Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

April 25, 2012

Hiking the Shikoku temple route near Ninnaji in Kyoto

Next to Kyoto's Ninnaji Temple is a nice hiking route: a small-scale copy of the Shikoku Pilgrimage, laid out on Mt Joju. When I first heard about it, I thought it must be something in a park (sometimes a copy of the famous pilgrimage only consists of 88 stones you have to step on!), but reality was more interesting. The "Omura Eighty-eight Temple Pilgrimage" proved to be a rewarding experience, a (almost) two-hour hike up and down Mt Joju with good views of Kyoto thrown in as a bonus.

[The typical "temple hall" on the hiking route]

The route was already set up in 1827 by the then abbot of Ninnaji, Sainin. The link, of course, is Kobo Daishi (Kukai), the founder of Shingon Buddhism and the object of the pilgrimage - Ninnaji also is a Shingon temple and the memorial hall (Miedo) dedicated to Kobo Daishi in fact stands in the north-western corner of the temple complex, where you will also find a gate leading outside. If you turn right here, you will arrive at temple 88, the end of the route. So instead go straight ahead and at the end of the residential road you will see a sign saying Ichiban, No. 1, pointing to the right. That is the start of your hike - bring something to drink as the mountain is happily free from vending machines.

[The path leads through a deep forest]

The first half of the hike is the most pleasant. First you climb up in a forest of large red pine trees, after that you go up and down over the ridge on top of the mountain. In spring, wild azaleas are blooming here. Now and then you get great views of Kyoto, lying far down at your feet.

At the start the path is paved, higher up you have a sand path or some rocky patches, but it is never difficult. Temple no. 52 (if I remember correctly) stands at the mountain top, at 236 meters.

[View of Kyoto from the mountain]

The temples are just simple, square wooden sheds, with a bell-shaped window behind which sits a small statue. There usually is a hand bell as used on house altars, so you can make your presence known. The first and the last temple and one in between actually had a house attached to them, the rest were unattended. All halls had a small stone pillar in front announcing the name (on the Shikoku pilgrimage), the number and the name of the main image.

[Sometimes stone statues sit along the path]

The path is easy to follow, except one spot after going down from the mountain top. There is a T-junction near the valley, the left fork leading to a construction site. Take the right fork here, although it may seem strange that you have to climb up again - but that is correct, there is another right and again a steep climb and you arrive at the next temple, 52 or 53 (it helps when you can read the Japanese-style numbers).

From now on the hike is up and down along the side of the mountain through a long valley and this part is not so interesting anymore. The atmosphere is a bit damp and dark and there are no views. Although it is good that the route in the end brings you back to Ninnaji again, near where you started, another possibility is to climb to the top of Mt Joju and then track back.

[The path on top of Mt Joju]

I made the hike at the end of the afternoon and only met some residents walking their dogs near the beginning of the path, and health fanatics who were actually running on the mountain top. It can be a bit lonely, so take the usual precautions.

Once a month from spring to autumn stamps are put out at all 88 halls and you can buy a stamp book for 300 yen at the main hall of Ninnaji (9:00-13:00). Check the Japanese website of Ninnaji.
Access: Ninnaji is close to Omuro Station on the Keifuku Kitano Line. When coming from central Kyoto, take the Hankyu Line to Shijo-Omiya and there board the Keifuku Arashiyama line; switch to the Keifuku Kitano Line in Katabiranotsuji. When coming from Osaka or Kobe, take the Hankyu Line to Saiin and change to the Keifuku Arashiyama line at Sai Station (1 min. walk); again switch to the Keifuku Kitano Line in Katabiranotsuji. The Keifuku Arashiyama line also connects to the Kyoto subway in Tenjingawa Station (Randen/Uzumasa). It sounds more complicated than it is - in any case, the trains are much faster than the option of taking a bus. 
Hours: 9:00 to 17:00 (16:30 from Dec. to Feb.) 
Fee: the grounds are normally free, only during cherry blossom season a fee applies. There is always a fee applicable for the Goten palace buildings, and also one for the museum. The hiking route is always free and open. 
Judith Clancy's Exploring Kyoto gives a good description of this mini-pilgrimage route.