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Rakuhoku, Kurama, Kibune: The hidden gems of Northern Kyoto

Rakuhoku, Kurama, Kibune: The hidden gems of Northern Kyoto

Standing as a testament to Japan's rich cultural heritage, Kyoto (京都府 Kyoto-fu) offers visitors a captivating journey through time. As the former imperial capital, the city exudes an aura of ancient splendour, and is renowned as a treasure trove of history and culture, with its well-preserved temples, shrines, and traditional architecture, allowing one to catch a glimpse of the grandeur of bygone eras. 

 

However, lesser known to tourists would be the Rakuhoku (洛北), or otherwise, the northern reaches of Kyoto, which had not only historically been the site for the imperial villa, but also serves as a haven for artisans and traditional craftsmen, contributing to its refined and peaceful atmosphere. Nestled within this tranquil northern expanse of Kyoto lie the enchanting valley towns of Kurama (鞍馬) and Kibune (貴船), hidden amidst the ancient slopes of Mount Kurama (鞍馬山), which we will be uncovering in this article. 

 

Join me as we embark on a journey away from the bustling tourist hubs and delve into the mystical and unconventional side of the former capital. 

 

Rakuhoku

Kamogawa Delta

Kamogawa Delta, a popular spot for picnics and family outings, and especially for hanami during spring season. (Image credit: PhotoAC)

 

Start the day at Demachiyanagi Station (出町柳駅), the gateway to the Eizan Railway (叡山電車 Eizan Densha), commonly known as the Eiden (叡電). Before embarking on your journey into the mountains, take a moment to soak in the picturesque view of the Kamogawa Delta (鴨川デルタ), where the Kamo River (鴨川 Kamo-gawa) and the Takano River (高野川 Takano-gawa) merge, with the gentle flow of the rivers creating a tranquil scene against the backdrop of Kyoto's urban landscape. 

 

This spot holds a special allure, especially on weekends, drawing families and couples who come to enjoy its charms. Children delight in hopping across the turtle-shaped stones, while people of all ages find solace in the relaxing riverside ambience. 

 

During spring, the Kamogawa Delta transforms into a bustling hub as families and groups of friends vie for the perfect spot to partake in the cherished tradition of hanami (花見), or cherry blossom viewing. 

 

Shimogamo-jinja Shrine

One of Japan’s most venerated shrines, Shimogamo Jinja, with a history going back approximately 2,000 years. (Image credit: Adobe Stock)

 

While at Demachiyanagi, you shouldn't miss the opportunity to visit Shimogamo Shrine (下鴨神社 Shimogamo Jinja), a Shinto (神道) sanctuary designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, just a 10-minute walk from Demachiyanagi Station. With roots tracing back to the 6th century, predating Kyoto's status as the capital, Shimogamo Shrine holds the distinction of being one of Japan's oldest shrines and is revered for its role in protecting Kyoto from malevolent forces. The shrine's architectural elegance exemplifies classic Shinto design, making it a quintessential symbol of Kyoto's spiritual heritage.

 

Demachiyanagi Station (出町柳駅)
Address: 32-1 Tanaka Kamiyanagicho, Sakyo Ward, Kyoto, 606-8205, Japan
Access: Take a city bus from Kyoto Station for approximately 25 minutes and alight at Demachiyanagi Station (出町柳駅).

 

Shimogamo Shrine (下鴨神社)
Address: 59 Shimogamo Izumikawacho, Sakyo Ward, Kyoto, 606-0807, Japan
Nearest station: Demachiyanagi Station (出町柳駅)
Access: 10-minute walk from Demachiyanagi Station (出町柳駅)
Opening hours: 06:00–17:00 
Admission fee: Free (¥500 for special viewing)
TEL: +81 75-781-0010

 

Riding the Eiden

The Eizan Railway, which runs from Demachiyanagi to the northern parts of Kyoto. (Image credit: PhotoAC)

 

Leaving Demachiyanagi Station behind, we’ll board the Eiden, which will whisk us to our destination in the serene realm of Rakuhoku. Besides heading to Kurama and Kibune via the Kurama Line (鞍馬線 Kurama-sen), the Eiden also heads towards Mount Hiei (比叡山 Hiei-zan) via the Eizan Main Line (叡山本線 Eizan Hon-sen), so be sure to check if you’re going in the right direction! 

 

The Eiden also features window-facing seats for a better viewing experience. (Image credit: PhotoAC)

 

Traversing through numerous locations adorned with stunning nature and steeped in rich history, the Eiden offers not only picturesque scenery but also a delightful experience throughout the seasons. 

 

Momiji Tunnel, a section on the Eiden Kurama Line famous for its incredible autumn foliage. (Image credit: Adobe Stock)

 

However, autumn in Kyoto takes the experience to a whole new level as the lush green maples undergo a breathtaking transformation into a tapestry of vibrant reds, oranges, and yellows, painting the landscape in a palette of fiery hues. In the stretch of tracks between Ichihara Station (市原駅) and Ninose Station (二ノ瀬駅) stations on the Eiden Kurama Line lies the famed Momiji Tunnel (もみじのトンネル), aptly named for the approximately 280 maple trees lining its path, which transform into a breathtaking spectacle during autumn. 

 

As night falls, the tunnel becomes even more enchanting, illuminated to create a magical evening amidst the splendor of nature, making it the perfect spot to immerse oneself in the beauty of the season. 

 

Kurama

Kurama-dera Temple

Kurama Station, a 3-minute walk away from the trailhead of Kurama-dera. (Image credit: PhotoAC)

 

Exiting Kurama Station (鞍馬駅), about 30 minutes away from Demachiyanagi Station, one is greeted by the sight of a statue depicting a tengu (天狗), a mythical creature deeply rooted in Japanese folklore. This marks the start of the trailhead to Kurama Temple (鞍馬寺).

 

Tengu statues of Kurama

Tengu, mountain deities known for their iconic long noses, believed to reside in the mountains of Kurama. (Image credit: PhotoAC)

 

Revered as mountain spirits or deities, tengu are renowned for their distinctive long noses. Legends portray them as possessing supernatural abilities, a mischievous disposition, and formidable combat prowess. It is believed that these enigmatic beings reside within Mount Kurama. 

 

Niomon Gate

Niomon, a magnificent gate marking the entrance to Kurama-dera. (Image credit: PhotoAC)

 

Continue ahead and you’ll encounter the Niomon Gate (仁王門), a revered barrier symbolizing the division between the mundane world and the pure realm, marking the entrance to Kurama Temple. Built in the year 770, the Buddhist temple is renowned for its profound spirituality and awe-inspiring natural surroundings. From here, a pilgrimage unfolds, with a 30-45 minute ascent to the temple's main edifice. 

 

Alternatively, visitors can opt for a cable car ride leading to the main hall, or Kondo (金堂). For those with leisure to spare, embracing the ancient pilgrimage route offers a profound connection to the spiritual journey undertaken by countless pilgrims throughout history.

 

Yuki-jinja Shrine

Yuki Jinja, the site of one of Japan’s greatest fire festivals, Kurama no Hi Matsuri. (Image credit: PhotoAC)

 

Before reaching the Kondo, visitors pass by Yuki Shrine (由岐神社 Yuki-jinja), a shrine holding special significance as the venue for Kurama no Hi Matsuri (鞍馬の火祭り), one of Japan's Three Biggest Fire Festivals, celebrated annually during October. During this vibrant festival, the entire mountain is illuminated by blazing bonfires, creating a mesmerizing spectacle that bathes Kurama in a fiery glow. 

 

Kondo

Kondo, the main hall of Kurama-dera, is said to be a power spot where heavenly energy descends. (Image credit: PhotoAC)

 

At the end of your ascent, you'll encounter the Kondo (金堂), the main hall (本殿 honden) of Kurama-dera. Here, worshippers pay homage to Sonten (尊天), a divine trinity consisting of Maoson (魔王尊), Bishamonten (毘沙門天), and Senju Kannon (千手観音). This sacred trio embodies various aspects of Buddhist belief, with Senju Kannon representing compassion and enlightenment, while Maoson and Bishamonten signify protection and guidance on the spiritual path. 

 

The summit of Mount Kurama is also home to one of the power spots where heavenly energy is said to descend. Positioned in front of the main hall, it is believed that if one stood in the centre of the ‘Six-pointed star’, otherwise known as Kongosho (金剛床), one will be able to feel a surge of energy facilitating the individual to tap into their innate strength and vitality. 

 

In addition to the power spot, visitors will notice two guardian statues resembling the form of a tiger at Kurama-dera, also known as Aun no Tora (阿吽の虎), the messengers of Bishamon (毘沙門). These imposing tiger statues stand as symbols of protection and guardianship, embodying the formidable presence associated with Bishamon, a deity revered for safeguarding against malevolent forces.

 

Oku-no-In Mao Den

The Oku-no-In Mao Den (奥の院魔王殿), enshrining the Demon King, who was believed to have descended from Venus 6.5 million years ago on a mission to save humanity. (Image credit: PhotoAC)

 

Exiting from the rear of the Kondo, you embark on a scenic 90-minute descent towards Kibune, known as Kinone Sando (木の根山道). 

 

Kinone Sando Trail

Kinone Sando, a trail linking the two sacred spots, Kurama-dera and Kifune Jinja, famous for the protruding cedar roots. (Image credit: PhotoAC)

 

The Kinone Sando trail earned its name from the visible tree roots that intertwine along the path. Due to the shallow bedrock beneath the surface, the roots of cedar trees protrude, creating a striking visual as they wind across the trail. The mountain trail exudes a mysterious atmosphere adorned with towering Japanese cedars, inhabited with wild animals, and small shrines interspersed along the way, encouraging visitors to embrace the natural splendour bestowed by heaven and invites contemplation of one’s wishes and purpose amidst the tranquil beauty of the mountains. 

 

Finally, when you hear the sound of the river, you’ll have arrived at the end of the trail, where a vibrant vermillion bridge spans the Kibune River (貴船川). Crossing this bridge will bring you to the entrance of our next destination, Kifune Jinja. 

 

Kurama Temple (鞍馬駅)
Address: 1074 Kuramahonmachi, Sakyo Ward, Kyoto, 601-1111, Japan
Nearest station: Kurama Station (鞍馬駅)
Access: 3-minute walk from Kurama Station
Opening hours: 09:00–16:00 
Admission fee: ¥500 (For usage of cable car, it costs ¥200 one way)
TEL: +81 75-741-2003

 

Kibune

Kifune-jinja Shrine

Despite its remote location, Kifune Jinja was recognised as one of Japan’s 22 most significant shrines and received patronage from the Heian Imperial Court. (Image credit: PhotoAC)

 

Founded over 1,600 years ago, Kifune Shrine (貴船神社 Kifune-jinja) is an ancient complex nestled on a hillside, comprising three distinct shrines. Enshrining the deity of water and agriculture, this sacred site holds profound importance in Japanese culture, particularly for ancient communities reliant on water for agricultural practices. The well-worn stone staircase adorned with iconic red wooden lanterns, and sheltered by a canopy of maples, stands as the most renowned feature on the temple grounds—a sight that draws countless visitors eager to catch a glimpse of its enchanting beauty. 

 

Water fortune slips (Mizuura mikuji)

Mizuura mikuji, a type of fortune paper that reveals the prints on the paper when in contact with water. (Image credit: Adobe Stock)

 

Near the main hall, visitors can find a place to purchase amulets as well as mizuura mikuji (水占みくじ), a unique type of omikuji (おみくじ) where fortune-telling is conducted using water as a medium—a distinct and fascinating tradition offered at Kifune Jinja. All you have to do is to simply place the paper in the small pool of water near the main hall and patiently await the revelation of your fortune. As the paper absorbs the water, the fortune gradually emerges, offering insights into various facets of life such as love, work, health, and aspirations—a captivating experience not to be missed!

 

Yui no Yashiro

Omikuji tied at Yui no Yashiro, symbolising prayers for good and long-lasting relationships. (Image credit: PhotoAC)

 

Continuing further north, you'll encounter the Yui no Yashiro (結社), also referred to as Nakamiya (中宮 Middle Shrine), situated between the Main Shrine (本宮) and the Okunomiya (奥宮). This particular shrine has long been associated with matchmaking, earning it reverence since ancient times. As you approach, you'll notice the area adorned with countless green papers tied onto rows of string, symbolising the heartfelt prayers of individuals seeking blessings for their relationships. 

 

Okunomiya

Okunomiya, the original location of Kifune Jinja’s Main Shrine, which was later moved due to flooding. (Image credit: Adobe Stock)

 

Lastly, if you follow the lantern-lined path surrounded by towering trees to the very end of the shrine grounds, you'll arrive at Okunomiya. Not only did this shrine serve as Kifune Jinja’s main hall until the 11th century, when flooding necessitated a change of venue, but is also one of only three shrines constructed directly above a ryūketsu (龍穴), or dragon cave. 

 

Stepping away from the shrine complex, the surrounding town unfolds with a charm characterised by traditional ryokan and restaurants lined up alongside the Kibune River, serving as the perfect retreat to escape from Kyoto's infamous summer heat. 

 

For a fully-immersive summer experience, you can also indulge in a relaxing meal on the riverside terraces set up above the flowing river, known as kawadoko (川床), while enjoying the cool summer breeze and relishing in the unique charm of Kibune. 

 

Kifune Shrine (貴船神社)
Address: 180 Kuramakibunecho, Sakyo Ward, Kyoto, 601-1112
Nearest station: Kibuneguchi Station (貴船口駅)
Access: Take a bus from Kibuneguchi Station and alight at Kibune (貴船) bus stop. From there, it is a 5-minute walk to Kifune Shrine.
Opening hours: 06:00–18:00 
Admission fee: Free
TEL: +81 75-741-2016

 

Kurama, Kibune, and beyond

Explore the north of Kyoto in your next trip! (Image credit: photoAC)

 

From the mystical ambiance of Kurama's ancient temple complex to the tranquil riverside retreat of Kibune, each moment spent exploring these off-the-beaten-path destinations is a journey into the heart of Japan’s spiritual and natural wonders. So, next time you're seeking to escape the crowds of Central Kyoto, venture to Rakuhoku for an unforgettable adventure filled with discovery, tranquillity, and rejuvenation.

 

Header image credit: photoAC

 

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