Mountain Hike to Kifune Shrine and Kurama Temple
A memorable and exhilarating trip to Kifune Shrine and Kurama Temple up the mountains of Northern Kyoto was a perfect way to close the year in preparation for the New Year. Although the winter chill made the walk and climb quite challenging, it should be very pleasant during other seasons, such as autumn and spring when the forests beam with mesmerizing colors of maple leaves and cherry blossoms.
The name “Kifune” was said to have originated from a legend that spoke of Princess Tamayori, mother of the first emperor Jimmu (660 B.C.), who sailed on a yellow (“ki”) boat (“fune”) from Osaka Bay passing through Yodogawa and Kamogawa Rivers, and instructed people to build a shrine where her journey ended. The princess’ boat consequently rested on the spot of the current Kifune Shrine, hence, designating the shrine its symbolic name.
The shrine is easily accessed by the Eizan Line from Demachiyanagi station bound for Kurama in about half an hour. Kibuneguchi is one stop before Kurama station, end of the Eizan line. From Kibuneguchi station, one can take a 15-minute local bus to Kifune Shrine or take the walking trail up to Okunomiya for roughly 30 minutes. The awesome scenery along the way is heavily forested, and upon reaching Kibune Village, you can find old mountain houses and a few restaurants and inns along the charming Kibunegawa stream.
The shrine is unmissable once you see the rocky staircase lined with bright orange lanterns on both sides—one of the most photographable Kyoto backdrops seen in postcards and posters. On a snowy day, the white-covered staircase and tall trees against the bright orange silhouette makes for a most breathtaking view, easily reminding one of vintage scenes from old Japanese movies.
Kifune Shrine is particularly dedicated to the gods of water. It’s no wonder that the tradition of placing the omikuji fortune paper on the running water until the inscriptions appear on the paper is quite prominent in this shrine.
In one corner is also a rock basin for drinking its sacred water “goshinsui”ˆ, which claims to bear ancient roots. The shrine building itself is not very large or conspicuously ornate, but its simple wooden structure suits the local mountain village very well. Since the shrine was quite significant during the Heian period when the Imperial Court offered horses as gifts for prayers for good weather, you can still find these two horses on the side of the shrine—one black for praying for rain, and one white for praying for sunny skies.
Apart from the shrine’s auspicious link to water deities, stories also tell of matchmaking wishes some Japanese pray for when visiting Kifune Shrine. After a relaxing stroll around the grounds and around the village while admiring the peaceful stream, you can make your way finally to Kuramadera.
From Kifune Shrine, you can walk or take the bus back to Kibuneguchi station and hop on the Eizan railway once more to the next stop, Kurama. Many adventurers though relish a relatively one-hour strenuous hike from Kibune to the mountaintop of Kurama. If you do decide to take the Eizan line instead, getting off at Kurama station leads you easily to the temple by also two ways: taking the cable car from the temple gate, or skipping the funicular and hiking up to the mountain, which may take roughly an hour.
Outside Kurama station is a huge red Tengu statue, which quickly introduces you to the mystic mountain temple believed to be still protected by the Tengu mountain spirits.
Designated as a National Treasure of Japan, Kuramadera is definitely an important temple to visit, not only for its unique position above Mt. Kurama, surrounded by lush trees and wildlife, but also for its esoteric powers, especially revitalization of energy.
It was founded in the 8th century A.D. and survived three different Buddhist sects since then: Bishamonten, sun worship and protector of the North; Kannon, worship of love; and the Defender Lord, symbolizing power. If you skip the funicular ride up to the mountain, you will be able to pass Yuki Jinja shrine with its enormous cedar tree. The long trail up to the mountain, called sando or sacred path, is beautifully lined with bright orange lanterns; hence, you would surely not lose your way. Several small shrines sit along the passage with fantastic waterfalls and forest views.
A steep stairway brings you to the main hall of the temple that many consider to be a “power spot”. Another structure along the way is the Osugi Gongen, which houses both Buddhist and Shinto gods. You will also pass by a sub-temple of Kuramadera, Sojo-ga-Dani Fudo-do, enveloped in white cloth, which represents god of light from Buddhist cosmology.
There are numerous staircases along the sando so you need to be quite physically fit to endure the climb. No matter where you pause for a break, the surrounding presence seems to absorb the energy, peace, and power of the mountain. Finally, as you climb up to the summit, the overlooking view below feels as though the journey has made you complete. The main hall in orange with a multi-colored curtain sits proudly before the watchful mountains. Two powerful tigers guard the hall on both sides, said to have been brought by Bishamonten, and are believed to be auspicious protectors of North Kyoto.
If you have some more hours to spare, it would be worth ending the day with a refreshing dip into the hot onsen spa at Kurama, merely a 10-minute walk from Kuramadera. It has a rotemburo outdoor bath immersed in marvelous nature.
Access from Kyoto to Kifune Shrine
Eizan railway from Demachiyanagi station to Kibuneguchi station, 15-minute bus or approx. 30-minute walk to Kifune Shrine.
Kifune shrine entrance fee 300 yen
Access from Kifune Shrine to Kuramadera
Eizan railway from Kibuneguchi station to Kurama station, approx. 45 minutes to 1 hour on foot to the summit of the mountain or 10-15 minute cable car to the foot of Kurama temple, then follow the trail to the summit.
Kuramadera entrance fee 300 yen, Cable car 200 yen