First off, I hit the "88-temple circuit," a marvelous but little-known trail that winds around the small mountain just north of Ninnaji Temple. A miniature version of the famous 88-temple pilgrimage on Shikoku (and the smaller but still daunting 88-temple pilgrimage on Shodoshima), this trail takes only about an hour or two to complete and yet manages to pack 88 Buddhist temples into that short stretch. You can get a workout and a spiritual cleansing all at one go!
The trail is usually deserted except for a few joggers. This being a Sunday it was somewhat more lively, and at a scenic overlook near the mid-point of the trail - just as I happened to be taking a video - I came across a large family group having a picnic.
(Warning: video features creepy heavy breathing sounds)
Nevertheless, most of the trail was still deserted, perfect for quiet contemplation. The temples are maintained by various civic groups and each is dedicated to one of the various nyorai (Japanese Buddhist spirits) - mainly Dainichi (life force), Yakushi (healing), and Fudo (money). Each temple has a stone tablet marking its number and purpose as well as two or three small buddhist figures inside a display case, a wooden placard offering an appropriate mantra to chant (in Japanese), a small brass gong and hammer, and of course the requisite donation box. If you put in one yen at each temple, you'd be out about $1 by the time you reached the end!
It's a place I'd recommend to anyone in Kyoto looking for a pleasant and beautiful spot away from the crowds. The trail takes off and ends near the northwest corner of Ninnaji and should be easy for a non-Japanese speaker to follow without getting lost - just follow the arrow signs that say 順路 (they look like this):
... through the bamboo forest, where tourists and amateur photographers jostle to capture a rare stretch of path without any people in it ...
... until my path joined up with the Kyoto Isshu Trail. This trail makes a circuit around Kyoto from Fushimi Inari shrine in the southeast, up Mt. Hiei and across the mountains of northern Kyoto, and down through Takao and Arashiyama in the west, ending up in Katsura. While I was living in Kyoto, I eventually traversed every part of this 70-km trail, finishing the final section just two weeks before I moved away. Again, it's a pretty easy trail to follow without a map, even if you don't really understand Japanese, because there are little numbered posts all along the route showing you where to go next:
|Tokaido Shizen Hodo sign on the left, Kyoto Isshu Trail sign on the right|
At the end of this street the road forks at a Shinto shrine, and the trail takes the left fork over Rokucho Pass and then down into the Hozukyo River gorge. The stretch of trail from here to Takao is another of my old favorites. There's no easy way to describe it, but hopefully the pictures speak for themselves: