One of the wonderful things about living in Kansai is that so many facets of Japanese life can be experienced in this region and it’s all as close as a train trip. Indeed, just when you think you have seen much of what the area has to offer, you discover something new. Such was the case when Jules read an article that talked about a unique summer dining experience to be found in the mountains just outside of Kyoto. She had heard about the seasonal construction of small wooden platforms over the fast flowing streams that run from Mt. Kurama. Here diners enjoy traditional Japanese meals amongst scenic surroundings in a picnic-like manner. The notion of getting out of the hot city and into a mountain forest to eat local foods had all the elements to attract us, so it wasn’t too long before we were on our way. Yet, as we discovered, the area would have even more to offer than purely a dining experience.
While Mt Kurama is only around 30 minutes outside of Kyoto, it took us just over 90 minutes to get there by train from Osaka. However, when we arrived and with sunlight filtering through the towering trees, we knew instantly that it was going to be a worthwhile trip. It was such an idyllic spot and with a fast flowing stream leading the way, we began the short walk uphill to the little town of Kibune where our unique lunch experience would be waiting.
There was certainly no shortage of choice, with quite a few restaurants offering what is known as ‘Kawadoko’ dining during the summer months. After selecting a suitable spot, we were guided down to a series of small cascading waterfalls where tatami covered platforms spanned from one bank to the other. As is tradition, we removed our shoes and sat on pillows at low dining tables, which further added to the ambience of the setting. As Jules and I enjoyed our meal, we couldn’t help but be amazed by this idyllic location and particularly with this unique way of appreciating it. Although the bamboo structures were entirely temporary, they were constructed with a very stylish sense of tradition. We were not at all surprised that the mountainous spot was also popular with locals, who would often wear their finest kimonos for this rare dining experience.
It would be quite easy to spend the day enjoying the mottled sunlight, while sitting above a babbling stream, but such is the popularity of Kawadoko dining that each table has a prescribed time limit and eventually it was time for us to leave. We were now suitably relaxed and fueled to tackle yet another of Jules internet discoveries; the hiking trail from Kibune to the nearby town of Kurama. She had read that this 4.5 kilometre trek was quite a spiritual one and included several significant temples and numerous vantage points along the way. However, what we were about to discover was that this trail would provide us with one of most enjoyable mountain walks that we have ever experienced.
Armed with a wooden walking stick provided by the lady who manned the entrance gate, we began to tackle the steep upward climb. On the way we encountered several small yet beautifully proportioned Buddhist shrines that were nestled amongst the forest. Here towering cedar trees spread their gnarled roots across the forest floor, providing an unearthly landscape reminiscent of ‘Lord of the Rings’. Upon reaching the summit, the rugged trail gradually gave way to more formal stone paths, each lined with hundreds of traditional orange lanterns. You could imagine that these would look quite amazing set aglow in the evening, particularly against the mysterious forest backdrop. On the downhill stage of the trek, we viewed the impressive Kurama Temple, with its grand scale and colourful decoration. This is the location for several significant Buddhist festivals and ceremonies held throughout the year, but it also provides a wonderful scenic outlook over the valley below.
It had taken us the best part of two hours to walk the forest path and although Jules and I knew that we would both be sore tomorrow, we had thoroughly enjoyed our Mt Kurama odyssey. Of course, we could have done the trek first and then sat down to enjoy our meal over the falling waters of Kibune, as many tend to do. However, looking at the rain clouds forming overhead, we felt that this time we had got it right. Besides, we somehow suspected that it might not have been possible for us to get up again once we had settled into our platform dining positions, had we done the whole thing in reverse!