Climbing Mt. Atago (924m) in Kyoto: Via Kuya Falls and Tsukinowa Temple to Atago Shrine

Last weekend, as the person in charge of the monthly meeting for our mountain climbing club, I climbed Mt. Atago in Kyoto. It was my first return to Mt. Atago in 10 years. On January 3rd, a decade ago, the mountain was covered in snow, and I enjoyed the winter scenery while wearing light crampons, which were unfamiliar to me at the time. This visit, however, only had sporadic snow near the summit, making even chain spikes unnecessary. Although I was looking forward to enjoying Mt. Atago in the snow, it was slightly disappointing. 
Still, after such a long time, Kyoto remains a truly wonderful place.
We gathered at Arashiyama at 8am., and at this hour, there were hardly any tourists, making the area in front of the station quiet and sparsely populated. 

When we arrived at the station, lamps were still lit, creating an atmosphere reminiscent of Arashiyama, though I'm not sure if they're on all day. From the station, we took a bus to Kiyotaki, arriving at the Kiyotaki trailhead in about 20 minutes. The parking lot already had a considerable number of cars parked. This time, instead of the Omotesando (main approach), we're taking the back approach to first head towards Kuya fall.
Kuya Falls is a waterfall associated with Kuya Shonin, a Buddhist monk from the Heian period known for his ascetic practices there. Many might be familiar with the statue of Kuya Shonin housed at Rokuharamitsu-ji, a designated Important Cultural Property, which is a striking sculpture indeed. The figure is depicted with six Amida Nyorai (Amitabha Buddhas) emerging from his mouth, representing him chanting "Namu Amida Butsu" ("I take refuge in Amida Buddha") as he walks. There's a secret dance called "Kuya’s Joyful Dancing Nenbutsu," where the chanting of the Nenbutsu is accompanied by dance. This practice became popular in Kyoto, spreading throughout Japan and significantly influencing its performing arts culture.
As we passed the solemn Kuya Falls, the path became increasingly steep. Battling the added weight from overindulgence during the New Year's festivities, we pressed on, finding encouragement in a sign that read, "Though it be tough, endure and climb, everyone. If you wish to meet the great master, you must persevere." Continuing with perseverance, we finally arrived at Tsukinowa Temple.

Tsukinowa Temple (Tsukinowadera) is known as a training ground for Kuya Shonin and Honen Shonin, housing many Important Cultural Property statues of Bodhisattvas. The 77-year-old head priest shared the difficulties of water shortage, making me realize the challenge of maintaining a temple accessible only by foot. We requested here to receive water and snacks, and we talked about each carrying water for the temple on our next visit.
Captivated by the head priest's stories, we left without touring the temple, only to discover later that Tsukinowa Temple also houses a statue of Kuya Shonin. A revisit during the flower season is a must.

Continuing our climb from Tsukinowa Temple, we finally reached a spot overlooking the city. Despite the cloudy skies, the sunlight filtering through the clouds over Kyoto was beautiful.
Upon reaching the summit of Mt. Atago, the first thing we did was visit Atago Shrine. This shrine is the head shrine of over 900 Atago shrines across Japan, known as the deity of fire prevention. After purchasing a talisman, we partook in sacred sake at the shrine. The sake, Shinsei from Fushimi, was crisp and delicious, warming our chilled bodies wonderfully. Truly grateful (^^).
Many of the Atago Shrines across Japan enshrine Kagutsuchi-no-Mikoto or Izanami-no-Mikoto as their deities. Kagutsuchi, the god of fire, also known as Homusubi, was born to Izanami and Izanagi. His birth is said to have resulted in the death of his mother, Izanami, by burning, leading him to be referred to as "Atago" (仇子), meaning "enemy child," which is believed to be the origin of the name "Atago." This theory is mentioned by Motoori Norinaga in his "Kojiki-den" (Commentaries on the Kojiki).
On our descent, we were slightly caught in the rain, making the path slippery, but we safely arrived at Hozukyo Station. Then, taking the JR train to Kyoto Station, seeing Kyoto Tower after such a long time felt surprisingly impressive, as if it had grown. I remembered there was a public bath in the basement of Kyoto Tower, and it was quite surprising to find a bathhouse beneath such a central tower. I had used it after a mountain trip before, but sadly, it had closed down due to a decrease in patrons caused by the covid-19 pandemic. 

Kyoto now faces the issue of overtourism, but I hope it continues to preserve its traditional, charming atmosphere.
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