Date: 20th November 2017
I was up early on this day in hopes to hike the Kibune-Kurama trail. Unfortunately, upon arriving Kibune, I discovered that the hiking trail to Kurama was closed due to fallen trees. So after visiting Kibune, I walked back to the train station (since the buses do not operate this early in the morning) and took the train to Kurama-dera.
Kurama-dera (鞍馬寺) is a temple built in 770 on Mount Kurama in Northern Kyoto. It was originally part of the Tendai sect. of Buddhism and was also a sub-temple of Shoren-in. Gancho, the disciple of Ganjin / Jianzhen (the Chinese monk famous for spreading Buddhism in Japan – read my post on Toshodai-ji, the temple he founded) who was at Toshodai-ji had a dream in which he was told to head to the north where there was an amass of spiritual energy, also said to be the home of Tengu (legendary creatures often depicted in Japanese folktales with long nose or a beak).
Thus, Gancho headed to the north, but only to get lost on his way. The God Kibune Myojin appeared in his dream and asked that he look upon the sky in the east the following morning. Gancho did as he was told and was astonished at the sight of a white horse with an empty saddle which he followed until he arrived at the mountain which was later to be called Mount Kurama. Note that the kanji characters for Kurama are saddle and horse.
Gancho settled at the mountain but soon encountered a female demon who wanted to devour him. He managed to brushed the demon off and went into a hallowed tree, where he prayed for salvation. Bishamonten, one of the Four Heavenly Kings and the Guardian of the North answered his prayers and exterminated the demon. Gancho built a small hermitage there to worship Bishamonten in gratitude towards the Heavenly King. In 796, Fujiwara Issendo contributed to the building a proper temple on Mt Kurama upon witnessing an image of the Senju Kannon (Thousand-Armed Kannon).
Kurama-dera is heavily associated with Minamoto no Yoshitsune (brother of Minamoto no Yoritomo, founder of the Kamakura shogunate), the famous samurai known for his accomplishments in the Genpei War which helped Yoritomo to topple the Taira clan. Yoshitsune once lived in Kurama-dera by the orders of the Taira clan who hoped that he would live as a monk instead of a samurai. However, Yoshitsune often snuck away into the mountain forest and was trained in swordsmanship by Sojobo, the Tengu lord.
In 1947, Abbot Shigaraki Koun founded the Kurama-kokyo of Buddhism with Kurama-dera serving as its headquarters. The temple became independent of the Tendai sect. in 1949. Over the years, the temple has suffered multiple fires but the treasures have always been saved.
Walking up the steps to the Niomon gate, I was fascinated by these tiger-like sculptures, the A-Un no Tora (A-Un Tigers). Legend has it that Bishamonten descended on Kurama with a tiger in the Hour of the Tiger, on the Day of the Tiger, within the Month of the Tiger (as per the Chinese Lunar Calendar).
Since the original plan was to hike from Kibune to Kurama, we were supposed to take the cable car downhill. But since that has changed, we took the cable car up instead and hiked down. From the upper cable car station, we walked up to the Kondo (main hall) which took 20-30 minutes (including stopping a lot for pictures). Note that it should only take 30-45 minutes to hike up without taking the cable car.
Along the pathway towards the Kondo, there were other smaller shrines.
Kurama-dera is also known for its autumn foliage, which was beautiful on this day, despite the wet weather.
The Kondo worships Sonten, a trinity comprising of Mao-son, Bishamonten and Senju Kannon. Mao-son represents Power, Bishamonten represents the Sun, while the Senju Kannon represents Love. It is also built on Ryu-ketsu (dragon hole), which is said to be a place concentrated with divine energy.
As I mentioned earlier, the hiking trail between Kurama and Kibune was closed, and so the Mao-den Inner Sanctuary located along the trail is also inaccessible on this day. So after visiting the main hall, we walked down.
We then came upon Yuki Shrine, built in 940, famous for the Kurama no Hi Matsuri (Kurama Fire Festival).
My favorite part of this shrine is the 800 years old cedar tree which was soaring to the sky.
Opening Hours: 09:00 – 16:30
Admission fee: 300 yen
Cable car ticket: 200 yen (one-way)
Kurama Station is about 40 minutes to 1 hour away from Central Kyoto. From Demachiyanagi Station, it takes 30 minutes and 420 yen to reach Kurama Station on the Eizan Main Line. Demachiyanagi Station is accessible via the Keihan Main Line. As an example, from Gion-Shijo station, it takes only 5 minutes. For those who wants to take the bus to Demachiyanagi Station, here is a list of buses connected to the station.