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 buildings and is built almost entirely of Hinoki cypress, much of which is adorned with gold leaf and elaborate wood carvings.
Interesting fact: The nightingale wood floors of the palace were constructed to squeak as a way of announcing 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.
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.
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.
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 a couple of pictures on TripAdvisor…
Reluctantly leaving this scene behind, I enjoyed a sumptuous feast at the inn’s restaurant before returning by train to Kyoto.
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.