While most visitors make their way to Kyoto to take in the rich history of the ancient capital of Japan, nature lovers come for the hiking trails – both well-trodden and off-the-beaten-path – that snake across Kyoto Prefecture.
Forested paths wind through the stunning mountain ranges that surround Kyoto on three sides, providing opportunities for a soothing and renewing day trip. Though the list of hikes in the region is limitless, the following trails provide some of the most spectacular views in the prefecture.
1. Takao-to-Hozukyō riverside hike
Best hike for picnicking
11km (7 miles) one way, 4–6 hours, easy to moderate
This enjoyable walk combines atmospheric temples, a charming river and an atmospheric waterfall, making for a thoroughly enchanting day out. To access the trail, take a bus towards Takao and alight at Yamashirotakao, then head down to the river via a set of steps marked with a sign saying “Hiking Course.” Before you set off on the hike itself, it’s worth stopping by Saimyō-ji and Jingo-ji; both temples have beautiful grounds to explore and are far less busy than temples in the city center.
When you’re ready, follow the trail along the banks of the Kiyotaki River. It’s a pleasant route that meanders beside emerald waters through a valley surrounded by forested mountains. About halfway along, you’ll come across an area with wide gravel banks and picnic tables that makes for an ideal lunch spot.
Having fueled up, you can take a detour to the Kuya-no-Taki waterfall. Hidden deep in the forest, this is an especially atmospheric part of the hike that takes you past abandoned shrine buildings and through a torii (gate) to reach a tinkling, mossy cascade.
Back on the main path, head down to Kiyotaki village, and you’ll pass the entrance to the trail that leads up Mt Atago. Continue to follow the river, across bridges and through tunnels, until you join the road that takes you to Hozukyō Station; from here, it’s a 20-minute train ride back to Kyoto Station.
2. Fushimi Inari pilgrimage circuit
Best hike for mesmerizing photos
5km (3 miles) round trip, 3 hours, easy to moderate
One of Kyoto’s most iconic sites, the ancient shrine of Fushimi Inari-Taisha lies at the southern end of the city. It’s the most revered of thousands of shrines around Japan dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice. Foxes are thought to be Inari’s messengers, which explains the many fox statues scattered across the shrine grounds.
The shrine is famous for the 10,000 vermilion torii that form tunnels snaking around the 233m (765ft) Mt Inari. Most tourists walk through the first 100m (330ft) of gates, take their Instagram shots, then turn around and head to the surrounding souvenir shops before making their way to the next sightseeing spot. Yet the best way to get the full Fushimi Inari experience is to hike the whole way around the peak, soaking up the unique atmosphere as you circumnavigate the mountain.
The route begins behind the shrine’s main buildings and winds up the mountain’s wooded slopes. Shrines, shops and eateries dot the trail: pick up a souvenir and refuel with a bowl of kitsune udon (thick noodles in a broth with sweet fried tofu) and a cone of matcha green tea ice cream. Once you’ve completed the circuit, reward yourself with a tipple in the nearby Fushimi sake district, where around 40 sake breweries nestle in a preserved historic townscape from the end of the Edo Period (1603–1868).
3. Mt Daimonji climb
Best hike for panoramic views
1.5km (0.9 miles) round trip, 1 hour, moderate
The Daimonji hike is short and sweet, leading you to one of the best viewpoints over Kyoto. Beginning and ending at the “silver temple” of Ginkaku-ji in Northern Higashiyama, the hike involves a steep 220m (722ft) ascent from the main gate of Ginkaku-ji to a hilltop viewpoint looking out over the city.
To find the trail, turn left before entering Ginkaku-ji and walk for about a minute until you see a stone torii; turn right just before it and walk up the road for two minutes until you reach a small shrine. Turn right at this shrine and make your way up the hill to begin the hike.
After a bridge crossing, several flights of log steps, a climb up a gentle scree slope and three flights of concrete stairs, you will have broken the back of the climb. The final stage is an easy walk up one last set of steps to reach the Daimonji viewpoint, with a breathtaking view of Kyoto city stretching out to your right.
If you’re in the mood for an extra workout, you can continue uphill for another 20 minutes to reach the true summit of Mt Daimonji – but this is not essential if you came here mainly to see the spectacular views over the city.
4. Daigo-ji trail
Best hike for atmosphere
5km (3 miles) round trip, 2–3 hours, easy to moderate
World Heritage-listed Daigo-ji is one of the key temples for the Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism. Located southeast of central Kyoto, the temple complex spreads up the slopes of Daigoyama mountain. The main temple grounds are located at the base of the mountain; a scenic hiking trail connects to another cluster of temple buildings at the summit.
Picturesque in all seasons, Daigo-ji is particularly stunning in fall and spring. A steep, calf-crunching forest path leads to the top of the mountain, past a built waterfall feature at Shimo Daigo (Lower Daigo).
You’ll find a gentle stream of pilgrims and tourists climbing through bamboo groves to the original buildings at the summit, also known as Kami Daigo (Upper Daigo). From the top, you can soak up spectacular views to the south toward Nara and Osaka.
5. Mt Hiei climb
Best hike for immersing yourself in nature
8km (5 miles) round trip, 4–6 hours, challenging but accessible
Sacred Mt Hiei straddles the border between the Kyoto and Shiga prefectures northeast of Kyoto city. Its 848m (2782ft) summit is home to the handsome Enryaku-ji, a sprawling temple complex that serves as the headquarters of the Tendai sect of Buddhism in Japan. It’s also famous as the home of the “marathon monks,” who attempt to achieve enlightenment through a grueling 1000-day running ritual known as sennichi kaihōgyō.
While cable cars can whisk you to the top, following in the monks’ footsteps and hiking up is the best way to fully appreciate Mt Hiei’s beauty. You can follow a number of trails: one of the most enjoyable and easily accessible starts about a 15-minute walk from Shūgakuin Station on the Eizan line.
The start of the trail is steep and narrow, and you’ll find yourself scrambling over uneven rocks and under low-hanging tree branches. Further up, the path becomes clearer and leads you through a forest of towering cedar trees with handy steps built into the mountainside to help you reach the peak.
You can make the climb all year round, although you’ll need appropriate cold-weather hiking gear if climbing during the winter when ice and snow cover the summit. Allow yourself extra time to explore Enryaku-ji’s buildings and admire the views once you make it to the top.
6. Kibune-to-Kurama walk
Best hike for picturesque surroundings
5km (3 miles) one way, 2–3 hours, easy
Just half an hour north of downtown Kyoto on the Eizan train line, Kibune feels a world away from the city. One of the most accessible half-day hikes in the prefecture, the Kibune-to-Kurama route offers up picturesque shrines, mountain temples, gushing rivers, lush forests and tranquil villages.
Starting at Kibune-guchi Station, take a 2km (1.2 mile) walk along the river to Kifune Shrine. Here, you’ll find an iconic stone staircase lined on each side with red wooden lanterns that leads up to Kifune Shrine’s main hall.
Not far from the stairway, a small vermilion bridge takes you across the Kibune River and launches you on your path across the slopes of Mt Kurama. A relatively easy trek, the path from Kibune to the village of Kurama is dotted with religious shrines and natural wonders such as Kinone-sando, literally “tree root path”: an area of rugged terrain where cedar roots have forced themselves up out of the ground in a striking display of nature’s force.
Toward the end of the trail, you’ll reach a temple, Kurama-dera, and after strolling through the guardian gate known as Nio-mon, you’ll arrive at the quaint township of Kurama, lined with traditional Japanese wooden houses known as nagaya.
A five-minute walk south along this peaceful street is Kurama Onsen, whose hot spring waters are rich in hydrogen sulfide and bubbling with minerals and are renowned for their skin-rejuvenating effects. Bathing in these waters post-hike while gazing out at the scenic mountain landscape is the perfect end to a day spent on this enchanting trail.
7. Mt Atago climb
Best hike for a workout
4km (2.5 miles) round trip, 4–6 hours, challenging but accessible
The only way to reach the 924m (3032ft) summit of Kyoto’s highest mountain is on foot. Located northwest of the city, Mt Atago is open for hiking year-round (though conditions in winter can be daunting).
Start from the Kiyotaki bus stop and head northwest down the road and across a bridge. The trailhead is a five-minute walk through peaceful Kiyotaki village, marked by a red torii. From there, the trail snakes its way for roughly 4km (2.5 miles) up the mountainside. While the route is well-marked and easy to follow, it does involve climbing a seemingly endless number of stairs. Just before the highest point, you’ll find a wide-open area with benches scattered around where you can rest and refuel while admiring the views over Kyoto.
At the summit sits the small Atago Shrine, which is believed to offer protection against fire-related disasters; it’s free to enter. Expect to see many parents visiting with young kids in tow, as visiting before the age of three is said to grant lifelong protection from fire.