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Sunday, March 13, 2011

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High times: Dining kawadoko-style over moving water — here, the rushing Kibune River — is a restful way to eat and a great way to stay cool in summer. MANDY BARTOK PHOTOS

Hiking on Kyoto's doorstep


By MANDY BARTOK
Special to The Japan Times

The Eizan Electric Railway serves a sparsely traveled route — or so I infer from the dinky two-carriage train we board shortly before it lurches out of the terminus at Demachiyanagi Station in Kyoto heading for the mountains on the city's northeastern outskirts.

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A small shrine and the veinlike roots of towering cedars at the top of the hill between Kurama and Kibune.

Certainly, there are a fair number of travelers packed into the few seats, but considering the cloudless autumn day it is when my friend Andria and I hop aboard, the number of folk is surprisingly — and refreshingly — few.

Prior to that, we had spent several days touring the usual circuit of Kyoto hotspots, but the multitude of visitors swarming the shrines and temples and museums was beginning to grate. So a trip to the mountains to stretch our legs seems the perfect antidote and, on the advice of some locals, we aim to tackle a popular hiking route between the tiny rural hamlets of Kurama and Kibune, a quick half-hour railroad ride from Demachiyanagi.

Kurama is one of the region's better-known leaf-peeping destinations, though the trees surrounding the tiny town carry only a hint of color early in the season when we make our visit. We're momentarily tempted by the complementary shuttle bus waiting outside to take people to the nearby Kurama Onsen, but decide to save that hot-spring treat for another, colder day.

Tengu (long-nosed monster spirits of the mountains and forests) guard Kurama's gift shops, peering out at us from tins, cookies and keychain racks as we saunter up the narrow main street to the lower gate of Kurama Temple, an imposing structure that heralds the start of a hiking course up and over the wooded hills.

One glance at the steep gradient makes me want to cheat and head for the nearby cable car — a muscle-saver that transports hikers at least halfway up the mountain — but we dig in our heels and tackle the uphill challenge.

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Steps on the route between the two villages

There's no respite, as the initial hill gives way to staircase after stone staircase laid into the mountainside, and we soon break a sweat despite the cool air. On the way up, I make the excuse to stop at the Yuki Shrine, where, every October, villagers and visitors alike gather to celebrate the Fire Festival with the lighting of bonfires and more than 250 pine torches.

Today, the only flames around are the ones burning in my stiffening calves and thighs and, after a cursory tour through the shrine buildings, I hurry to catch up with long-legged Andria as she lopes up the mountain with seeming ease.

Promptly at 11 a.m., drumbeats from somewhere beyond our view cut across our quiet conversation; as the rhythm ceases, a glance up the path reveals the bright vermillion and snow-colored beams of the temple's main hall. The grounds are extensive and blessedly so, as both cable-car users and wheezing hikers converge on the precincts to rest, snack and pray.

Most of the mountain's visitors stop here, content with their packed-lunch picnics and the sweeping views. The thought of lunch in Kibune urges us on, however, and availing ourselves of the free hiking sticks proffered behind the shrine, we continue on — the crest of the hill foremost in our minds if not yet fully in front of our eyes.

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Tengu keychains and mobile-phone decorations on sale in Kurama

Luckily, our persistence is soon rewarded, and within 15 minutes what we assume to be the mountain's zenith comes into view. Rather than a summit marked by panoramas of the surrounding region, though, a change in topography announces the start of our descent.

Gone are the solid steps that have turned my calves into fire, replaced by a vein-like network of gnarled cedar roots that covers the path like a fisherman's net. We pick our way carefully across the knotty landscape, stopping here and there to pose for photos next to particularly quirky trunks. Benches are well-placed for those who care to linger in these intriguing environs, but my stomach loudly reminds us that it's time to press on.

Our knees are shaking slightly with the fatigue of the lengthy descent by the time we hit the town of Kibune, a one-street community nestled in a cut in the mountains that jams with daytrippers on summer and autumn weekends. It's again our good fortune, though, that the crowds are surprisingly light as we make our way up through the photogenic village, past high-end ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) with perfectly raked gardens and welcoming front halls.

To the right of the single lane, nearly every local establishment boasts its own piece of riverfront dining; in summer months, bamboo platforms are constructed across the babbling Kibune River and customers dine kawadoko- style, with the cooling rush of the water beneath their cushioned seats.

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A demonstration of the grab 'n' slurp technique at the Hirobun restaurant in Kibune.

Menu boards promising kaiseki (tasting-menu) meals with fresh mountain vegetables and various fish dishes lure us closer for several second looks, but our lunch destination had been decided pre-hike.

At the end of the road, we commit our hunger to the cooks at the unassuming establishment of Hirobun. While one half of the restaurant prepares exquisite lunch and dinner sets typical of its Kibune competitors, the other side offers fresh nagashi somen — thin wheat noodles that are delivered to your table via a half-bamboo bough along which water flows.

Eager to try this fascinating dining experience, we pay up, climb down to the riverside and take our seats there beside the bamboo water chute. Imagining our lunch portions shooting along at shinkansen speed through greased bamboo tubes, we position ourselves firmly on the sturdy wooden platform and wait — chopsticks poised — for the first bite of our meal to arrive.

Though the mouthfuls of noodles aren't as difficult to trap as we had feared, hilarity soon ensues as the portions slide by in quick succession. Indeed, I dread to think about the quantity of noodles the staff collects at day's end from diners who aren't quick enough on the draw.

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Fast food: At Hirobun diners have to snare their fresh nagashi somen (cold, thin wheat noodles) with chopsticks by the mouthful as they are carried along by a stream of fresh water running down a half-pipe of bamboo. Though lots of noodles escape, it's all great good fun.

So, as nimbly as we can, we scoop up each portion before it escapes, mixing the cold strands with the accompanying concoction of soy sauce, wasabi and soft-boiled egg. The kaiseki diners across the water from us may be more relaxed over their meals, but there's no doubt as to which side is having more fun.

But then a handful of red-colored noodles slithering down the waterway signifies the end of our engaging mealtime and we vacate our seats in front of the trough for the next pair of customers with dexterous chopstick skills.

The speed of the meal has left us feeling stuffed, so we opt against the local bus and choose the scenic pedestrian route down to Kibune's tiny train station. Our feet soon remind us of our pre-lunch endeavor, but we're content to take our time and soak in the relative solitude and fresh mountain air.

The train will come soon enough to carry us back to Kyoto, but for now, there's no need to rush a perfect day away from it all.

Kurama and Kibune are both served by the Eizan Electric Railway that leaves from Demachiyanagi Station in northeastern Kyoto (each ¥410 one way; around 30 minutes). There is a ¥200 fee for the mountain hiking course, which is payable at either end of the trail. Hiking sticks are also available for use free of charge. Hirobun serves "nagashi somen" cold wheat noodles on its riverfront platform from the beginning of June until the end of September (¥1,200).


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