Kyoto’s Hidden Mountain Temples

Surrounded by mountains on three sides, Kyoto is perfectly situated to escape into the wilderness. The city itself is small and you’re never too far from lush green hills, hiking trails and my personal favourite: hidden mountain temples.

Sitting amidst the backdrop of Mount Takao, Kosan-ji temple is truly a hidden treasure. Not so easily accessible, perhaps the geographical remoteness of the location ensures that Kosan-ji remains hidden from most. The crimson leaves of Mount Takao are famous in Kyoto as an autumnal sightseeing spot, yet the 30-40minute drive (there are buses that run from central Kyoto) can be off-putting for some. As soon as you arrive, stepping into the rural setting and breathing in the sweet smell of cedars and the crisp, fresh air, you’ll soon forget about the slightly time-consuming journey (one that actually is no longer than getting to Arashiyama from the central area of the city).

Although Kosan-ji is the least known of Mount Takao’s mountain temples it’s by far my favourite. Small and quiet with zen-like charm oozing from every corner. It’s tranquil garden and open walls are more than amenable for an hour of relaxation. The joy of Kosanji is not what you see or do, it’s what you don’t. Pure unadulterated repose, ideal to wash away any tension and anxiety whilst surrounded by glorious mountains and the sound of a trickling stream in the distance. I particularly enjoy visiting after following one of Mount Takao’s trails to really complete a day of detoxifying from city life.

Next up is perhaps my favourite temple complex to have visited in Kyoto so far. A bold claim, but the peaceful setting and natural connection left me totally awestruck. Yoshimine-dera, appearing to cling to the side of one of Kyoto’s south-western mountains, it’s ascending steps leading to separate stages, each secreting another sacred site. Trellises of Japanese pine meander alongside stone pathways and obscure from sight the upcoming architectural and natural treasures each corner offers up; the welcome surprise of a new view and temple building, to be gazed upon lovingly.

One of the reasons that I fell in love with Yoshimine-dera is the light. Bathed in a warmth that clings to every tile, every leaf; reflecting from ponds and casting shadows just-so. The air too. Thick and clean, humid but crisp, unblemished from cars and city life. Similarly to Kosan-ji, the drive to Yoshimine-dera takes around 40minutes from central Kyoto, but the stillness and solitude more than makes up for the extra effort it takes to get there.

Give me a mountain temple over everything else any day. I admit that Kyoto’s main temple attractions are famous for a reason, but to me these lesser known places are so much more beautiful because they’re unspoiled by excitable tourists. If there’s one thing you do on your Kyoto trip, ditch the guidebook for a day and venture into the unknown with one of these holy sanctuaries. I promise you won’t regret it.