Kurama-dera (鞍馬寺) is a mountain temple in Northern Kyoto that is one of the most beautiful places in Japan. In this post, I’ll share photos I took at Mount Kurama, info & tips for visiting Kurama-dera, and thoughts on my experience of hiking from the village of Kurama up the mountain and over to Kibune.
Visiting Mount Kurama and its surrounding village is usually considered a day trip from Kyoto, since the commute to and from the town requires a time investment of a little over an hour. Even though Kurama is technically within the city, this is about the same amount of time it takes to travel to Osaka or Nara, both of which are significantly larger and more recognizable cities. The upshot to this is that Kurama draws significantly fewer people, and can be something of an escape from the crowds of Kyoto.
As mentioned in our “Where We’ve Been, Where We’re Going Next…” post, we are introducing a new format for our shrine and temple posts, starting with this one. Going forward, we’ll separate History, Info & Tips, and Our Experience/Review into separate sections. Our rationale for doing this is that we think some readers are only interested in certain aspects, and we don’t want you to have to wade through text about which you don’t care. If you have further suggestions for refining our format (or if you like this approach), please leave a comment.
We’ve now visited over 100 temples and shrines in Kyoto, and have a lot more to write. Now let’s take a look at the history of Kurama-dera, info and tips to improve your visit to this mountain temple, and anecdotes from my hike up Mount Kurama…
Kurama-dera was founded in the 8th century AD. According to (historically disputed) legend reflected in the records of the Anbagai-ji Engi, the Chinese monk Ganchō, disciple of Jianzhen, had a dream in 770 to head north from Tōshōdai-ji in Nara where he resided to Mount Kurama as it held spiritual power.
En route, Gantei became lost until he had another dream, which brought him a white horse. He followed that horse until he arrived on the mountain that would then be called Kurama Yama, or Horsesaddle Mountain. He set up camp and began to establish the temple, but first had to ward off demons intending to eat him.
In 796, a noble who had been associated with construction of the Tōji temple in Kyoto, had a vision of the Thousand Arms Kannon that caused him to sponsor the construction of a proper temple complex on Mount Kurama. This led to numerous temples and pagoda being built, many of which constitute present day Kuramadera Temple.
Over the years, many of the buildings at Kuramadera Temple have been destroyed by fire, and have been subsequently rebuilt. On each occasion, the treasures (some of which are National Treasures of Japan) and Buddhist statuary were rescued from the fire and relocated to the new buildings.
Kuramadera Temple is shrouded in legend and folklore, some of which has likely clouded its history. While I cannot vouch for its veracity, the most comprehensive account of Kurama’s history can be found here.
Info & Tips
Kurama-dera Temple’s entrance is a 5-minute walk from Kurama Station down the village’s only road. This station is accessible from central Kyoto via the Eizan Kurama Line from Demachi-Yanagi Station; it’s a pleasant and scenic 30-minute ride. Eizan Railway is famous for its Maple Tunnel featuring fresh green leaves in the summer and beautiful fall colors in the autumn.
We accessed Demachi-Yanagi Station via the Keihan Main Line from Fushimi Inari Station. The entire commute took almost exactly an hour for us, but expect it to take longer if you’re coming from elsewhere in Kyoto. As with all points of interest in Kyoto, you should consult Google Maps for the most efficient train route based upon your location and departure time, as there are almost always 2-3 ways to access any temple in Kyoto.
Admission to Kurama-dera Temple costs 300 yen. The temple is open year-round from 9 a.m. until 4:30 p.m., but the Treasure House is closed Mondays and from December 12 through February 1 (reopening seems to be ‘weather permitting’).
Kurama is a popular spot in November and early December for its fall colors, and is stunning under a fresh blanket of snow in the winter months. Other events are held throughout the year, most notably the Spring Full Moon Festival, Summer Bamboo Cutting Ritual, and Fall Fire Festival.
It takes approximately 30-45 minutes to climb from the main entrance to Kurama-dera’s main buildings. Above is the map I was provided at the entrance to Kurama-dera Temple, which is a fairly accurate scale. (Click to view it larger.)
While this is always a maintained path, it can be moderately steep at times. There is a cable car that bypasses some of the path, but it does not take you all the way to the top. I recommend walking the entire way, if only because the cable car is not really saving you much time or energy.
Be sure to keep your ticket after paying at the main entrance, as you will need it to re-enter the temple if you hike down to Kibune; there is another ticket booth at the end of the mountain trail, and re-entry requires your ticket unless you wish to pay a second time.
The hike to Kibune is highly recommended. This trail is mostly downhill and should take around 30 minutes from the main hall, is through a beautiful forest, and features a couple of beautiful temple buildings along the way. Moreover, Kibune is an absolutely lovely little town.
You do not need to hike back to Kurama once in Kibune, but it is the most straightforward return option. The downside is that the return hike is quite steep at times. I’d rate it as moderate; it’ll take around 15 minutes more than the hike down to Kibune took you.
This entire experience is a great option if you need a respite from the crowds in Kyoto. During my visit, I encountered only a handful of other visitors during the entire time I was there. While that in part could be because it was snowing when I arrived, the remote location suggests that Kurama-dera sees fewer people in a year than Kyoto’s popular spots see in a day.
If you depart Kyoto by 9 a.m., you should have sufficient time to hike to the top of Mount Kurama, down to Kibune where you can experience Kifune Shrine (among other small shrines), hike back to Kurama, and recover from the hike by purchasing a day-pass to Kurama Onsen. Expect all of that to take around 5 hours or so. For just Mount Kurama, you should budget 2 to 3 hours.
If you are really ambitious, you can then leave and head to Fushimi Inari and experience that at night. This is a lot of hiking in a single day, but it’s easily accomplishable given the operating hours of each location. If you have limited time in Kyoto, an aggressive is probably the only way you’ll be able to justify the diversion to Kurama.
Our Experience & Review
Originally, we had wanted to visit Kurama during the heart of fall colors season, when Eizan Railway has nighttime illuminations of the Maple Tunnel. We ran out of time during for this, and decided to delay our visit to Kurama until much later in December when the likelihood of snow would be higher.
We ultimately headed to Kurama a day after snow was in the forecast for Kyoto (it was a near-miss). We had no clue whether it had snowed in Kurama, but decided to make the trek, anyway. We had read very little about this little village, but between the temple and the onsen, we figured it’d be worth checking out. Plus, we had done every major temple in Kyoto (and most minor ones), so it wasn’t like we’d be missing out on anything else.
Despite the fall colors being long gone by this point, the journey on Eizan Railway was incredibly pleasant. We had planned on working during this train ride, both were both so captivated by what was out the windows that we never did.
Upon arrival, we saw it: fresh snow! It was at this point we determined that we should go our separate ways. We had been walking around 25,000 steps per day everyday for the last several weeks, and the idea of hiking through snow didn’t appeal to Sarah. Conversely, regardless of the temple’s quality, it appealed very much to me.
So, Sarah headed to the Kurama Onsen, with the plan that we’d meet in the lobby there in four hours (or potentially sooner if our text messaging worked). I entered Kurama-dera and began ascending Mount Kurama.
I have to admit that I got goosebumps as I began climbing the first set of stairs, and I’m pretty sure they weren’t just because I was freezing. Seeing snow-covered roofs and lanterns mark the way was a special experience. (What can I say…I have a soft spot for light fixtures?) I absolutely love photographing the snow, and I didn’t think I was going to get that chance on this trip.
My happiness was probably a bit disproportionate to the scene, but I was in a state of pure bliss. I went crazy taking photos, but unfortunately, there wasn’t quite enough snow for something truly photogenic. (The photos in this post don’t do justice to the beautiful landscape, either.)
As I started hiking, I quickly realized Kurama-dera Temple is a special place. Now, you might discount that opinion since not one paragraph I got a bit emotional about snow, but on my return hike most of this snow had melted, and I still felt the same way.
My ascent through the snow, passing both natural and manmade beauty, up Mount Kurama was one of the most memorable and joyous experiences I’ve had in Japan. The snow no doubt played a big role in that, but it was just as exciting to make a new discovery of something mesmerizing around just about every turn of the hike.
It felt like a slow reveal, as if Kurama-dera was dispensing with little nuggets of beauty to encourage visitors to venture farther up Mount Kurama. The entire time, I was rapt. (This is a big part of why I’d discourage using the cable car–you bypass a lot of the best parts of this walk if you take the cable car.)
None of these temple buildings would have been nearly as captivating were it not for the natural beauty of the mountain, its forest, and the pleasant soundtrack of streams and small waterfalls along the way. Along the hike, there are several towering Japanese cedar trees, some of which rival California’s sequoias in beauty.
In fact, the entire experience reminded me a lot of hiking through Sequoia National Park. There’s something about giant trees that is simultaneously humbling and serene, and these odiferous trees have an enchanting aroma that just defies words. I don’t know. Maybe I was just getting high off of mountain and tree air.
The Honden (Main Hall), Shinden, and other buildings comprising the main area of Kurama-dera Temple were lovely, and a fitting climax to the hike up. This area abounded with details, and was the only area of the temple grounds where I saw another person on the way up.
While I’m partly inclined to say the experience at Kurama-dera is more about the journey than the destination, I don’t think that’s entirely fair. The journey up and down Mount Kurama, along with many stops, was the unequivocal highlight for me. However, the main buildings were stunning and I don’t want to sell them short.
Continuing on, I took the hiking trail to the neighboring village of Kibune. It had stopped snowing and the sun was out by this point and that, coupled with a light bit of wind, resulted in what was essentially a heavy rain of run-off melting from the trees above. Due to this and my lack of a GORE-TEX layer, I ran most of the way down. The entire hike took me about 15 minutes.
I’ll cover Kibune in a separate post, but suffice to say, it also did not disappoint. I view visiting both Kurama and Kibune a package deal, and would not even consider revisiting one without returning to the other. I now want to return in the summer when over-the-water dining is offered in Kibune, in the fall for the foliage, and in the heart of winter for a thick blanket of snow over everything. After a couple of hours exploring Kibune, I returned to the hiking trail that led back to Mount Kurama.
It was not “raining” at this point, so I took it slower (not to mention the fact that I probably would’ve had a heart attack running up the trail). This recounting of my experience is already pretty cheesy, so I’ll go ahead and call this forest downright enchanting. Laugh if you will, but I found this to be a really wonderful place. All of the superlatives I can muster still wouldn’t be enough.
Our phones did work and Sarah was not yet ready to leave Kurama Onsen (I guess public bathing is her thing!), so I took my time exploring Kurama-dera more on the way down. The snow was almost entirely gone by this point and everything was just wet, but it was still a great experience.
Overall, I love Kurama-dera Temple. If you read the recap of my experience above, that should come as no surprise. It’s one of the highlights of Kyoto, and I’d rank it near the top of my list of favorite things to do not just in Kyoto, but in all of Japan. While it’s more convenient to reach from central Kyoto than you might expect given the remote location, I still have some reservations about emphatically recommending it. The “problem” with Kurama-dera for those who have only a few days in Kyoto is not the commute time to get there–it’s the amount of time required to experience the temple. By the time all is said and done, this is close to a full-day trip, and that’s a day that could have been spent seeing multiple Kyoto top spots in Arashiyama or Higashiyama. I think my suggested itinerary resolves some of these problems, but it’s still tough to recommend Kurama-dera to anyone with less than 5 days in Kyoto.
If you’re planning a visit to the Japan that includes Kyoto, please check out my other posts about Japan. I also highly recommend the Lonely Planet Kyoto Guide to determine everything you should see and do while there.
Have you visited Kurama-dera Temple? What did you think of the experience? Would you recommend this as a day-trip from central Kyoto to a first-timer visiting Japan? Any other thoughts about my experience at Kurama-dera Temple? Does visiting this temple interest you? Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!