Worth a Trip: Takao Temples

The Takao area is tucked far away in the northwestern part of Kyoto. It is famed for autumn foliage and a trio of temples: Jingo-ji, Saimyō-ji and Kōzan-ji. A trip here is a good way to escape the crowds that plague some sights closer to downtown.

Down the river from the Takao bus stop, Jingo-ji is a mountaintop temple at the summit of a long flight of stairs that stretches from the Kiyotaki-gawa to the temple’s main gate. The Kondō (Gold Hall) is the most impressive of the temple’s structures, located roughly in the middle of the grounds at the top of another flight of stairs. Be prepared for a somewhat strenuous climb, but it will be worth it.

After visiting the Kondō, head in the opposite direction along a wooded path to an open area overlooking the valley. Here you’ll see people tossing small discs over the railing into the chasm below. These are kawarakenage, light clay discs that people throw in order to rid themselves of their bad karma. The trick is to flick the discs very gently, convex side up, like a Frisbee. When you get it right, they sail all the way down the valley – taking all that bad karma with them (try not to think about the hikers down below).

About five minutes' walk upstream from the base of the steps that lead to Jingo-ji, Saimyō-ji is a fine little temple worth stopping at. The approach over a red wooden bridge is very atmospheric; see if you can find your way round to the small waterfall at the side of the temple. The grotto here is pure magic.

Kōzan-ji, hidden amid a grove of towering cedar trees, is famous for the chuju giga scroll in its collection. It's an ink-brush depiction of frolicking animals that is considered by many to be the precursor of today’s ubiquitous manga (Japanese comics). The temple is reached by following the main road north from the Yamashiro-Takao bus stop or, more conveniently, by getting off the JR bus at the Toga-no-O bus stop, right outside the temple. Note that there is an extra fee of ¥500 to visit the temple's gardens during the autumn-foliage season; other times of the year it's free to enter the grounds.

To reach Takao, take bus 8 from Nijō Station to the last stop, Takao (¥520, 40 minutes). From Kyoto Station, take the hourly JR bus to the Yamashiro-Takao stop (¥520, 50 minutes).