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18 March 2019

I really wanted to hike the Nakasendō, a 534-kilometre ancient highway between Kyoto and Edo (Tokyo). It was a romantic notion. I knew little about it, but I loved the idea of it. Some parts of it existed as early as the 7th century. Under the Tokugawa Shogunate, in the 17th century, the smaller pathways between villages were all linked together to establish a highway with 69 staging posts. It was one of several established by the Shogunate as a communications network that was needed to rule the country.

Naively I imagined it to be a rural pathway through the mountains, which no doubt it once was. It does still exist, roughly following modern roads, so in reality walking the Nakasendō would be a long walk through industrialised Japan; so not that romantic after all. Then when we were in Kyoto in March of last year I learned that it’s possible to do a day trip from Kyoto to walk the most interesting section of it, the largely rural 8-kilometre stretch between the preserved staging-post villages of Tsumago and Magome. It sounded perfect. I didn’t have to walk the whole distance, just a little bit to get something of the experience of it. And I kind of convinced Don that we should do it on one of our days in Kyoto. Until we looked into the details.

It would have meant leaving our Airbnb at 6.30 in the morning followed by a journey of about five hours that included the subway, two trains and a bus, just to get to the start of it. Then about three hours for a very leisurely hike, and then an equally long return journey. So I somewhat reluctantly let go of the idea and, as Don suggested, looked for something more local. Looking back now at the photos online of the Tsumago-Magome section of the Nakasendō it doesn’t look any more interesting than the hike we do – the hike over Mt Kurama between the villages of Kurama and Kibune.

We take a train from Demachiyanagi Station

through metropolitan Kyoto

straight north towards the mountains. After an easy 45-minute journey the first thing we see when we leave the station is this.

It’s a Tengu. Tengu are superheroes! They can fly; they have great physical strength, martial arts skills, and magical powers. But you’d better be paying attention because they are shape-shifting sorcerers as likely to possess you as help you. Everything abnormal and mysterious is attributed to them, which in turn gives them even more power.

I look at it and think it’s just another funny Japanese mythical creature, unimposing and not particularly attractive with its strange long red nose, but these mischief-makers, these legendary creatures of Japanese folk religion, are deeply embedded in the culture.

They are sometimes described as forest goblins, and are believed to be the guardians of the mountains. Also this: they mislead the pious with fake images of the Buddha; they carry monks off and drop them in remote places; they possess women and speak through their mouths in an attempt to seduce holy men (yeah, the patriarchal nature of this, and the denigration of women in the ethos of the community is not lost on me, but at least these “wayward” women can blame a Tengu); they rob temples; they are the ghosts of angry or vain priests; they can control the wind; they abduct people to torment them, or perhaps to teach them magic, which never turns out well; they appear uninvited in people’s dreams; those who worship them are given ungodly powers, much like the devil I guess.

And so they are treated with much caution and respect. You really don’t want to mess with a Tengu. They are as equally revered in Shinto as in Buddhism, and are often the guardians of Buddhist temples.

So the beginning of our hike, which takes us up the mountain to Kurama-dera Temple, is a kind of warning. Here stands the temple guard and it is not to be taken lightly, but knowing nothing about it at the time I’m puzzled and amused rather than wary.

A short walk brings us to Kurama-dera Temple’s Main gate

The legend is that in 770, a Chinese monk had a dream to go north from Nara, where he lived, to Mount Kurama because it held spiritual power. He got lost along the way but another dream saved him. He followed what he saw in this dream and came to a white horse that led him to Mt Kurama, or Horsesaddle Mountain. But before he could establish the temple he had to ward off demons that wanted to eat him. It’s always something isn’t it? Probably those wicked Tengu were at it again, but the monk prevailed.

Later a noble from Kyoto sponsored the construction of a proper temple complex on the mountain, which constitutes much of present day Kurama-dera Temple. But as we discover it is not simply one temple complex at the top of the mountain but a whole series of altars and places of worship that punctuate our hike on the way up.

Bit by bit as we climb we are treated to little morsels of loveliness, encouraging us to climb further.

And in between all these places of worship there are stairs, always more stairs,

The trail leads us to an enormous wooden structure

and so we mount the stairs and pass through the tunnel. It is the gate to Yuki-jinja Shrine,

which was moved from downtown Kyoto in 970 to protect the area from evil. A giant sacred pine tree that is said to be 800 years old stands sentinel, revered custodian of the shrine.

Moving on we come to a bridge,

and follow the path ever upwards through the forest.

It’s a beautiful day, and at every turn we are enchanted, wondering what loveliness the path will present to us next. Another small altar,

a bigger shrine,

and the striking dragon fountain of the chozuya for ceremonial purification at the Tenborindo Buddhist Temple

Now we’re high enough for the views

enhanced by hints of spring blossoming to come.

We continue climbing

until at last we are at the top of the mountain, standing in a graceful spacious plaza with the main hall of the temple on one side

and a lovely view on the other.

For over a thousand years this has been known as a spiritual power spot, a holy place, for devotees of both Shinto and Buddhism. In front of the woman praying is a pattern, a mandala, in the pavement. It is known as one of Japan’s most famous power spots. The six points of the mandala correspond to the six ways humans connect with the world: eyes, ears, nose, mouth, body, and heart.

The temple is guarded by a pair of fantastical tiger statues standing strong and proud on either side of the main hall. Don’t mess with me they seem to say.

After a break we continue on, passing another small temple

and soon find ourselves on a path bursting with tree roots.

It is unexpected. And lovely. They are the roots of Japanese cedars. This mountain is full of mysterious tales and legends; things have to be explained somehow. One story has it that when he was a boy a famous warlord trained here at night with the Lord of the Tengu. I wonder what powers he gained having his own private wizard to coach him here in the deep dark shadows of the cedars.

Here also there is a constant breeze blowing up from the hills below. It is a place that makes me happy, being surrounded only by nature.

The path continues through the forest as we begin our descent

And here’s another fantastical tale. What we come to next is a shrine known as Oku-no-in Mao Den.

It is the shrine of Mao-son, the god of the mountain! It is said that six million years ago he descended to earth in a divine carriage of the Prince of Flames when a meteorite from Venus streaked across the sky and landed here in this spot. It is enshrined as the kami, or Shinto god, known as Mao-son, the great King of the Conquerors of Evil and the Spirit of the Earth. Ever since his powerful energy has been emanating from Mt Kurama overseeing the development and evolution of all living beings.

The path leads us ever onward through the forest.

We are descending now on rough stairs until finally we reach the road and the very small village of Kibune snug in the forest next to the Kibune River. The village exists because of the shrine, which exists because a goddess travelled by boat from Osaka all the way up river into the mountains. The shrine was built where her journey came to an end. There is a long lanterned-lined staircase up to the Kifune Shrine, dedicated to the god of water and rain, and where the goddess’ yellow boat is said to be buried.

Everything about this mountain is held sacred, from the many altars, shrines, and subtemples along the trail, to the paved mandala at the top, to the green shimmering forest, and the distant luring views. Everything on the path is honoured by both of Japan’s religions. It is a much-revered place, held in a transcendent sacred crucible, and many pilgrims come to absorb the energy and to pray here.

This easy four-kilometre hike proved to be the perfect combination of nature and culture, and although we didn’t know the significance of all the places we were passing, the beauty, and the unexpectedness of what would be next was enough to lead us on; that, and the forest and the fresh air, and the earth beneath our feet and the blue sky above. We walk the two kilometres down the road to Kibune-guchi Station and take the train back to Demachiyanagi Station in Kyoto, and then the subway back home. It’s been a beautiful day.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2020.