Last Thursday I went to Kibune with friends of mine. Kibune is a tiny little village situated in the mountains north of Kyoto. Okay, it’s not really a village – there is not space enough for that. Essentially there is a mountain, then a river, a road, and another mountain. Along a rather short part of the river/road, maybe 4 kilometres, houses were built wherever they could fit – and there is not much space left for this.

Front entrance of Kifune shrineThe fact that there is not much space has led to the biggest attraction of Kibune: its kawadoko dining. From June to September, platforms are built over the river where people can sit and have lunch or dinner – always enjoying the natural air-conditioning of the cool water flowing right underneath their seats. Kibune can be as much as 5 degrees cooler than Kyoto, which makes it a welcome retreat for people plagued by the unbearable August heat. Riverside restaurants are expensive since most of them serve kaiseki – Japanese Haute Cuisine – but there are also a few on the other side of the road. There are also a couple of ryokan for people to stay overnight, but since the valley is not very wide, the river is very noisy in parts, and I wonder if you actually can get some rest there.

Kawadoko dining in KibuneThe other great attraction of the village is Kifune Shrine (yes, with an F for some reason). According to myth, it was founded in the early 5th century by the mother of the legendary first emperor Jinmu. She took a yellow boat (Ki-fune) up the river from Osaka, and where she landed, she founded a shrine. It is dedicated to the deity of water and rain, and since the 9th century, people have been worshipping Takaokami-no-kami exclusively as the god who could send rain or withhold it. To appeal to the deity, horses were offered to the shrine, black ones to make it rain, and white ones to stop it.

Statues of white and black horses at Kifune ShrineAnother, more grisly ritual connected with Kifune shrine is the legendary Ushi-no-toki-mairi. It started out as innocent worship at the shrine in the hour of the ox (between 1 and 3 am), but it changed into a practice to lay a curse on a person. Still done at the same hour, people were supposed to wear headgear with candles and drive nails into a nearby tree – preferably through a straw effigy of the person to be cursed. There are a number of legends dating back to the Kamakura period (1185–1333) and there is even a Noh-play dramatising the story of a scorned woman who, after heeding the advice received at Kifune shrine, turned into a demon to take revenge.

Back entrance of Kifune shrineEven if you don’t seek revenge on anyone, Kibune is worth a visit. The mountains are covered in cedars and cryptomerias, and they are so enormous, that there are places where they reach across both river and road to form a roof of leaves. At this time, the greens are lush and beautiful, but there are also maple trees, which must be a wonderful sight during koyo. It is a bit tough to get there though without a car. The Eizan railway has a stop at Kibune-guchi, and from there it is maybe a 30 minute walk uphill to the shrine. It is worth it though I think, especially in the off hours when there are not many people, the whole setting is very quiet and energising.


Uji is a small city between Kyoto and Nara with about 185.000 inhabitants. It lies on the Uji river, an important waterway of olden times, which one can travel up until Lake Biwa. The first settlement in Uji was established in the 4th century, and in the 7th century the first bridge across the river was built.

The town, with its mountains coming up to the river, was a popular destination for outings of the nobility that lived in Kyoto and served in the palace there. The last ten chapters of the most famous Japanese novel – the Genji Monogatari, which was written around 1000 CE – take place in Uji. Some people claim it was even written there when Murasaki Shikibu retreated to a monastery for a while, but then others dispute her having written those chapters altogether. There are at least two statues of Murasaki near the river, and a museum devoted entirely to the Genji Monogatari.Genji monogatari statue at Uji river.The most famous attraction of Uji, however, is Byodo-in temple. It was originally a villa, built in 998 by a high-ranking court official, but only some 50 years later it was turned into a Buddhist temple by his son. The main hall or Phoenix hall, is supposed to resemble the palace in the Land of Happiness. It is a bit hard to see in the photo below, but the building is essentially a T-shaped structure, where the left and right parts of the horizontal stroke represent the wings, and the vertical stroke the tail of a phoenix. Where the two strokes meet, the head of the bird is supposed to be, and there is placed a large statue of Amida Buddha.Byodo-in templeByodo-in was designated as UNESCO World Heritage in 1994, and an image of it is prominently featured on the 10 YEN coin. One of the phoenixes on the roof – national treasures, by the way – is depicted on the 10.000 YEN bill of Japan. There is a large museum in Byodo-in showing Buddhist art that was made for and used in the temple. Even if you don’t buy the extra ticked to get you into the main hall, you can still get a feeling for how it would look inside.Phoenix on the roof of Byodo-in templeOn crossing the river, there are the two main shrines of Uji, the Uji shrine at the bank of the river, and the Ujigami shrine a bit up the hill. Until the Meiji restoration, they were a unit, but now they are separate entities; and in 1994, Ujigami shrine was also registered as UNESCO World Heritage. Entrance of Ujigami shrine

Both the prayer hall of the shrine – the image right below – as well as the main hall are Japanese national treasures. Ujigami shrine, built around 1060 as a guardian shrine to Byodo-in temple, is the oldest original shinto shrine in Japan, quite a feat in a country where many so-called ancient buildings have burnt down and were rebuilt several times.Prayer hall of Ujigami Shrine

Another thing Uji is famous for its green tea. It is one of the first places of Japan where matcha green tea was cultivated, and from the 12th century until today, the quality is excellent. On the road from Uji station to Byodo-in temple, there are numerous shops that sell anything tea related, be it ever so vaguely: matcha chocolate and cookies, matcha Baumkuchen and soba,… but also utensils for Japanese tea ceremony, and cups and beakers. There are numerous different types of green tea, of course, from the cheap daily varieties to the expensive ones served only at tea ceremonies on special occasions. But, this is a topic for another time…