Today is a good day, is my thought, observing the shades of green on the mountain slopes through the panoramic window at KULM, a simple-yet-sophisticated vegan eatery in the quaint village of Ohara, nestled in between the rice paddies and mountains that protect Kyoto from the northern winds and spirits. I had arrived by bus from Kokusaikaikan station earlier in the morning, which is supposed to be the fastest way out of the city by public transport. My memories of Ohara were of a charming-but-crowded rural getaway. Instead, on this weekday morning, the small road leading up to the iconic Sanzen-in temple is almost devoid of human presence and the souvenir shops are still closed. Small freshwater crabs can be spotted along the stream running down the roadside and a tree frog, the Kaeru, sits on a pole as if on a throne, the undisputed king of his own microcosm, just like a character in a Miyazaki animé.
Skipping the visit of Sanzen-in temple this time, I turn back and follow the signs leading to Jakko-in temple, in the lower part of the village. A short walk along the rice fields southwards brings me alongside several carp streamer banners, on display for the children’s day. I follow the Kyoto Trail, which heads into Ohara from the slopes of Mount Hiei. My intention is to go for a rather short walk through the forest and a northern Kyoto settlement, heading towards the mountain village of Kurama, well known for both its mountain temple, Kurama-dera, and the hot spring with an outdoor bath, Kurama Onsen, which will be the final reward for today.
The trail soon disappears into the forest, winding up towards a mountain pass. Red-bodied dragonflies are dancing in the sunshine, sitting on the fresh green leaves, known in Japanese as Shinryoku. I can’t get enough of observing them closely. At this stage, the trail is never far from signs of civilization, though a sign warns the hiker of the potential presence of Asian black bears. I pass close to a couple of wooden cabins in the forest, maybe weekend homes for Kyotoites who would just have to travel a few kilometers northwards out of the city. This is the Kitayama, the mountains of the north, which embrace Kyoto in a long arc with the two holy mountains, the Shinto Atago-San towards the west and the Buddhist mountain Hieizan on the eastern side. Small statues of Tanuki-San, the frivolous figure of folklore, line the track.
The trail descends the mountain into the small hamlet of Kurama, a popular destination for a daytrip out of the city. Most people come to pay a visit to Kurama-dera, the famous mountain temple where Reiki has its origins. From the platform outside the temple, I admire the lush scenery of the mountain valley. The contrast between the yellow-green of the fresh spring leaves, the deep blue sky, and the red painted ceilings is poignant. Japan is truly the empire of the senses. From here, a mountain trail goes further up to Kurama Yama and then down to the settlement of Kibune, famous for its restaurant decks by the cool stream. I opt instead to get back on the trail, down again to the village of Kurama, and to walk a few hundred meters to the outskirts of the village, reaching Kurama Onsen and its outdoor bath. Soaking into the hot Rotenburo and enjoying the view of the surrounding forest is surely the highlight of this splendid spring walk. Today is a good day, indeed.