Image by Bong Grit Bong Grit
Located high on a thickly wooded mountain, Kurama-dera is one of the few temples in modern Japan that still manages to retain an air of real spirituality. This is a magical place that gains much of its power from its brilliant natural setting. The entrance to the temple is just up the hill from Kurama Station. A cable car runs to/from the top (¥200 each way), or you can hike up in about 30 minutes (follow the path past the tram station).
The temple also has a fascinating history: in 770 the monk Gantei left Nara’s Toshōdai-ji in search of a wilderness sanctuary in which to meditate. Wandering in the hills north of Kyoto, he came across a white horse that led him to the valley known today as Kurama. After seeing a vision of the deity Bishamon-ten, guardian of the northern quarter of the Buddhist heaven, Gantei established Kurama-dera just below the peak of Kurama-yama. Originally belonging to the Tendai school of Buddhism, Kurama has been independent since 1949, describing its own brand of Buddhism as Kurama-kyō.
It's worth walking up the trail from the main entrance (if it’s not too hot), since it winds through a forest of towering old-growth cryptomeria trees, passing by Yuki-jinja, a small Shintō shrine, on the way. Near the peak, there is a courtyard dominated by the Honden (Main Hall); behind this a trail leads off to the mountain’s peak.
At the top, you can take a brief detour across the ridge to Ōsugi-gongen, a quiet shrine in a grove of trees. Those who want to continue to Kibune can take the trail down the other side. It’s a 1.2km, 30-minute hike from the Honden to the valley floor of Kibune. On the way down are two mountain shrines, Sōjō-ga-dani Fudō-dō and Okuno-in Maō-den, which make pleasant rest stops.