At the foot of Mt. Atago in northern Kyoto city lies a tranquil river by the name of Kiyotaki. I’d strolled its secluded banks half a dozen times over the last decade, but had never explored the upper fork between the village of Kiyotaki and Takao. I seized a break in the fickle autumn weather, catching an early train to Kyoto under gradually clearing skies.
The rain had just let up by the time I slipped through the unmanned gates of Hozukyo station, throwing on an extra layer to ward off the eerie autumn chill. The route follows a paved forest road for the first half hour or so, with splendid views down to the emerald green waters of Hozu river. Occasionally a traditional wooden sightseeing boat would glide past, packed with crowds hoping to catch the autumn foliage in the early morning cloud.
After pushing through a few dark tunnels, I finally crossed the distinctive orange bridge which marked the start of the path. This junction couldn’t have come sooner enough, as some of the idiots driving on that treacherous road obviously failed the ‘slow down for pedestrians’ part of their driving test.
Dropping down to the riverbank, I couldn’t help noticing the vast amounts of garbage strewn about. Relics of a summer’s worth of barbeques and clueless daytrippers with no regards for the environment. There was clearly too much to pick up without garbage bags. If I lived in Kyoto I’d definitely try to organize some kind of clean-up effort. What do the locals think of all of this?
Even the village of Kiyotaki looked much worse for wear, with an abandoned ryokan slowing being swallowed by the surrounding hillside. After a quick snack, I strolled on the main road through town and reached the turnoff for Mt. Takao. In all of my other excursions, I’d always forgone this section in favor of Mt. Atago, but today felt like a perfect day to stay low and explore some new territory. Plus, the sun had just decided to come out to greet me.
This section of Kiyotaki river was in stark contrast to the filth of before. Crystal clear water and absolutely no sign of trash anywhere. Oh, and not a soul around either. The river snaked deeper and deeper into the valley, punctuated in sections by rows of cedar plantations. At one bend of the river, I caught my first glimpse of the mountainside temple complex of Jingo-ji, my first target temple of the day. Another bend later, and I quickly lost sight of the place, and continued along at my gingerly pace. All of a sudden, I heard a crashing sound in the woods on the other side of the river. I paused, ears perked. Another crashing sound. I walked another 5 meters to the east, keeping my eyes peeled for monkeys frolicking in the trees. That must be the logical source of the noise, I thought. Immediately behind me, on a steep bank just off the trail, came another crashing sound, but no animal in sight. 30 seconds later, directly on the path about 10 meters in front of me, came another sound, this time of broken ceramics. Alas, the riddle solved, as worshipers were throwing small clay disks into the valley below. I was directly in the line of fire! Future hikers may want to bring a helmet just in case.
In safety prone Japan, I was shocked to find no signs warning of hikers to “Beware of plates falling from the sky”. Perhaps I’ll make my own sign next time. Once out of the danger zone, I reached a paved road and the entrance to the temple that almost took my life. Plenty of stone steps to climb, but no problem for a seasoned hiker. Ladies in high heels, however, were another story. The temple itself was breathtakingly serene, with hardly a soul in sight despite the autumn foliage.
After looking around for a while, I retreated to one of the outdoor dining establishments lining the path, wolfing down noodles while checking the map times. I still had 2 more temples to explore before taking a bus back to the city, but plenty of extra time before the next bus. Next stop: Saimyo-ji.
Despite being an easy 15-minute stroll up the river on the paved road, I had the World Heritage temple completely to myself, a first in Japan. I sat in the main temple building, admiring the small but mesmerizing garden for around 20 minutes, listening to the sounds of silence. When in doubt, it’s always better to head to the smaller, lesser known places when given the chance.
Once back at the road, I continued upstream about another 30 minutes before reaching the turnoff for Kozan-ji, a vast temple complex completely hidden in a dark forest. Absolutely eerie in the late afternoon shade, but a worthwhile detour nonetheless. Finally, 5 hours after setting off from Hozukyo, I boarded a nearly empty bus for the dreadful ride back to civilization.
The Kansai Takao was much nicer to me than the Kanto version. Perhaps another valid argument in the ongoing Tokyo vs. Osaka battle for best urban region in Japan. Next up, the Kansai version of Mt. Kumotori. Stay tuned…