Hiking the Kyoto Trail: Southern Higashiyama

kyoto trail map

As famous as Kyoto is, one of the things that Kyoto is NOT known for is hiking... but it should be! There are some wonderful nature walks just outside of the city, consisting of both flat elevation walks and some serious mountain ascents as well.

The most well-known hike to the locals in Kyoto is the Kyoto Trail, a 70 kilometer loop that encircles the city and offers some breathtaking views of the ancient capital. The whole trail is split up into three sections: East, North, and West. This is no one-day affair, and anything less than three days to completion would be rushing it beyond the point of enjoyment (in my opinion). This trek requires a few hours of planning and research before setting out. It's not a difficult expedition, but it WILL push you in some areas.

In an effort to open this experience up to visiting guests, Kyoto city has printed a set of maps in English available for purchase at various bookshops and info centers around town (500 yen each). The easiest place to pick one up is at the Kyoto Tourist Information Center located on the second floor of Kyoto Station next to Isetan department store. Only the map for the eastern portion of the trek is available in English, but the other maps in Japanese should be helpful to anyone serious about doing the whole trail. It is not advised to set out without one of these maps, or at least some info downloaded to your phone (be sure to have it available offline, many areas of the trial don't have cell reception). Google maps will NOT be enough and doesn't show some of the trails!

kyoto trail map

I recently set out on the trail to experience the eastern route on a fine early summer day. I hope to one day hike the whole path, but I started out just focusing on the southeastern segment. I was surprised to find the hike not nearly as strenuous as I had expected, and it made for a very enjoyable morning that I think many visitors to Kyoto would enjoy immensely.

The traditional starting route for the Kyoto Trail is at Fushimi Inari, the well-known Shinto shrine complex that features thousands of orange torii gates stretching up the mountain in (nearly) endless tunnels. KyoTours Japan often visits the base of shrine mountain as part of our Kyoto Highlights Tour, but on this particular day I climbed much farther than usual. This was actually the most difficult part of the hike! The ascent here is about 30 minutes of nonstop concrete steps, but there's plenty of interesting shrines and statues to see on the way up that will call you onward and upward.

Upon reaching the main crossroads halfway up the mountain, you're treated to a great view of the city. But it gets better! Head a bit farther up another oft-ignored set of stairs and slip behind some weathered stone shrines - the map will assure you this IS the actual trail despite your misgivings. This is south Kyoto's most breathtaking panoramic view. On a clear day you can even see the skyscrapers of Osaka, including Abe no Harukas, the tallest office building in the country. Just ahead you begin your decent down the holy mountain. The slope is paved but unforgiving - I can't imagine doing this in flip-flops - and you'll thank yourself that you're not doing this route backwards.

At the bottom, you'll pass through a small bamboo grove and over a stream - only a moment of nature before exiting into middle class residential neighborhood. I think this is an interesting chance to see how average people live on the quieter edges of Kyoto city. There's not much going on in this neighborhood during the day. Husbands are at work, kids are at school, and housewives are indoors doing housework. You'll soon begin wondering if most of the houses are actually empty. Well, many of them are! As population trends change and people move into the city center - or to Tokyo - these sleepy once-bustling neighborhoods get left behind. The mix of newer and older houses here is enjoyable, and you'll see some very cool old houses from the pre-war era mixed in with the modern new stuff. See if you can spot a few old neighborhood markets and local restaurants built into the first floors of some of the more retro houses. Don't expect to make a purchase though, these places were shuttered long ago.

Guided by a few markers along the streets and your trusty map (you DID bring it, right?), you'll eventually make it out of the maze-like residential streets. Sennyuji temple is your next destination. This Buddhist complex nestled back in the hills is always quiet and rarely visited by tourists. The main gardens are not open year round, but the entry fee you pay at the main gate will let you enter the main hall and see the altar and painted ceiling.

You never know which buildings will be open for viewing at Sennyuji, but take a walk around the complex and enjoy the quiet atmosphere. Sennyuji - along with the other temples and shrines on this hike - is a great spot to pick up a rare goshuin stamp that almost no other foreign visitor to Kyoto will get in their book. There's a room with tables to rest at and a drink machine just inside the gate to the inner temple offices.

If you exit Sennyuji via the north ticket gate, you'll come to a shady area housing a small temple called Raigoin. This spot looks like more like a garden than a temple, but it's dedicated to Hotei, one of the seven lucky gods honored in Japan. If you follow the path into the temple, you'll come to a strange facade set into the hillside with a purple cloth hanging above a set of thick metal doors. This is a holy spring, said to be discovered in the early 800s by Kobo Daishi, a famous priest whose statue is standing nearby. There's a water dipper attached to a long pole leaning up against the wall that you can use to scoop some of the water from the underground spring. Feel free to open the doors and ladle some water out for you to try. It's holy water, so of course it's clean enough to drink! (all jokes aside, it should be fine to drink)

Beyond the spring a bit further up the hill is an interesting site: thousands of worn statues of lucky Hotei piled high on top of the broken stone beams of an old torii gate. With a small wooden roof over the pile, it kind of looks like a long boat similar to the ones you see in rural Arashiyama over in Western Kyoto. Perhaps this is no coincidence, because Hotei and his six lucky companion gods are often pictured in the boat that they rode on to arrive in Japan.

Returning back to the trail and heading north, you'll come to a bright red bridge leading to a wonderfully isolated temple, Imakumano Kannonji. This one is devoted to Kannon, the patron deity of compassion and mercy. You can enter the temple hall for free and observe the altar up close. Be sure to take a short walk up the hill behind the temple, past multiple mini shrines symbolic of ticking off stops on a pilgrimage. Up at the top are a red pagoda and a great view of the city.

Head back to the red bridge at the entrance, turn off the main road and pass under the bridge and back into the shade of the forest. You'll soon reach a wide open grassy area that is perfect for a picnic of onigiri rice balls, pickled tsukemono vegetables, and maybe a bottle of sake. Ahead gets tricky - keep the sake to a minimum perhaps - and you'll need to check your map carefully to find your way out of the next residential neighborhood. Soon you'll get to the best part of the whole hike. You're about to enter the forest.

Within minutes, you're deep in the wilderness, yet you've only taken a short walk out the city. (Try doing THAT in Tokyo!) The tall, straight cedar trees and thick fern foliage are impressive, and keep your eyes open for wild critters like monkeys, deer, and occasionally wild boars. These heavily forested mountains overlooking the eastern edge of the city is truly one of the finest nature spots in all of Kyoto. When you come to a small fork in the path with a wooden bench on your right, take a short rest and then begin the decent by turning down the right path.

Enjoy the rest of the rest of the forest, because you'll soon end up along a busy highway running through a narrow mountain pass. Your target is the other side of the highway, but no matter how brave you feel (or how good you are at Frogger), resist the impulse to dash through the cars here. Instead, head west along the highway past houses and you'll eventually come to an area with an underpass to the other side. You will need a map to find this! Continue back up the highway on the other side and ascend a long slight of stairs. Welcome to a traditional Japanese cemetery. The graves here are all family plots with small bundles of ashes buried together under the stones. The deceased are placed in there with other family members going back generations, but we're just passing through.

At the eastern end of the cemetery, you'll come to the forested hillside and turn left. This path will lead you to a side gate of Kiyomizudera Temple, the world famous complex perched on the hillside overlooking Kyoto. This is a great spot to finish up this particular hiking route. The Kyoto Trail beyond here becomes more intense and requires a bit more of a commitment. You're free to enter the Kiyomuzudera temple grounds through this side gate, and you can walk right up to the base of the temple and see the massive wooden beams that hold up the overhanging stage in front of the main hall. If you want to go up the stairs to the right and enter the temple, you'll need to pay an entrance fee. Otherwise, head west and you'll end up in the shopping district near the Ninenzaka / Sannenzaka steps. There are plenty of places to get lunch and relax before heading down into the city for the rest of the day.

This hike is surprisingly short. I started at Fushimi Ianri around 10:00am and finished at Kiyomizudera before 1:00. Much of the hike is shaded, but expect some areas of sun. There are not many facilities along the way, but the temples offer toilets and drink machines. You will not pass any convenience stores or shops, so bring whatever snacks and supplies you think you might need. Hiking shoes are not necessary, but at least have some sturdy sneakers. Mosquito repellent in summer is a must. And seriously... bring a map!

Enjoy hiking in Kyoto!