’re irregular and the only way to walk over is to go through Enryaku-ji (don’t walk on the road, it’s a vehicle-only toll road and therefore a designated highway, with a tunnel and sharp bends). To enter the Enryaku-ji grounds you’ll probably have to pay the 500 yen entry ticket fee, though you might get away with it – I know this from experience! I explained to the monk at the entrance that I didn’t want to visit the temples (I had already once done so, sort of, when I accidentally stranded myself at the top of Mt Hiei) and I just wanted to walk on the Kyoto Isshu Trail. He didn’t seem to know what the trail was, and he seemed mightily unimpressed with my Japanese ability, my lack of interest in visiting his temple that day, and with me generally – but he did permit me to pass through the temple grounds without a ticket on the condition that I didn’t visit any of the buildings.
Of course, if you actually intend to visit Enryaku-ji (and it is certainly a good idea) then this is a good route to take – just make sure you have enough time, as the temple grounds are expansive with plenty to see. If you do go this way, you need to exit the temple grounds from the rear gate (following signs for the walking route to the Eizan cable car), and after ten minutes or so you meet the Kyoto Isshu Trail at trail board number 6, which is located where you see a footbridge crossing over the road (you need to turn right and take the path over the bridge, then on down the steps). The board would be easy to miss, it’s set back a little bit at the side of the path (on your left), but you can’t possibly miss the footbridge.
So, anyway, for this part of the Kyoto Isshu trail, if you’re starting from the top of Hiei I recommend going as far as Kurama where you can go back to Kyoto by train (Eizan line) or stay in a ryokan or camp and then next day continue on the trail to Ninose and the Kitayama Nishibu course (or even stay two nights and have a day to check the Kurama area out and do the hike to Kibune).
On the other hand if you’ve stayed in Ohara and are starting from there, you can make it right through to Takao (see below) in one long day for your next overnight stop, or just do the short walk to Kurama in the morning and then have the afternoon to explore the Kurama / Kibune area as above (this is especially recommended in mid November – early December, as the autumn colours on Mt Kurama are spectacular)
Kyoto Isshu Trail Kitayama Nishibu course
Trail boards: 北山47 – 北山94
The Kitayama western course goes from Kurama / Ninose (it officially starts from Ninose) across the north of the city to Takao, and ends at Kiyotaki (board-by-board description here). Kurama to Ninose is along a fairly busy road so not all that interesting (you can jump on the Eizan train for two stops if you like), and the long section from Ninose to Takao is actually pretty dull – it’s almost entirely through the forest, and the only real points of interest are the view point at trail board 51-3, and the Sawanoike (沢の池) pond (this is more of a small lake than a pond, and if you’re camping it makes a good goal for the day).
If you’re not doing the whole Kyoto Isshu Trail, and are looking at just doing one or two sections as day hikes, I’d suggest that you leave Ninose to Takao off your shortlist. On the other hand, Takao itself is a really nice spot (Jingo-Ji temple, just up the hill from the river, is a great little side hike – you can get rid of your bad karma by throwing clay discs off a terrace into the valley below. I have no idea if doing so helped my karma, but it’s plenty of fun – if you throw them just right they absolutely fly!), and the section from Takao to Kiyotaki is a nice walk along the river. This is also where you’ll find the trails for Mt Atago, which is another side quest I can recommend. So, Takao (and Jingo-ji) to Arashiyama via Kiyotaki (with option to climb Atago) is a great plan for a day in Kyoto’s northern mountains (as per here)
The full Kitayama Nishibu course from Ninose to Kiyotaki is 19.3km with an official estimated time of 10 hours (think I cleared it in 8). Ninose’s on the Eizan train line (two stops from Kurama and one stop from Kibune (note that Kibuneguchi Station is a 20-minute walk from Kibune itself), both of which have accommodation options), and Kiyotaki is connected by bus to Kyoto’s Arashiyama district (bus details at bottom of this page). You don’t have to take the bus though, as the Kyoto Isshu Trail Nishiyama course starts from Kiyotaki and passes through Arashiyama; be aware that there’s a steep climb up the hairpins out of the Kiyotaki valley, so if you’re feeling tired at Kiyotaki the bus is probably the better call. The only other point in between Ninose and Kiyotaki with public transportation access is Takao, which has buses all the way to JR Kyoto station (around 50 minutes). As far as I know there isn’t any accommodation in Kiyotaki, but there is the nice-looking Momijiya Ryokan in Takao.
So, for the Kitayama Nishibu course, I only recommend doing all of it if you’re actually aiming to complete the entire Kyoto Isshu trail. In that case, you can make it from Ninose to Kiyotaki in 8 to 10 hours and take the bus from there, or continue on for a couple more hours through to Arashiyama. If you’re camping en route, the obvious places would be at Sawanoike pond (around a 5 or 6-hour walk from Ninose) or Takao. If you’re planning to stay at accommodation en route, I think the Momijiya Ryokan on the river in Takao is your only option (and looks quite nice). Staying overnight in Takao is a nice idea as it allows time for Jingo-ji. Also, if you want to include an ascent of Mt Atago (Kyoto’s highest peak) a good walk would be to start at Takao (after staying overnight, or taking the bus there), follow the Isshu trail, climb Atago and descend to Kiyotaki, and walk on to Arashiyama; that makes for a nice one-day hike. For more details see here for my write-up of climbing Atago, here for more on Takao to Kiyotaki, and here is the always-useful Japan Guide page on Takao.
If you’ve stayed overnight in Takao and are sticking to the Kyoto Circuit Trail route (i.e. not diverting up Atago), you can definitely make it right through to the end of the Nishiyama course (and therefore of the whole trail) in Katsura in one go; it should take around 5 hours from Takao to Katsura (or 7 from Sawanoike).
Kyoto Isshu Trail Nishiyama course
Trail boards 西山1 – 西山51
The Nishiyama course goes from Kiyotaki village down the picturesque Kiyotaki River valley, and then climbs steeply out of it and over the ridge to & through the famous sightseeing and temple district of Arashiyama, and from there back up into the Nishiyama mountains for a couple of hours before dropping down to the finish near Kami-Katsura Station.
This is the shortest of the four courses (just 11.8km) making up the Kyoto Isshu Trail, and the whole course should only take around four hours (assuming you don’t spend hours checking stuff out in Arashiyama – which you very easily could). See the board-by-board description here
As a stand-alone day hike I wouldn’t personally recommend doing it from Kiyotaki to Katsura, instead starting from Takao (see above), possibly including Mt Atago, and ending at either Arashiyama or Katsura, depending how you do for time. The final section from Arashiyama to Katsura has a nice viewpoint on Mt Matsuo and makes for a nice stand-alone half-day hike requiring just a couple of hours from Arashiyama.
The Kiyotaki bus stop has buses direct to Arashiyama Station, and Katsura Station is on the Hankyu line. Arashiyama has JR Saga-Arashiyama Station on the Sanin line, Arashiyama Station on the Keifuku line (a tramline which connects Arashiyama to other parts of north-west Kyoto), and Hankyu-Arashiyama Station on the Hankyu line, so you can easily get back to central Kyoto from there (the Hankyu line also provides a quick connection to Osaka). Takao is connected by bus to central Kyoto (see here).
If you want to stay in the area, Arashiyama has a full range of options (search & book here) as well as plenty of good food. When I think of Arashiyama I always think of green tea and black sesame ice cream – it isn’t specifically a speciality of the area (you can find it around Kyoto and around Japan, though black sesame isn’t so common), but I always end up eating it when I’m there!
Have you done the Kyoto Isshu Trail, or do you have any questions? Leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you.
Search accommodation in Kyoto here. Of particular use for doing the Kyoto Isshu Trail, see the Westin Miyako, options in Ohara, Kurama Onsen, Kibune’s Hiroya Ryokan, Takao’s Momijiya Ryokan, and options in Arashiyama.
Check out my quick guide to Kyoto
See my hiking in Tokyo & hiking in Kyoto pages, 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
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