Kiyomizudera, Kyoto: Magnificent temple and Higashiyama District excursion

Yes, another temple to put on your list of top 10 things to do in Kyoto. Kiyomizudera is a must see historical monument of ancient Kyoto and an UNESCO World Heritage site. (TripAdvisor rates it as the #3 thing to do in Kyoto.)

Founded in 780, Kiyomizudera (Pure Water Temple)  is an independent Buddhist temple and one of the most celebrated temples in Japan. The magnificent Hondo or main hall is built on a cliff on the eastern hills of Kyoto, halfway up Mt. Otowa on the site of a waterfall (hence the name).The temple is dedicated to the diety, Kannon, and continues to be a pilgrimage site. Kannon is depicted with 11 faces and forty arms, and revered for his mercy and compassion. It is said that Kannon is the embodiment of each person’s “invisible heart of gratitude”.

A message from the temple:

Happiness for all via a greater sense of gratitude for your everyday life.

How’s that for a timeless message that we can all strive to achieve?

The buildings and grounds are breathtaking, but the crowds can be overwhelming. I later learned that it opens at 6AM so it might be that the early risers have the place to themselves then. I imagine experiencing a sunrise here would be enchanting.  That being said, night viewing, while extremely crowded, was undeniably magical.  Three times per year in the spring, summer and autumn, the temple buildings are open  at night and lit so artistically – the effect is extremely dramatic and beautiful. Check schedule for night viewing dates

Main Entrance

Nio-mon, the main entrance (above), was burnt down during civil war (1467-1477) and rebuilt in the 16th century.

gatehouse or shrine


The cliff-side, Hondo was rebuilt in 1633. It features ancient Japanese construction methods and was built entirely without nails (like ancient jenga). It is an impressive architectural wonder. I’m not sure my feature picture captured the massive size and intricacy of the wood construction so here is a picture does a much better job. Photo Credit:


The views from there to Kyoto city below are quite lovely. (Understatement.)

Dreamy Kyoto Vistas

Note: The main hall is under construction between February 2017 and March 2020 so some viewing areas may be covered, but the building will still be open to visitors.

Hours: Open 6AM, closing  time depends on the season. See schedule. 
Open: 365 days per year
Admission: ~$4

Make a Day or Night of It

If you have time, you’ll want to explore the Higashiyama District itself, it’s one of the city’s best preserved historic districts, just outside the temple grounds. Here you can experience  the charm of old Kyoto. Narrow lanes and traditional architecture transport you back in time. Take it all in as you stroll by quaint shops, cafes and restaurants that have been catering to tourists and temple pilgrims for centuries. Pick up some souvenirs here and stop in for tea, a snack or a meal.

Note: This Higashiyama District closes down early in the evenings, except during light festivals, such as the night viewings at Kiyomizudera so inquire and plan accordingly.

Looking for other cool things to do in Kyoto? Check out Nijo Castle. Ready to get out of the city and into the countryside – maybe take a dip in an onsen (hot springs)? Consider exploring the country hamlets of Kibune and Kurama.








Nijo Castle, Kyoto: A magical, historical site to see, especially at night during the Sakura Festival

Put Nijo Castle on your list of the top 10 things to do and see in Kyoto. (While trip Advisor lists it as #40 of things to do, I’d say the evening viewings during the Sakura (Cherry Blossom) Festival in the spring are well worth the visit.)

Visiting the Kyoto residence of Japan’s first shogun circa the Edo Period, you will be transported to another time and palace. Built in 1603, the castle was completed twenty-three years later by his grandson. The castle and its grounds (including picturesque cherry and plum tree orchards) are surrounded by stone walls and moats.

When the Tokugawa Shogunate fell in 1867, Nijo Castle was used as an imperial palace.  Eventually, it was donated to the city as a historical site and opened to the public.

Designated an UNESCO world heritage site, the castle’s buildings are some of the best surviving examples of the Japan’s feudal era palace architecture.


The 36,000-square-foot Ninomaru Palace consists of five connected separate buildings and is built almost entirely of Hinoki cypress, much of which is adorned with gold leaf and elaborate wood carvings. The wood floors were constructed to squeak in order to announce intruders.

During the Sakura Festival in the spring, the castle offers special evening viewings. It mesmerizing to walk under the dozens of cherry trees with their bountiful blossoms dancing in the breeze against the night sky. And the castle, with its moat and fortified walls, is much more impressive glimmering in the moonlight. It’s quite a magical experience.


Cherry blossom fantasy land. (Well, minus the omnipresent crowds.)

Hike & Soak in Serenity, Kibune to Kurama, Northeastern Kyoto

I’ve always been captivated by the idea of hiking from village to village – anywhere. When I was researching things to do near Kyoto before my trip, I learned of the short hike from Kibune village to Kurama village and decided it was a must do.

It was so much of a “must do” squeezed into my tight itinerary that I went ahead with my plans despite the downpour that day. Who knows when, if ever, I’ll return to Japan. (I was prepared with rain gear and warm clothes and no doubt the conditions would make the reward of the soaking in the Kurama Onsen even more decadent – it did.) Perhaps the title of this post should be : “Hike, get soaked and then soak.”

It didn’t take me long to explore the quaint, tiny hamlet of Kibune. In the heavy rain, few people were out and all the buildings seemed sealed tight against the elements. The only exception was the Kibune-jinja Shrine on the left hillside near the road.

I believe a wedding was taking place…


Apparently there are some amazing restaurants in Kibune with open dining platforms that extend over the rushing river below. Sadly, not today. After I checked the shrine out, I walked down steps, crossed the street, and walked over the river on the vermilion bridge to the trail head.

After paying the ~$3 entrance fee to the attendant in the little gate house and being warned of treacherous, muddy trail conditions, I cinched up my rain jacket hood and set out. (The attendant did not stop me or tell me that the trail was closed so I figured it would just be a muddy, slippery slog that would make me appreciate the onsen at the end even more – it did.) The hike is a mere 3.9km / 2.4 miles, but the mud and slippery conditions made what would have been a 40 min walk, much longer. It’s single track through the forest with Shinto shrines to discover along the way. You’ll know you’ve reached Kurama when you encounter picturesque Kurama dera, Buddhist temple.

Kurama dera, Buddhist Temple

Unfortunately, I have no pictures on the trail as it was raining so hard, I didn’t dare take my camera out. At the trails end, you have just 1 kilometer to go to reach Kurama Onsen.

At the Onsen, you have the option of soaking in an indoor spa or outdoor pool. I’m sure you can guess which one I chose. (For scoop on Onsen etiquette, see my previous post on the Fukuzumiro Ryokan.)

I soaked in the serene, lush mountain scenery, listening to the pitter patter of the rain drops on the leaves, watching the mist rise from the hot pool as the cool rain kissed my face and shoulders. I was transported to a different time, a different place, a different life. (Calgon eat your heart out.) And no, I don’t have pictures of this incredible setting – no cameras allowed for obvious reasons, but there are acouplepictures on TripAdvisor

Reluctantly leaving this scene behind, I enjoyed a sumptuous feast at the inn’s restaurant before returning by train to Kyoto.

Delightful Tempura Appetizers

Notes: You can hike the trail in either direction, but Kurama is a preferable end destination because it has more restaurants and is home to the Kurama Ryokan (traditional Japanese Inn) and Onsen (hot spring/ bath house). Apparently, this is the easier direction as well. Highly recommend this as a half day , full day or over-nighter out of Kyoto.

I imagine these villages are even more scenic in the fall with the red maple leaves and in the summer, when everything is green and glimmering.


On October 22, Kurama has a Fire Festival is that involves men and children carrying torches. It is a rite of passage for the town’s youth. I’ve read this is so overrun with tourist now that it’s difficult to see anything due to crowds.

Held in November at various Inari shrines on different days, including Kibune, the Ohitaki rice harvest festival is a thanksgiving event.

Distance: Relatively easy 3.9km / 2.4 miles – not quite as easy when muddy & slippery.

Getting there: It’s just a 30 minute train ride to Kibune via the Eizan Electric Railway from Demachiyanagi Station in northeastern Kyoto (each ~$4 one way).  You can catch the Eizan Electric Railway train back in Kurama.

Top Pick: While I didn’t stay overnight at Kurama Ryokan, I can speak to my Onsen and restaurant experience, both of which were superb.


Short, somewhat steep, semi-sweet: Monserate “Mountain” Hike, Fallbrook, CA

Monserate Mountain is more of a steepish molehill than a mountain. You can hike, bike or run up the trail for a short, steep, incline workout and the reward of expansive views of the mountains (Agua Tibia, Red Mountain, Santa Ana Mountains), farmland in the valley below, and a sliver of Pacific Ocean way out to the west.  I have mixed feeling about this one for reasons detailed below…


Monserate Mountain was part of an 13,323-acre Rancho Monserate Mexican Land Grant from 1853 that originally extended south and east of the present day Fallbrook down to the San Luis Rey River.


If you’re in or near the area, you can get a quick workout here with sweet 360 degree views at the top. Also, I think that it might be the right balance of tough and short for hardy hiker kids who get a feeling of accomplishment from doing something challenging.

There are a couple offshoot trails on the way up: Canoninta Trail and Red Diamond. I didn’t take those, but once at the top, headed south along a Ridge Trail to the water tank. This was the best part of the hike for me – it faced away from the freeway on a little stretch of single track with views into the valleys below and east across the mountain ridges. The Ridge Trail descends gradually with the help of a short wooden staircase and then drops you out on a paved road. (In the pic below,  I turned around and ran up the staircase for the pure joy of a little more incline.)

Glutton for the incline.
Mountains to the east from the Ridge Trail.


The barren, dirt trail going up has little to no aesthetic appeal. This trail gets lots of traffic, human and dog (too much I’d say). And I’m afraid it smells like it too. (I have a sensitive schnozz and the trail smelt like dog poop most of the way up.) Also read a review that someone got bitten by a dog twice on this trail.  The roar of the 15 freeway below is also a bit off putting as are the weekend crowds that you have to hike around. (I was so uninspired and turned off by the dog poop smell, I didn’t take any pictures on the way up.) Yes, that bad – but then again, I’m a hiking snob. You’ll see why if you visit some of my other posts.
If you’re in the area, do it. Otherwise, I wouldn’t go too far out of your way for this one.
Distance: 3.2 miles up and back without add ons, or 4.4 mile loop adding on the Ridge Trail loop to the water tank.
Elevation gain /loss: ~1150 feet, moderately strenuous, depending on what shape you’re in. If you’re a trail runner, you’ll like it and you’ll want to add on the Ridge Trail water tank loop.
Terrain: Mostly wide dirt path with rocks and some erosion, some single track, paved road & fire road if you do the 4.4 mile loop.

Exploring Fushimi Inari & Its Iconic 10,000 Gates, Kyoto

Another attraction to put on your top 10 things to do in Kyoto list. The Fushimi Inari Shinto Shrine in Kyoto dates back to the seventh century (~711 AD) when the Hata family built it and dedicated it to Inari, the god of rice and sake. Today, it remains the head shrine for over 30 000 Inari shrines across Japan and is one of Japan’s most visited shrines and a top sight-seeing destination. (TripAdvisor rates it as the #1 thing to do in Kyoto – not sure I agree. I was far more impressed with their #3 Kiyomizudera temple, but I was fortunate to experience a special night viewing there.)

The Fushimi Inari Shrine may look vaguely familiar to you if you’ve seen the movie Memoir of a Geisha, some of which was filmed here. But the shrine itself is not the main attraction―it’s the iconic orange torii gates (10,000 and counting) that crown the 2.5 mile pathway up Mount Inari (764 feet). While it’s a relatively short “hike” on a concrete path that winds its way up the hill past multitudes of mini-shrines, it can take a while given the crowds. The “summit” is a bit anti-climatic, city and mountain views were smudged with smog when I was there.

Fushimi Inari
At the entrance…

Instead of returning the way you came, you can hike down the other side of the mount on forest trails into either Yamashina or Tofukuji, another temple area that’s especially popular when the leaves are turning. Really, you can’t go wrong walking anywhere in Kyoto. Kyoto is all about having a scenic, cultural and beautiful experience, but it is Japan so you’ll most likely be sharing that experience with the masses.

Torii gates
Not artsy, just editing out the crowd.

What’s with the gates?

Torii gates symbolize the division between the physical world and the spiritual world. The oldest Torri gates here date back to the 8th century, but new gates are still being added, “donated” by Japanese businesses in hopes of obtaining prosperity and good luck. Today, the price for good luck if you go with a big gate is around 10k; 4k for smaller gates.

What’s with the foxes?

You’ll also encounter many stone statues of foxes, messengers of the god Inari. The foxes often carry symbolic objects, such as a key to the granary (as in the fox in the picture with me at the entrance), a sheaf of rice or a scroll. You may see some fox statues wearing red scarves, which are thought to expel demons and illness. Some fox statues may be equipped multiple tails to symbolize older, wiser and more powerful foxes.

Hours: Open 24/7, best times – early morning or evenings, otherwise expect a crowd.

Cost: FREE!

Getting there:  The shrine is located just outside JR Inari Station, two stops South from Kyoto Station (main station) along the JR Nara Line and takes 5 minutes one way. It is also a short walk from Fushimi Inari Station along the Keihan Main Line.

Notes: There’s a street market and shops and restaurants near the shrine’s entrance and also there are a couple of  little food shops near the “top”.

Eel on a stick, anyone?

Plenty more sights to see in Kyoto

Ready to check out an ancient shogun’s castle or a wooden temple dating back to 780 that’s built without nails, or would you prefer to get away from it all in the scenic hamlets of Kibune and Kurama?

Cruising around Lake Hodges, Escondido, CA

My back was a little tweaked from last week’s roller blade when I used my butt as a brake so I was looking for something mellow to do this weekend. That’s when I thought of mt.biking around Lake Hodges on the flat section of the San Dieguito River Park Coast to Crest Trail.  This multi-use trail is open to hikers/runners, mountain bikers and equestrians. The main trail (a planned 70 miles – 45 miles of which currently exists ) extends from Del Mar to Volcan mountain in Julian. And there are over 20 miles of auxiliary trails within the River Park to play on.

I chose an easy cruise on a friendly wide dirt trail through the North side of the park. If you add on some single track on the flip side, you can make it around to the dam.)

(Option to stop in for some refreshments at Herandez Hidaway on Lake Drive.) We passed it up because my back was acting up (could have been the three falls). There are only about 3 spots where a mtb novice or clutz like me needs to walk (should have walked) hence the falls. Otherwise, super pleasant, beginner mtb trail. Managed to get about 16 miles in on the out and back.



Lake Hodges Dam in the Distance
San Dieguito River Park Lake Hodges Bike & Pedestrian Bridge with Bernardo Mountain to the left.

I’ve ridden and run the South side too – not as much mileage there and much better views on the North side, in my opinion. If you’re tough and technical, you can go for the Bernardo Mountain Summit trail – looks fun. You can also find more trails under the pedestrian bridge, but you may encounter some challenging single track there. (I might hike a couple of these to scout them first and report back. I suspect they won’t be as scenic since they ride away from the lake.)

Other options to explore if you’re not afraid of some rugged single track

Getting there:

There are a number of ways to access the trails. The pedestrian / bike bridge is a good a starting point for explorations North or South.

I-15 freeway to West Bernardo/Pomerado Road, go west and park in the Bernardo Bay parking lot on the right just before Rancho Bernardo Community Park,

Or perhaps consider parking your car at Hernadez Hideaway on the other side of the lake so you can look forward to lunch and libations after your ride.

Hernadez Hideaway, 19320 Lake Drive Escondido, California 92029



Discovering Torrey Pines State Park’s Lovely Little Sista: Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve Extension

In many ways, Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve Extension, the quiet younger park outshines her excessively popular, bigger sister. Especially if you like your nature served up with a bit of solitude as I do mine.  This area was acquired in 1970, 11 years after Torrey Pines itself became an official State Park thanks to the work of local conservation groups.

The pros: You still get stellar (though more distant) views of the glimmering Pacific and bedazzling Penasquitos Lagoon (if it’s a clear day) and close-ups of the dramatic red, other-worldy, sculpted, sandstones cliffs and Torrey Pines. Some of the trails are boarding rows of McMansions so you don’t quite escape from suburbia unless you put your blinders on.


The cons: There trails are really short and easy on sandstone or sandy terrain. (Could be considered a pro for some, I know.) Apparently there’s some way to eek out 4 miles, not sure how. You’ll be hard-pressed to get in a workout here – unless you run them quickly. Also, there is no beach access.

When I went there were no trail maps in the box so I just meandered through the network of short trails. You can’t really get lost. If you’re going, you may want to check out the online map first.

To share a “secret” locale or not, that is the question.

I’ve lived in the Sand Diego area for about a decade and had never heard of this area. This spot is relatively quiet and underutilized. Yes, it’s nice to keep it that way so am I betraying it by writing this post? Well, this is part of a State Park, which means it is open to the public and shouldn’t be a secret. So on one hand, I believe it’s appropriate to share the information. And I believe, perhaps naively, that people who love this sort of place will respect it and tread lightly. On the other hand, I’d hate to see it get overrun. (Much controversy surrounds the instagram and  social sharing phenomenon.) Then again, since this place is part of a State Park, I imagine that park officials would intervene as necessary should the area become compromised due to excessive use. Tell me, what’s your opinion of sharing vs. keeping your favorite spots secret?

Warning soapbox

It seems strange that the signs and literature at Torrey Pines State Park don’t make any reference to this area. It almost feels like the Del Mar locals (who may include some of the original conservationists) have played a role in keeping this on down low. Ok, am I approaching conspiracy theory level yet? (I’m just saying it seems awfully convenient that they have managed to keep the trail and the views all to themselves and their dogs.) Dogs, you say? Are they allowed? No, they aren’t and there are “No Dogs” signs posted everywhere. Yet, of the half dozen or so people we ran into, most had their 4-legged companions with them. Not only that, when we started out on the trail a Golden Retriever bounded down from the one of the homes and raced in front of us, eager to guide  us through “his park”. Hey, I’m a dog lover, but there’s a reason they’ve posted no dog signs everywhere, right? Fragile ecosystem, etc…I guess if you live in Del Mar, the rules don’t apply to you. Ok, maybe not all the hikers with dogs were from Del Mar, but chances are…

Getting there: From I-5, take the Del Mar Heights Road exit. Head west on Del Mar Heights Road for approximately half a mile. Turn left onto Mercado Drive, then left onto Cordero Road. Make a right onto Mira Montana Drive and follow it to the end where you’ll find a couple parking spots and a trail head next to Del Mar Heights Elementary School. Parking and entry is free. There are other access points in the neighborhood with ample parking along the street.


No Dogs (Even though plenty of entitled peeps and pooches were violating this rule.)

No Bikes