Sunday 1st November 2009: Another month, another bath! What better way to celebrate the turning of the calendar from October to November than a journey out to visit an onsen that has long captured my imagination and yet in 10 years of visiting Japan I had failed to venture to: Kurama. Located at the end of the Eiden electric railway, a rather cute tram-type train that winds its way out of Kyoto to the mountains in the north, Kurama Onsen is renowned in Kyoto for being a place of real natural beauty and a town where some of the most traditional aspects of Japanese culture are still thriving. Extremely popular in autumn-leaf season (usually the middle of November), Kurama is an escape from the busy streets of central Kyoto.
So, onto the bath; well, not quite yet as I decided to earn my soak in the hot springs by hiking the short distance from Kibune Guchi to Kurama, a distance of around 4.5 km that takes in ancient shrines and temples, a beautiful cedar forest and in my case, a lot of very heavy rain!
The hike starts out from Kibune Guchi station, following the mountain stream up hill to Kibune village itself. Many traditional villages like this are slowly dying, starved of any economic prospects and suffering from steady depopulation as the younger (and sometimes older) generations head to the cities in search of work. Kibune, however, benefits from its close proximity to Kyoto, the world’s second most visited city, and so retains its classic old-world charm, whilst offering work for the owners and staff of the several traditional inns and restaurants that line the main street. Especially popular in summer, many of these establishments have verandas that overhang the river, offering courting couples the most romantic of summer dinner spots!
At Kibune you will also find Kibune Shrine. As the rain began to fall I climbed the lantern-lined stone steps to the shrine at the top. Ironically enough this is the rain shrine, where for a thousand years people have gone to pray for more or less rain depending on their current predicament. I didn’t feel that the intermittent drops were worthy of my calling on the gods’ assistance so after snapping a few quick photographs I headed down to continue my hike onto Kurama Onsen.
The second stage of the hike is a steep climb up through the wooded slopes of Mt. Kurama. With huge cedar trees creating a dark canopy and vast systems of tangled roots on either side, the beginning of the climb feels like something out of a Miyazaki animation. The climb is quite demanding (especially when you have a schedule to keep as I did) and I was glad of the brief rest and opportunity to demist my glasses offered at Okuno-in Mao-Den, where the warrior Minamoto Yoshitsune completed his training with a Tengu goblin before joining the powerful Minamoto clan.
From here it is just over 700 metres to the main hall of Kurama-dera Temple, most of which is downhill. I was rewarded for my efforts with a beautiful temple, framed by stunning mountain scenery and a dramatic view down to the village of Kurama at the bottom of the mountain. This is a Japan I sometimes forget exists; one of mystery and beauty, away from the tourist throng that populates the more famous and easily accessible sights. I was reminded of Hase Dera in Nara prefecture which stands majestically on the side of a mountain as it has done for nearly a thousand years; Japan still has the power to amaze even nearly 12 years on from my first visit.
So enough of this hiking business and onto the serious issue at hand – the bath. My emergence from the grounds of Kurama-dera coincided with the onset of a torrential downpour. I was not, however, deterred from my mission in hand, a bath at Kurama Onsen which is located around 500 metres from the bottom of the temple entrance.
Kurama Onsen is not an ornate onsen with multiple baths, sauna, and health treatments and such like available. Rather it is a simple two pool affair, one inside and one outside. Here it is all about the view. I paid my 1100 yen (I have to say this is a little expensive) and an additional 400 for bath towel rental (bring your own if you can). The bath is located up a short slope at the side of the main Kurama Onsen ryokan building. The changing rooms are simple with baskets and large lockers available for a 100 yen deposit. I ventured outside for my shower, with a row of stools and shower faucets available to one side of the rotenburo, separated by a bamboo fence. This is quite an unusual arrangement so I wanted to take advantage. The view from the rotenburo is beautiful and is why people come to relax at Kurama Onsen. The steep, heavily forested slopes of Mt. Kurama rise up directly in front of the bath, a scene so similar to that depicted so delicately in countless Japanese scroll paintings. In late autumn the changing leaves must be truly spectacular but I imagine the number of visitors probably rises accordingly. To lie back in the smooth hot waters of this onsen whilst the rain fell heavily around me was a true pleasure and without question worth the soaking I received previously to get here.
Sadly, I could not sit back and enjoy the experience for long and after 25 minutes I dried of, pulled on my cold, wet t-shirt and jeans and headed for the free shuttle bus to Kurama Station provided by Kurama Onsen.
Kurama Onsen is a real treat. I did not have time to explore the small town but at first glance this appears to be a traditional town with a lot of charm. An overnight stay would have been great but Kurama definitely makes for a fabulous half day outing from Kyoto or Osaka. All in all, a great bath with which to conclude my bath-time adventures for this trip.