While most folks make their way to Kyoto to take in the rich history of the ancient capital of Japan, nature lovers come for the well-trodden and off-the-beaten-path hiking trails that snake across Kyoto Prefecture.
Flanked by stunning mountain ranges on three sides, Kyoto Prefecture is blessed with a picturesque network of forested paths that just begs to be explored. Though the list of hikes in the region is limitless, the following trails provide some of the most spectacular views in the prefecture.
Fushimi Inari pilgrimage circuit
Best hike for mesmerizing photos
5km (3 miles) round trip, 3 hours, easy to moderate
One of Kyoto’s most iconic sites is the ancient shrine of Fushimi Inari-Taisha at the southern end of the city. It's the most revered of thousands of shrines around Japan dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice. Foxes are thought to be Inari’s messengers, which explains the many fox statues scattered across the shrine grounds.
The shrine is famous for the 10,000 vermilion torii gates that form tunnels snaking around 233m (765ft) Mt. Inari. Most tourists walk through the first 100m (330ft) of tunnels, take their Instagram shots, then turn around and head to the surrounding souvenir shops before making their way to the next sightseeing spot. However, the best way to get the full Fushimi Inari experience is to hike the whole way around the peak to soak up the atmosphere of the trails that straddle the mountain.
The route begins behind the shrine’s main buildings and winds up the wooded slopes of sacred Mt. Inari. Stop at the miniature shrines, shops and eateries dotted along the trail, pick up a souvenir and refuel with a bowl of kitsune udon (thick noodles in a broth with sweet fried tofu) and a cone of matcha green tea ice cream. Once you’ve completed the circuit, reward yourself with a tipple in the nearby Fushimi sake district, where around 40 sake breweries nestle in a preserved historic townscape from the end of the Edo Period (1603–1868).
Daigo-ji temple hike
Best hike for atmosphere
5km (3 miles) round trip, 2–3 hours, easy to moderate
World Heritage-listed Daigo-ji is one of the key temples for the Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism. The extensive temple complex is located southeast of central Kyoto, spread over the slopes of Daigoyama mountain. The main temple grounds are located at the base of the mountain and are connected via a scenic hiking trail to another cluster of temple buildings at the summit.
Picturesque in all seasons, Daigo-ji is particularly stunning in fall and spring. The entrance to the hiking trail can be found at the back of the main temple area (the fee to enter is ¥600, or ¥500 if you also buy a ticket for the museum and other buildings). A steep, calf-crunching forest path leads to the top of the mountain, past a man-made waterfall at Shimo Daigo (Lower Daigo).
You'll find a gentle stream of pilgrims and tourists climbing through bamboo groves to the original buildings at the summit, also known as Kami Daigo (Upper Daigo). From the top, you can soak up spectacular views to the south toward Nara and Osaka.
Kibune to Kurama walk
Best hike for picturesque surroundings
5km (3 miles) one way, 2–3 hours, easy
Just half an hour north from downtown Kyoto on the Eizan train line, Kibune feels a world away from the city. One of the most accessible half-day hikes in the prefecture, the Kibune to Kurama route offers up picturesque shrines, mountain temples, gushing rivers, lush forests and tranquil villages.
Starting at Kibune-guchi Station on the Eizan train line, take a 2km (1.2 mile) walk along the river to Kifune Shrine. Here, you'll find an iconic stone staircase lined on each side with red wooden lanterns that leads up to Kifune Shrine’s main hall.
Just a few hundred meters from the stairway is a small vermilion bridge that takes you across the Kibune River and launches you on your path across the slopes of Mt. Kurama. A relatively easy trek, the path from Kibune to the village of Kurama is dotted with religious shrines and natural wonders such as Kinone-sando, literally "tree root path" – an area of rugged terrain where cedar roots have forced themselves up out of the ground in a striking display of nature’s force.
Toward the end of the trail, you'll reach the Kurama-dera temple, and after strolling through the guardian gate known as Nio-mon, you'll reach the quaint township of Kurama, lined with traditional Japanese wooden houses known as nagaya.
A five-minute walk south along this peaceful street is Kurama Onsen, whose hot spring waters are rich in hydrogen sulfide and bubbling with minerals, and renowned for their skin rejuvenating effects. Bathing in these waters post-hike while gazing out at the scenic mountain landscape is the perfect end to a day spent on this enchanting trail.
Mt. Daimonji climb
Best hike for panoramic views
1.5km (0.9 miles) round trip, 1 hour, moderate
The Daimonji hike is short and sweet, and it takes you to one of the best viewpoints over Kyoto. Beginning and ending at the "silver temple" of Ginkaku-ji in Northern Higashiyama, the hike involves a steep 220m (720ft) ascent from the main gate of Ginkaku-ji temple to a hilltop viewpoint looking out over the city.
To find the trail, turn left before entering Ginkaku-ji and walk for about a minute until you see a stone torii gate; turn right just before it and walk up the road for two minutes until you reach a small shrine. Turn right at this shrine and make your way up the hill to begin the hike.
After a bridge crossing, several flights of log steps, a climb up a gentle scree slope and three flights of concrete stairs, you will have broken the back of the climb. The final stage is an easy walk up one last set of steps to reach the Daimonji viewpoint, with a breathtaking view of Kyoto city stretching out to your right.
If you’re in the mood for an extra workout, you can continue uphill for another 20 minutes to reach the true summit of Mt. Daimonji, but it’s not essential if you came here mainly to see the spectacular views over the city.
Mt. Atago climb
Best hike for a workout
4km (2.5 miles) round trip, 4–6 hours, challenging but accessible
The only way to reach the 924m (3,032ft) summit of Kyoto’s highest mountain is on foot. Located northwest of the city, Mt. Atago is open for hiking year-round, but it's best to avoid climbing in winter unless you have winter hiking equipment and are experienced at trekking in icy conditions.
Start from the Kiyotaki bus stop and head northwest down the road and across a bridge. The trailhead is a five-minute walk through peaceful Kiyotaki village, marked by a red torii gate. From there, the trail snakes its way for roughly 4km (2.5 miles) up the mountainside. The route is well marked and easy to follow, but it involves climbing a seemingly endless number of stairs. Just before the highest point, you’ll find a wide-open area with benches scattered around where you can rest and refuel while admiring the views over Kyoto.
At the summit sits the small Atago Shrine, which is believed to offer protection against fire-related disasters. It's free to enter and you may see parents visiting with young kids in tow, as visiting before the age of three is said to grant lifelong protection from fire.
Takao to Hozukyō riverside hike
Best hike for picnicking
11km (7 miles) one way, 4-6 hours, easy to moderate
This enjoyable walk combines atmospheric temples, a charming river and a mystical waterfall, making for a thoroughly enchanting day out. To access the trail, take a bus towards Takao and alight at Yamashirotakao, then head down to the river via a set of steps marked with a sign saying "Hiking Course." Before you set off on the hike itself, it’s worth stopping by the Saimyō-ji and Jingo-ji temples; both have beautiful grounds to explore and are far less busy than temples in the city center.
When you’re ready, follow the trail along the banks of the Kiyotaki River. It’s a pleasant route that meanders beside emerald waters through a valley surrounded by forested mountains. About halfway along, you’ll come across an area with wide gravel banks and picnic tables that makes for an ideal lunch spot.
Having fueled up, you can take a detour to the Kuya-no-Taki waterfall. Hidden deep in the forest, this is an especially atmospheric part of the hike that takes you past abandoned shrine buildings and through a torii gate to reach a tinkling, mossy cascade.
Back on the main path, head down to Kiyotaki village, and you’ll pass the entrance to the trail that leads up Mt. Atago. Continue to follow the river, across bridges and through tunnels, until you join the road that takes you to Hozukyō Station; from here, it’s a 20-minute train ride back to Kyoto Station.
Mt. Hiei climb
Best hike for immersing yourself in nature
8km (5 miles) round trip, 4–6 hours, challenging but accessible
Sacred Mt. Hiei straddles the border between Kyoto and Shiga prefectures northeast of Kyoto city. Its 848m (2,782ft) summit is home to the handsome Enryaku-ji temple, a sprawling complex that serves as the headquarters of the Tendai sect of Buddhism in Japan. It’s also famous as the home of the "marathon monks," who attempt to achieve enlightenment through a grueling 1000-day running ritual known as sennichi kaihōgyō.
While cable cars can whisk you to the top, following in the monks’ footsteps and hiking up is the best way to fully appreciate Mt. Hiei’s beauty. You can follow a number of trails – one of the most enjoyable and easily accessible starts about 15 minutes’ walk from Shūgakuin Station on the Eizan line.
The start of the trail is steep and narrow, and you’ll find yourself scrambling over uneven rocks and under low-hanging tree branches. Farther up, the path becomes clearer and leads you through a forest of towering cedar trees with handy steps built into the mountainside to help you reach the peak.
You can make the climb all year round, although you’ll need appropriate cold-weather hiking gear if climbing during the winter when ice and snow cover the summit. Allow yourself extra time to explore the Enryaku-ji temple buildings and admire the views once you make it to the top.
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