Stories of people & places, festivities & traditions from my travels around the world
Hot Springs and a Holy Mountain: Kyoto's Kurama Temple and Open Air Baths
by Lucy Hornberger
Tucked away among the cedar forests of Kyoto's northern hills lies the tiny village of Kurama. Famed for centuries for its Buddhist temple and legendary Tengu goblin, it has also become known in more recent years for its mineral springs and Japanese ryokan inn. Easily accessible from Kyoto, but seemingly remote from the modern world, the visitor can enjoy hiking over holy Mount Kurama before indulging in a luxurious soak in the rotemburo outdoor baths. Reclining in these beautiful cypress wood baths while gazing at thickly forested peaks and breathing in the fresh mountain air is a superb way to relax after taking in Kyoto's sights.
From Kyoto's Demachi-Yanagi Station, the two-carriage mountain train takes just 30 minutes to wind up through the forested hills to its Kurama terminus. Kurama is generally several degrees cooler than Kyoto and in the summer it is delightful to leave the oppressive heat of the city. The little train finally pulls into Kurama station, and stepping out onto the platform you are immediately confronted by views of steep hillsides, thickly covered with cedar and pine. The air here is clear and fresh and the main sound is the rushing of the swift-flowing river as it tumbles down to the city below.
Despite its remote location, people have lived in the vale of Kurama for millennia. Even now the houses are traditional style - low wooden structures with wide eaves, bamboo-slatted windows and lanterns hanging at the doorways. Stop for a snack at one of several charmingly ramshackle cafés. A large iron kettle whistles on the stove as the cheerful proprietress serves steaming bowls of Japanese udon noodles and hot green tea. The room is crammed with various knickknacks and souvenirs for sale. Shelves of small clay figures vie for attention with packets of the dark, finely diced vegetable pickles that are a specialty of Kurama.
On the wall behind the counter hangs a red mask, its huge nose quite out of proportion to its other features. This is a representation of the Tengu, the mythical creature said to live on the peak of Mount Kurama. Credited with supernatural powers, a mischievous sense of humour and extraordinary fighting skills, tengus feature in numerous old tales and legends. One of the most famous of these tells how the King of the Tengu, the ancient, white-haired Sojobo, trained the great 12th century hero Minamoto Yoshitsune in swordsmanship, the martial arts and military strategy.
Just beyond the café a broad flight of stone steps leads up to Kurama Temple's lower gate. A monumental timber structure, the gate is guarded by two huge sculptures of divine kings. Their muscles bulge as they raise massive weapons to strike down any evil spirit audacious enough to attempt to pass. From here it is a steep, but not so very long, hike up through the forest, past tiny shrines, waterfalls and burbling springs until eventually you arrive at the temple itself. In high season a small funicular railway carries those unwilling or unable to walk. However you choose to make the journey, it's well worth the effort, and the views of undulating forest are spectacular.
Kurama Temple was founded in the later eighth century AD to offer spiritual protection to the newly founded capital of Heian-kyo (present-day Kyoto) against the demons and ill-luck believed to dwell to the north. Inside the temple the very air seems ancient and it's easy to understand why this spot has long been revered as mysterious and holy.
Mount Kurama's slopes and many shrines are also the scene of the Kurama Fire Festival (Hi-Matsuri) which takes place each year on the night of October 22nd. A wild, tantric procession of local men carrying gigantic torches passes along the village street and makes its way up the mountain to honour the kami, the Shinto gods which reside on the mountain. It's a spectacular, fiery event, but be warned - it attracts huge crowds of spectators and can become impossibly crowded!
From Kurama Temple it's simple to retrace your steps and return to the village. However, the path continues on up the mountain, passing more shrines and sub-temples, sacred rocks, groves and towering cedar trees, then descending to the hamlet of Kibune, known for its traditional restaurants and high-class inns. Here in summer one can dine on local delicacies while seated on bamboo yuka platforms constructed over the cooling waters of the mountain stream. Geisha are often in attendance at these dinners and, needless to say, prices are not cheap! Kibune has its own tiny station, allowing you to return to Kyoto, or take the train just one stop back to Kurama - something well worth doing as at the far end of the single village street you will find another treasure: the Kurama Onsen Spa.
As most travellers to Japan are aware, onsen (hot springs) are one of the country's great pleasures. They come in two forms: well-equipped and usually modern indoor spas and the traditional outdoor rotemburo. Kurama Spa boasts both, in addition to a small ryokan (traditional-style inn) and restaurant. The indoor baths are pleasant enough, featuring several mineral hot pools, a sauna and an icy plunge pool, but it is the outdoor rotemburo that is the unmissable Japanese experience.
There are separate baths for men and women, the reason for this segregation being that in Japan it is customary to bathe naked (although the ubiquitous onsen towel is often held strategically to retain a little modesty). No need to worry, however - Japanese baths are steamy, drowsy, relaxing places and even foreigners are hardly given a passing glance.
Pass through a screen of thick knotted cords and along a wooden corridor to the changing room. Having removed your clothes and placed them in a locker, another screened doorway leads you out into the walled courtyard containing the hot pool. One wall is lined with low showers and stools, and bathers are expected to wash themselves thoroughly before entering the communal pool.
Ease yourself gently into the hot water and linger as long as you like. Not only is a visit to a hot spring a marvellously relaxing experience, it is also said to be good for you as the water contains revitalising and health-giving minerals. From the pool there are views of Mount Kurama and the surrounding forests - beautiful in every season, but particularly so in autumn and when there is snow - and it is possible to spend hours here, soaking, then resting on the pool's edge before slipping back into the luxurious hot water. Daydream, admire the view and let your cares dissolve with the steam that slowly rises from the water and gently wafts away...
Take the Eizan Railway from Kyoto's Demachi-Yanagi station to Kurama Station (the terminus). The journey takes 30 minutes, and trains leave regularly throughout the day.
Website (Japanese only): eizandensha.co.jp
Wikipedia page: wikipedia.org/wiki/Eizan_Electric_Railway
The Kurama Onsen Hotel
is at the far end of the village of Kurama, an easy 10 minute walk, or take the regular shuttle minibus. Entrance to the outdoor baths costs ¥1,000.
The Eizan railway carries hikers, pilgrims and hot spring enthusiasts up into the mountains to Kurama.
A mask of the Tengu: a mythical creature said to reside on Mount Kurama
From the village, broad stone steps lead up to Kurama Temple's massive lower gate.
The lantern-lined path continues up the steep forested slopes of Mount Kurama.
The annual Kurama Fire Festival honours the Shinto deities that reside on Mount Kurama.
This ancient Japanese cedar tree is honoured as sacred and bound with a purifying Shinto shimenawa rice straw rope.
Kurama's outdoor rotemburo hot spring baths are a wonderful place to relax.
Article & photos posted February 8th, 2016
Text and photos copyright © 2016 Lucy Hornberger. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use prohibited.