Saturday, May 5, 2018

Mt. Kurama (鞍馬山)

There is a funny little one and two-car train in northern Kyoto called the Eizan Railway.  I take this train very infrequently, but it has always intrigued me.  So, I decided to find out where it goes.

I perhaps picked the wrong day to explore this 8.8 kilometer train line as there was a queue of a hundred Golden Week tourists waiting at Demachiyanagi Station.  It was a crush of people, and everyone seemed to have the same destination: Kurama - shūten (end of the line).

I really had no plan.  I'd never been to Kurama and I knew nothing about it.  I saw on the Eizan route map that there was a shrine and a temple somewhere in the vicinity of the train station, so I went in search of these.  This was not difficult.  The main gate to Kurama-dera (est. 770) was just 200 meters from the station exit.

Beyond this nio-mon (guardian gate) were lots of stairs and a series of switchback trails winding up the mountain.  Without hesitating I began the ascent through the lush green landscape, past trickling waterfalls, myriad sub-shrines and a dense canopy of giant trees.  It was very cool, not more than 17°C (62°F).  I was grateful for this.  Though Mt. Kurama stands at just 584 meters (1,916 ft), I was winded.

The view from the large terrace in front of the temple's honden (main hall) was impressive, of course.  But my trek was not finished.  Through a back gate was another trail leading further up the mountain.  Hmm.  Where does this go?

This trail was much more rugged, steps (where there were steps) crudely fashioned from logs, stones and tree roots.  Where large trees had fallen across the path, the middle section was simply cut out rather than moving the entire obstruction.  And there were a lot of fallen trees.  Great giants with a tangle of roots like the tentacles of a mythic octopus.  What force could fell such a colossal tree?  Centuries of havoc wrought by Mother Nature.  There were trees creaking like old doors, drunk, propped up by their neighbors.  And yet, something will grow from this.

Near the summit is a shrine called Osugi Gongen-sha dedicated to one of these great sugi (cedar) believed to be inhabited by Mao-son, the evil-conquering Earth spirit.  This sacred tree is a beautiful gnarled sculpture, ravaged by time and the elements.  An incredible sight.  I sit for a long time and listen to the wind through the trees like ocean waves, the shrine noren (curtain) flapping.  I can understand why a shrine would be built here.

When I finally make it to the end of the 3.9k sando (sacred path to a temple/shrine) I discover I am no longer in Kurama, but Kibune.  Kibune is a charming little village famous for Kifune Shrine and kawadoko, al fresco dining rooms which hover just above the rushing Kibune River.  I'd seen photos of these restaurants and had long wanted to eat at one so, when in Kibune (suddenly)...

I was halfway through my lunch, enjoying the food and the pleasant ambiance when it began to rain.  The terrace is covered with a thin thatched roof, which will protect you from the sun's glare, but it won't stop rain drops from falling in your rice.  The waitress gathered up my tray and put me at a table inside the main restaurant across the narrow road opposite the river.

I waited for the rain to let up and then wandered down the road to the train station, everything wet and gleaming - trees, plants, moss - a phosphorescent green so vivid it was almost painful to look at.

Since ancient times the awesome beauty, power and mystery of nature has been revered at Mt. Kurama.  It's easy to see why.

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