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Short Kyoto hike packs in plenty to stimulate the mind and palate

by Amy Chavez

Contributing Writer

The last trail in this series is short and sweet — just 4 kilometers. For years I’d been hearing good things about the two-hour hike between the mountain towns of Kibune and Kurama north of Kyoto. The restaurants in Kibune are known for their terraces built out over the river, a tradition that serves to cool diners in the hot summertime. It was time to hike, eat and discover.

Before boarding the 30-minute train to Kurama from Kyoto, there was ample time to grab a cup of coffee at the Golden Mountain Blend Coffee Shop in Demachiya on Kawaramachi Street. The opulent chandeliers and a square coffee bar in the middle make for an open and inviting atmosphere. Furthermore, the serving dishes on the bar filled with delectable chocolates and biscuits make sitting down here for a cup of morning joe irresistible.

From there I walked five minutes to the Eizan Dentetsu Railway (Eiden for short) at Demachiyanagi Station and boarded the scenic train with large picture windows for the ride up into the mountains.

At the last stop, Kurama, my curiosity was immediately aroused by the statue of a large fire-engine red tengu outside the train station. Tengu are supernatural creatures who dwell in the forests, but this particular rendition is most likely representative of Sojobo, one of the most famous tengu in Japan, who happens to live on Mount Kurama.

On the way to the entrance to the hiking course, I stopped in at Kotengu, a small Japanese cafe just big enough to fit a few people if their bellies are empty. Here I bought local specialty kinome (Japanese pepper tree bud) and togarashi (chili pepper) rice balls for the road.

One restaurant in Kurama consistently recommended by friends is Yoshuji, which serves vegetarian food. Other establishments along the short street offered seasonal fare such as fried inoshishi (wild boar), yomogi (mugwort) rice cakes and katsuo (skipjack tuna) and venison on sticks.

But I’d save the feast for later. Right now I was anxious to get onto the trail that would take me past spiritual shrines and power stones, through forests of cypress, cedars, maples and pines.

I paid the entrance fee into the temple grounds, and symbolically purified myself with the water in the basin in front of the statue of the goddess Kannon. I was finally ready to ascend the sacred mountain.

The first stop was Yuki Jinja, the protector shrine of the town of Kurama. Passing under the torii gate, I continued up the steps until I was at the foot of a 800-year-old cedar tree, marked as divine by the rope placed around it.

In the presence of this venerable tree would have been a fitting place to start nibbling on those rice balls, but as it’s not polite to eat in a shrine, I pushed on until I spied a fork in the road where I could either take a right to board the funicular to the temple (at 200 meters, the shortest railway in Japan) or veer to the left and follow the lanterns and steps the rest of the way. At the benches at this junction, I sat down and munched to a decision: I would veer left!

In front of the main hall of the temple is a sacred rock that is considered a power spot because it marks the place where the spirit Kurama (Mao-son), descended from Venus.

I continued up the trail, which led me to the cedar forest at Osugi Gongen, a place for receiving life energy. The founder of reiki, Mikao Usui, is said to have received the power of his healing art by meditating in this ecotopia for 21 days.

So haunting is this area, with its enormous blond-barked trees and snakepit-like tree roots, that the presence of the legendary Japanese warrior Minamoto Yoshitsune, who practiced swordmanship here, is palpable. During his tenure at the age of 12 with monks on this mountain, he is said to have been trained by the tengu Sojobo! Yoshitsune went on to become the hero of “The Tale of the Heike” (“Heike Monogatari),” which chronicles how he and his brother defeated the Heike in the Genpei Wars that ended in 1185.

Having received the life energy of Mount Kurama, I had worked up an appetite. So when I descended into the town of Kibune I was delighted to find a stall selling mitarashi dango, a treat of mochi (rice cake) balls on a stick grilled over an open flame.

With time still left to linger, I visited Kibune Shrine to see where the rain god descended via a boat (kibune) and where, during the Heian Period (794-1185), rain ceremonies were performed in times of drought and flood.

The restaurants along the Kibune River had already dismantled their terraces for the winter, but the hearty tofu lunch I had overlooking the stream from inside of the restaurant was fantastic nonetheless.

As they say in Japan, good scenery makes the food taste even better.

For a look back at past columns in the Gourmet Trails series, go to www.japantimes.co.jp/life/column/gourmet-trails/.