From shrine to temple

Figuring out where to go running in new places is kind of an art. You want to strike a balance between exploring a new, beautiful areas and getting hopelessly lost. My first score was an exceeding jetlaged run around Nijo Castle near my apartment right at sunset during my first evening in Kyoto. The shoguns of the Edo era seemed to look at me from across the moat as I tried to pound of the jetlag with the rhythm of my feet. 

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Nijo Castle at sunset.

Before I embarked on my long run on Saturday, I spent hours trawling the Strava global heat map. I was looking for trails, having spent my weekday mornings trotting around on the streets in downtown Kyoto. I soon had planned a route that I thought was reasonable, both distance and navigation-wise, and with a high probably for finding trails. I would link up Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine and Kiyomizudera temple.

To get to Fushimi Inari, I pounded the pavement along the Kamogawa river for a five kilometers. I had gotten up early to avoid the oppressive heat, and was rewarding with having this famous monument almost all to myself.

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Entering Fushimi Inari early on a Saturday morning. I think there were a lot more people here about three hours later...

It felt irreverent to run through the torii in the shrine, so I walked, enjoying the contemplative effect of the pathway of red arches. There were several small temples in the area, and I saw several people praying. It always feels so strange to watch these people, who clearly have a spiritual connection to something that I can’t fathom beyond enjoying the simple beauty of it. My spiritual connection is to movement through the mountains; I guess there are many people who can’t understand that. 

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Walkway of torri in Fushimi Inari.

After passing through the shrine, I picked up a trail (!) headed up to Inariyama, the small mountain behind Fushima Inari. I ran through tall bamboo forests, listening to the loud, almost musical buzz of what must have been thousands of insects in the forest around me. I passed a graveyard or two, tightly packed with mossy headstones and housing statues of animals like cats (guardians to fend of evil spirits?). The trail climbed steeply to the peak of the mountain, where it met up with a paved walkway traversing yet more torii. 

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Bamboo forest on the way up Inariyama

From the Inariyama, the route-finding grew more difficult. I would occasionally find signs for something called ‘Kyoto trail’, which was definitely going in the direction I wanted to, but more often than not a fork in the trail would be signed only in Japanese. Luckily I had installed offline topo maps on my phone and could check which direction I wanted to go. I was all alone now, weaving through the forest, and feeling blissful.

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I found trails, running distance from downtown Kyoto!

Eventually, my trails dump me out on a road, and I started to have to check my map more often. As I was waiting for a GPS fix, a Japanese man wearing a small backpack and lugged trail running shoes trotted passed. I’ll follow him! I decided, triumphantly. And so I did. He was keeping a steady pace, not too fast, and definitely going the right direction. I wonder if the guy thought is was weird I was following him, but I assumed the presence of a Caucasian twenty-somthing female behind you isn’t the most threatening.

This is such a cool adventure! I thought, as I rounded the top of another rolling climb and headed downhill, on trails once again. Maybe this trail goes all the way to…WHAM! I tripped on some rocks, obscured by leaves, and fell over, skinning both knees, one elbow and some fingers in the process. My silent guide, who was wearing headphones, didn’t see me fall and I lost him.

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I once thought only kids skinned their knees. In that case I will probably never grow up.

I dusted myself off, and decided my injuries were minor enough to continue. The trail dumped me onto the roads again, and soon enough I was lost again. I had just turned around after heading up a road that I decided was the wrong way when I saw my trail runner guide coming towards me. I smiled and waved, and he stopped to chat, assuming that I could speak Japanese. Which I can’t. Not past hello, thank you and please anyway. And he didn’t speak very much English. Still, I managed to communicate that I wanted to go to Kiyomizudera, and he motioned that he would show me the way. So there we were, two trail runners with no common language but one common goal, jogging along on a Saturday morning. Once reaching the home stretch, he waved goodbye and jogged off before I had a chance to do anything other than say thank you.

The kindness of the Japanese has thus far been unfailing. Last week, I purchased an expensive, three month train pass to get to the university. Of course, I managed to misplace it during my second train ride. I looked around the station frantically for 10 minutes, before almost bursting to tears when I realized that it might be gone for good. I decided to ask the ticket office if there was anything they could do about it. Imagine my joy when my train pass was at the ticket office, picked up by some kindly passenger and delivered to them!

Back on my run, I arrived at Kiyomizudera to weave my way through throngs of tourists and find the pavement home, where a leisurely breakfast awaited. I was sweaty, dusty, bloody, tired and utterly content with my little adventure.

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Three-story pagoda at Kiyomizudera.

Strava data here.

- The Wild Bazilchuk


  1. How cool to find trails. Do many other people run there?

    1. I only met two other runners, plus a couple of hikers. I don't know if there would be more people later in the day (I was out quite early), but I don't think many tourists make it up there even though these trails are just behind some of the most famous temples!

  2. I've never been to Japan, but I'd like to climb Mt. Fuji, even though I know it wouldn't be a wilderness experience. Sounds like you're making the most of your time there!

    1. You're in luck! I climbed Mt Fuji this weekend, a blog post is in the works!


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