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While most tourists travel to Kyoto to soak up the city’s rich history, abundance of temples, shrines and traditional teahouses, the surrounding area is also overflowing with nature. Enveloped by mountains and crystal-clear rivers, Kyoto boasts off-the-beaten-track hiking trails and leisurely walks suitable for all fitness levels.
To make the most of Kyoto’s natural landscape, visit during hanami (cherry blossom) season in March and April to be mesmerised by the blooming cherry blossom trees, or plan your visit to coincide with kouyou (literally, ‘red leaves’) season in September and October, and be dazzled by the region’s autumn colours.
However, no matter the time of year you are in Kyoto, you can still make the most of its picturesque surroundings by hiking and exploring its towering bamboo groves; climbing up to a temple home to marathon monks who run 40km (25mi) daily; or taking part in the Japanese kawarake nage (pottery throwing) custom that rids people of evil by throwing clay discs off cliffs.
To discover the natural wonders and wilderness of Japan’s ancient city, read on for Culture Trip’s pick of Kyoto’s best day hikes.
Hike up the very steep Mount Daimonji to its viewpoint at 220m (722ft) elevation to be rewarded by magnificent views of Kyoto, which are particularly pleasant during sunrise and sunset. Reach this somewhat challenging one-hour hike by taking the Raku 100 bus from Kyoto Station to its final stop, Ginkakuji Temple. Once you have found yourself at the entrance of the temple, turn left and walk towards the unmissable Torii gate, then turn right at the shrine and make your way up the hill to the start of the trail. A sombre forest, sparkling streams and three flights of concrete stairs await on the way to the summit.
Catch the Keihan train line or the JR line to Fushimi-Inari Station where the two-to-three hour (round trip) Fushimi Inari Circuit pilgrimage, which suits all hiking levels, commences. Follow the winding tunnels that mark the trail to discover one of Kyoto’s most cherished ancient shrines, Fushimi Inari-Taisha. The shrine is dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice, and is covered with many fox statues, which are believed to be Inari’s messengers. Notable to many for its red torii gates that wrap their way around Mount Inari (233m (764ft) high), the majority of people stroll 200m (656ft) up to snap a shot of the view before returning back, but we highly recommend hiking all the way to the summit. You’ll be compensated with miniature shrines, souvenir shops, ice cream shops and a kitsune (which means ‘fox’ in English) udon restaurant.
Arashiyama Mountains arguably comprise the most alluring (and most picturesque) hikes in Japan. Located along the Oi River, there are many leisurely walks around the mountain’s foothills that can be enjoyed in either half a day or the whole day – suitable for both adults and children. Simply take the JR Sagano Line from Kyoto Station to Saga-Arashiyama Station to begin your hike at Togetsukyo Bridge, a 155m (509ft) bridge that spans the Katsura River, from which there are spectacular views of the Arashiyama Mountains towering in the background. Make your way to the sprawling Zen temple of Togetsukyo Bridge, Tenryuji Temple, then prepare to be mesmerised by the towering green stalks of Sagano Bamboo Forest and the imperial home of Okochi Sanso Villa along the way.
From here you can either turn back or, for those who are still buzzing with energy, continue the second half of the day towards Torokko Arashiyama Station, and then on past Sagano Doll House, Adashino Nenbutsu Temple and Otagi Nembutsuji Temple, culminating the walk at Kimono Forest.
Photogenic in all seasons, Daigo-Ji Temple is a major temple of the Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism, and it’s listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The expansive temple snakes around the entire mountainside of Daigoyama and an entry fee of ¥600 (£4.55) allows you to access hiking trails that lead to an array of other temples. During the two-to-three hour (round trip) hike, stomp through woodland paths that take you to the peak of the mountain which overlooks Nara and Osaka – your calf muscles will thank you. And be sure to make pit stops at the man-made waterfall of Shimo Daigo. Getting to the starting point is easy: take the Kyoto Tozai subway line to Daigo Station – the temple is a 10-minute walk away.
At the 850m (2,789ft)-high summit of Mount Hiei is UNESCO World Heritage Site, Enryakuji Temple. Once home to warrior monks, the temple nowadays houses ‘marathon monks’ – Tendai Buddhist monks who take part in the practice of kaihōgyō (literally ‘circling the mountain’) around Mount Hiei, a walking meditation spread over several years. The monks are challenged to a 1,000 day test of endurance and diligence, both physically and mentally, which is known as sennichi kaiho gyo, or ‘thousand-day-around-the-peaks training’. As of recently, only 46 monks have ever completed the full marathon, which takes seven years in total. And while a majority of tourists opt for cable cars as their means of transport to the peak of Mount Hiei, it’s possible to gain an insight into the kaihōgyō experience by taking the 20-minute hiking trail up the mountain. Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife in the form of monkeys, boars, salamanders and Japanese nightingales. To get to the start of the hike, take the Eiden train line from Demachiyanagi Station to Shugakuin Station or a Kyoto city 5 bus to the Shugakuin Rikyu bus stop.
The Kibune to Kurama Circuit provides the ideal harmony between the appreciation of nature and of tradition, as walkers hike through tranquil villages with a mountainside backdrop akin to a fairytale. Hope on the Eizan Line train to Kibune-guchi Station and make your way to Kurama-dera Buddhist Temple, where your two-to-three hour (round trip) walk begins. Follow the path out the back of the temple and up into the peaceful forest of Mount Kurama, where titan pine trees and red wooden lanterns lead up to Kifune Shrine’s main hall, a quaint vermilion bridge across the Kibune River, with Nio-Mon (the gate of the guardians) to look forward to. Lastly, explore Kurama, a town filled with nagaya (traditional Japanese wooden houses) before heading back to Kurama-dera temple.
For avid hikers, this four-to-six hour (round trip) hike requires more stamina than that of the previously mentioned hikes in this list, and should be avoided during the icy winter months. Measuring an impressive 924m (3,032ft) in height, hiking is the only way to reach the summit of Kyoto’s highest mountain, Mount Atago. To find the trail entrance, take the 94 or 92 bus from Arashiyama Station to Kiyotaki (清滝) bus stop, head northwest down the road, cross the bridge and keep an eye out for a marked sign by a red torii gate. You’ll come upon small deers along the endless number of stairs leading to Atago Shrine, and you’re also likely to see a flow of children along the way – it is believed that children who visit the shrine may be granted protection from fire for their entire lives.
Analogous to the above hike to Mount Atago, the Takao to Hozukyo Circuit is more on the challenging side than other walks on this list. With a trail stretching over 11km (6.8mi) that requires six hours to complete, the hike starts near Yamashirotakao stop, a 45-minute bus ride (JR3 bus boarding point) from Kyoto Station. Trek over to Takao village and climb up the steps to reach the sacred Jingo-ji temple (¥600 (£4.55) entry fee). If you’re lucky, one of the many pretty teahouses and restaurants along the way will be open, especially if you visit in spring (April/May) or autumn (October/November). Pass the Kondo hall and look for the kawarake nage spot for a rare opportunity to participate in this local custom by purchasing a kawarake – tiny clay discs that people throw off a cliff to eliminate bad karma. The kanji on the discs read 厄除, which means ‘getting rid of evil’. Finish up at JR Hozukyo Station for the end of your hike.