Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Two-Day Hiking Bender in Kyoto

Recently I took a brief trip back to Japan for some standardized testing and more free radiation exposure. Actually, I stayed in the Kansai region, which has been entirely unaffected by the recent disasters, except for a significant drop in tourism. After a tense day at the test center in Osaka, I had two and a half days to cool down and enjoy myself in Kyoto. Reveling in my total domination of the GRE and disoriented by my first visit back to my beloved Kyoto in 18 months, I threw myself into an orgy of hiking, visiting as many of my favorite old haunts as I could fit into my limited schedule.

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!

As if 88 temples weren't enough, there are additional small icons and stupas adorning the path here and there, like this one:

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):

After exiting the trail it was time for lunch. The main lunch place near the front gate of Ninnaji was completely full, so I went to a tiny noodle shop two doors down, which turned out to be a total win. The place had only one large table, and a mother-daughter pair came in just behind me. So we all sat together and immediately struck up a cordial conversation while we waited for our noodles.

Over the course of our meal, we advanced through the stages of acquaintance from exchanging business cards to asking the server to take our photo, stopping just short of the point where I start showing them pictures of my kitty. The mother is a professional Kimono-put-er-on-er (着物着付け) from Chiba who was visiting Kyoto on business, and her daughter had tagged along for a little sightseeing. They were adorable, and the staff was apparently so charmed by our easy cameraderie that they offered us a free serving of matcha (the tea-ceremony kind of tea), which sort of made up for the overpriced zarusoba noodles.

After that I took the tourist tram to Arashiyama to visit the monkey park, another of my old haunts. It's a tacky tourist trap, but I'm a sucker for furry animals and just about every visitor I ever had in Kyoto inevitably got taken there.

From the monkey park I walked back across famed Togetsukyo Bridge...

...down the main tourist street of Arashiyama, where this man let me take a photo of his adorably outfitted dog named "Cookie" ...

... 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
Actually this particular section of the trail overlaps with the Tokaido Shizen Hodo (the Tokaido Nature Walking Path), which runs all the way from Osaka to Tokyo. From the bamboo forest in Arashiyama the trails lead north past a series of historic sites, eateries, and craft studios. Initially there are a lot of tourists and even the occasional kitschy rickshaw, but the crowd thins out rapidly as you move north into the Sagano district of Arashiyama. This is a quaint old-fashioned shopping street that I discovered near the end of my 5 years in Kyoto. It seems like there's hardly ever anyone there, but it's just a short walk from the hustle of Arashiyama.

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:

I had a dinner appointment with some old friends at 6:30, so I only had time to get as far as the bus stop at Shirotaki. It's too bad, because there are some great spots along the trail just north of there that I'd have dearly loved to see again: the Kuyataki waterfall, my old picnic spot, the three grand old temples of Jingoji, Saimyoji and Kozanji overlooking the gorge at Takao.  Who knows when I'll see them again? But I had timed it just right. From Shirotaki, the bus back to the center of town took a good hour, and I got there just in time for a tasty tonkatsu dinner with my friends at Kimukatsu in the basement of the Cocon Karasuma building.

Well, I suppose by now I've just about reached the limit of how many photos one can reasonably put in a single post. So I'll stop here for now. Stay tuned for the thrilling conclusion to "Two-Day Hiking Bender in Kyoto"!

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