There are two key geographical features of Kyoto, which you can’t miss. The first are the mountains. Kyoto is surrounded on all sides, nestled in a bowl of mountain ranges on all four sides. They provide a beautiful backdrop to the city, and in the evenings the sun squeezing through the peaks paints the sky an assortment of gorgeous oranges, pinks and purples.
The others are the rivers. Running right through the Eastern part of the city is the wide Kamagawa river, the green banks an inviting space for picnics, long strolls, musicians and cyclists. Almost every day, be it to take a break from the job search and writing, or simply as a means to walk wherever I’m going, I find myself walking along the banks of these blue waters.
Over the last week or two, I’ve stayed in a string of hostels all positioned vaguely near the Imperial Palace Gardens, and along a road which crosses the river on a particularly nice bridge. Standing on the bridge and looking north, there’s an unbroken line of river all the way to the distant mountain range.
A thought started to form. At first it was an idle fantasy, then slowly it became a goal and then a plan. I was going to walk along the river to those mountains.
I looked at the weather and set a date. I put on thick socks, comfortable shorts and t-shirts, and a hat to block the sun. I packed my backpack; sandwiches, fruit, snacks, drinks. I let a week of podcasts build up on my phone.
I awoke early, ate my breakfast, and got ready to go.
Walking along the river was as relaxing as ever. Here and there couples were strolling together or children playing. A particular highlight, as ever, was crossing via the stepping stones of big rocks.
Eventually, I came to a split, where two streams meet and form the river. I followed one to the right, coming across some paths leading up into the mountains.
I visited a pair of temples, both combining ornate decoration, historical artefacts and pristine gardens. They were also wonderfully calm and quiet, far enough from the city centre to avoid the tourists.
I followed the path up, past a particularly large and modern temple, through the woods and into the Kyoto trail proper. I moved away from civilisation and properly into the woods. Sometimes the pathway was clear, at other times it was a vague direction through the undergrowth. I times I had to use my hands to clamber over rocks, or take a run-up and bounce left and right on the slopes to avoid walking in mud or streams.
At one point, I was feeling good about maintaining my footing on some awkward terrain when someone came hurtling past me on a mountain bike. I can’t lie, I was bloody impressed.
The path eventually wound back down to the stream, which I followed to the base of the large Mount Hiei. I could see the water falling powerfully from the mountain, and a path to one side which would take me up.
It was a long climb, often little more than a dirt track through the trees. Sometimes it was difficult to tell deliberate stairways apart from roots criss-crossing the slope. I was rewarded for my efforts: fields of flowers, views of the cities and mountains stretching for miles, solitude from anyone and everyone.
I passed the cable cars and ropeways which one might have used if one were a cheat, and eventually I found my way to the top. It was a little too late to visit the flower garden or to take a bus back home, but I arrived in time for the sun to set and the cities below me to light up.
I felt as though I were adrift in space. The stars floated above and below me. It was silent and I was all alone. It was beautiful and peaceful and after the long climb to get there it felt like I’d earned it. My playlist of podcasts came to its end just as I reached the top and I was able to savour being right on top of the world.
Eventually I came back to my senses and realised it was night time. And I was alone, at the top of a mountain, a long way from home.