Hiking in Japan is always fun with family, and with summer subsiding, some of the best months for a mountain walk are around the corner. Japan offers countless choices in its vast mountain ranges, but one of my favorite family hikes is only 90 minutes north of Kyoto. The mountain villages of Kibune and Kurama reside in neighboring valleys. Connected by trail and stairway trails, these two towns offer a great day-trip getaway from the clamor of the city, and a taste of Japan’s spectacular cultural and natural beauty.
It’s possible to begin your walk from either village, but I prefer starting from Kibune and ending with a soak at Kurama Onsen, a hot spring (onsen) bath on the other side of the mountain. Another benefit of starting the hike from Kibune is the town’s array of dining options. The main road has a number of restaurants serving soba, grilled river fish and other local dishes, but the most aesthetically pleasing options are the restaurants with kawadoko-style dining. Usually reserved for the hottest months, kawadoko seating is outdoor and on elevated platforms over the Kibune River. You can enjoy the sound of water rushing beneath them as you eat.
This is a beautiful and unique experience, but parents with young children should keep an eye out, as most platforms don’t have a guardrail. The river isn’t deep and the drop is small, so this isn’t a life-or-death experience. That said, though, you won’t want your child soaked to the bone, not matter how hot it is outside.
Once your belly’s full, climb the steps to Kifune Shrine, pronounced with an “f” instead of “b,” where the Shinto god of water and the protector of seafaring villagers is honored. The grounds are beautiful in every season, but the steps are not stroller-friendly, so families with babies take heed.
For those without strollers and ready for a hike, the walk from Kibune to Kurama involves lots of steps and a few steep spots, but it is relatively easy for most kids of primary school age and above. Parts of the trail are covered in tree roots, which require a certain amount of coordination to navigate, but most children will be up for the challenge and better for it.
There are often a number of remarkably tame deer along this route as well, but be wary about interacting with them. Keep food hidden away, not in your hand or dangling from your backpack — it might not stay there for long.
From the trailhead on the Kibune side, you’ll need pay a ¥300 entrance fee for Kurama Temple, which clings to the mountain you’ll be climbing. The trail is around 4 kilometers long and the hike can take anywhere between one to three hours, depending on how often you stop to rest or take pictures. It’s not an overly strenuous hike, but summer temperatures can make water breaks a must. There are a number of toilet opportunities along the way, as well.
The view from Kurama Temple is fantastic, with the deep green of the hillside clashing with the vivid orange of the temple and lanterns that festoon the stairway. The courtyard here is a good place to rest, where you can also make a wish by ringing the temple bell.
From here, earth becomes stone, as the path from the temple down into Kurama turns from mostly a trail into hewn stairs. Descending these steps is certainly easier than climbing up, but it can also be more dangerous for little ones if they fall. So, though the views from here are especially beautiful, don’t forget to watch your step.
Once down the trail and on the other side of the mountain, head for Kurama Onsen. It’s a 10-minute walk from Kurama station, but the establishment runs a free shuttle bus service if you’re feeling weary. The onsen offers dining and lodging, but we’ve always taken the basic plan using only the rotenburo (outdoor pool), which costs ¥1,000 for adults and ¥700 for kids between the ages of 4 and 12. If you want access to the indoor tubs, the prices rise to ¥2,500 and ¥1,600 respectively.
After soaking in the hot spring water for an hour or so, you should be relaxed enough to head back into town. Both Kurama and Kibune feel secluded and remote, so it always surprises me when the train delivers us back to downtown Kyoto in 30 minutes. Little excursions like this keep the body healthy and the head clear, serving as a reminder that old Japan is never too far away.
Getting there: From Demachiyanagi Station, Kyoto, take the Eizan Line to Kibuneguchi Station. The trailhead is a 2-kilometer walk along the main road through Kibune. To return to Kyoto from Kurama, take the Eizan Line again back to Demachiyanagi. For more information on Kurama Onsen, visit bit.ly/kuramaonsen.