The road to Kurama is a winding path; at a glance the distance appears to be quite near, but it is quite far.
– Sei Shonagon
It seems hard to believe that the ancient majesty of Horyu-ji and the sheer mystic aura of Fushimi-Inari could be overshadowed, but this was a day like none other I’ve spent, even in Kansai. I’ve never taken to many photos or shot so much film but from the start, everything was spectacular. I have scores more photos and videos than what I’m posting here, believe me.
That start was Ishimyama-dera, a mountain temple in Otsu, about 25 minutes from Kyoto by train. I never see this temple on A-list for tourism in Kyoto, and I can’t figure that out. It is, quite simply, the most beautiful temple I’ve visited. The buildings themselves are amazing – especially this 12th-century prayer hall – but the mountainside setting near Lake Biwa is sublime as well. There are grander and older temples, but I’ve not found one that could match Ishiyama-dera for aesthetics. Gardens, ancient halls, statuary, waterfalls – it’s as close to perfect as any place I’ve visited.
Apart from its beauty, Ishiyama-dera is known as one of the places where Lady Murasaki wrote “The Tale of Genji”. There are numerous reminders of this in temple complex – a small building where she stayed, and a statue of her in the act of composition. It was while I was studying this statue that it began to snow – providing a truly stunning backdrop to the sight of the temple and its sylvan environment. I really didn’t think the Ishiyama experience could get any better, but when I got back to the station and boarded my train and I was somewhat startled to see this staring back at me from the train on the opposite platform – a reminder of my plans for the next day.
After Ishiyama I returned to Kyoto and boarded the Eizan Railway, a small single-track electric line that ascends into the mountains Northeast of the city. As the train ascended the snow began to fall, harder and harder, until by the time I’d reached the village of Kurama at about 1500 feet there was a cover of snow on the ground and the air was thick with flakes. Here I entered the temple complex of Kurama-dera, a mountain temple with a long history of Tengu worship and distant ties to Tibetan Buddhism, with the plan to hike to the top of the temple grounds and descend to Kibune, the small village in the adjacent valley, where the 2000 year-old Kibune Jinja is located.
It’s pretty remarkable that there can be such unspoiled country so close to Kyoto, and what a difference climbing a few hundred feet can make. I love snow and have rarely seen it since I moved to California, so this was a special occasion and an unexpected joy for me – but nothing could prepare me for the experience of reaching Kurama-dera’s main hall after a 30-minute climb. The snow was heavy at this point (prompting an older Japanese man to joke to his family about “Hebi snow” in English – hebi being Japanese for “Snake”, of which this is the year of), the Hatsumode bonfires were burning, a ceremony was taking place inside the temple hall as pilgrims admired the scene in the main courtyard. The sound of the ceremony, the smell of the smoke, the view of the valley below and of the temple halls covered in snow – I can’t possibly describe how magical it was.
Next: Omi-Jingu awaits…