In ages past, well-traveled roads were vital arteries that connected Japanese cities and regions. One of these key paths was the Sasayama Kaido, a highway that ran through the mountains west of Kyoto City beginning in the Heian Period (8th to 12th centuries). Once a rugged wilderness, the area is now filled with idyllic farming towns, castle ruins, and beautiful natural scenery. Let’s discover some enjoyable sites that can be visited as part of a single or multi-day trip down Kyoto’s historic Sasayama Kaido.
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A Historically Vital Road
In a land of numerous impassable mountain ranges, well-maintained highways called kaido played an important role in Japanese history. For centuries, a variety of travelers mingled on these well-maintained networks: merchants carrying goods in carts, pilgrims visiting temples on foot, and samurai traveling on war horses. At regular intervals along the major routes, post towns were established to offer refreshment and lodging to travelers. Perhaps second only to the famous roads of the Roman empire, the highways of historic Japan stand out as one of the world’s most impressive road networks.
The Sasayama Kaido was one of these essential passages. It linked the imperial capital of Kyoto to the rich waters of the northern coast in today’s prefectures of Tottori and Shimane. It’s actually a 60 kilometer detour of a larger highway, but it gained prominence for passing through several key locations as it funneled travelers in and out of the politically and economically important Kyoto region.
Starting out from Kameoka
The eastern point of the Sasayama Kaido lies in Kameoka, a rural community just over the mountains from Kyoto City. This region was long considered the “doorway to Kyoto,” but today is acclaimed for its agricultural output. The fertile basin of Kameoka is a major producer of famous kyo yasai (Kyoto vegetables) like turnips and cabbage.
At only 25 minutes from JR Kyoto Station by rapid train, Kameoka is a perfect spot to start a Sasayama Kaido adventure. In the feudal era, the town was home to a castle ruled by the famous samurai Mitsuhide Akechi, the mighty stone walls of which can still be seen today not far from JR Kameoka Station.
The Sasayama Kaido is paved road like any other nowadays. It can be walked on foot like travelers in centuries past, but bus stops are located at various spots along the road. Some buses run infrequently, so pick up a bus map and schedule at the tourism information center at JR Kameoka Station before heading out. Note that the locations highlighted in this article may be difficult to visit all in one day, but there is enough to see on the old road and some great accommodations so a multiday visit is a great idea.
The first stop as Sasayama Kaido stretches westward is Anao-ji Temple, located not far outside of downtown Kameoka. Founded in 705, the temple has a long history as part of a popular pilgrimage circuit focused on the Buddhist deity of mercy. The main hall houses a statue of a reclining Buddha that is said to have healing powers. If there is a pain in your body, touch the corresponding area of the statue and you just may find relief.
Exploring the grounds at Anao-ji is a tranquil walk that offers a variety of sights. The halls are filled with elegant architecture, ink paintings, and religious icons. A two-story pagoda sits atop a low hill, crowning the view of the pond garden as viewed from the temple’s interior. This is the classic Buddhist temple experience that many imagine when visiting Japan, and it can be enjoyed at Anao-ji without the crowds that you’ll find at many religious locations in Kyoto.
Anao-ji Temple is number 21 in the temples of the Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage (a pilgrimage of 33 temples throughout the Kansai region, all of whom enshrine a principle image of the bodhisattva Kannnon) …
As you journey deeper into the mountains on the edge of Kameoka, don’t let the sound of a hammer pounding on steel surprise you. This is the Masahiro Japanese Sword Forge, a workshop run by Yuya Nakanishi. As one of the few remaining traditional sword makers in Kyoto – and one of less than two hundred in all of Japan – this young blacksmith is carrying on a craft that has nearly disappeared in the modern era.
By appointment only, visitors can enter the workshop attached to Nakanishi’s traditional home and see how he creates his masterpieces. After heating the steel to a glowing orange blaze in a hand-operated forge, the blacksmith invites his guests to pound away with a hammer as the blade takes form. Take home your own small sword after a half day lesson with the blacksmith, which includes an intimate look at his collection of weapons in the sitting room of his home.
Wash away the sweat of the forge with a visit to Yunohana Onsen, a district of hot spring resorts gathered in a valley west of Kameoka. Legend has it that the water here was used to treat the sword wounds of samurai in ages past. The main road through town is lined with a handful of hot spring hotels, ranging from traditional ryokan inns to modern-style resorts. All feature the region’s famous radium-enriched water and offer options for day visit entries or overnight stays, making this an ideal spot to sojourn for a two-day visit to the area.
Hiking with the Gods
Continuing northwest along the Sasayama Kaido – on foot or by bus – brings visitors to a long valley known for its religious locations and hiking trails. For visitors who enjoy a good nature excursion, a detour up Mt. Hangoku offers an opportunity for some excellent hiking.
Miyagawa Bus Stop at the southern end of the valley makes for a good starting point for the hike. From here, it’s only a short walk to Miyagawa Shrine, a site of Shinto worship with a history that reaches as far back as the 8th century.
This shrine is unlike most found in cities, as it draws heavily upon the natural setting to create an otherworldly atmosphere. The shrine is surrounded by thick forest and moss-covered boulders. The ancient practice of iwakura – stone worship – believes these massive stones to be the homes of gods.
The hike into the mountains begins after departing the shrine. At approximately four hours, this is an excellent half day hike that is perfect for travelers staying overnight in the area. The trail through the hills takes hikers into thick cedar forests and to the summit of Mt. Hangoku, a stunning vantage point.
On the descent, be sure to stop at Otowa no Taki, a picturesque cascade known as the Sound of Feathers Falls. The hike ends at the Akakuma Bus Stop on the Sasayama Kaido, allowing for an easy continuation along the route or an easy return to Kameoka Station. If you’re trying to see as much of the Sasayama Kaido as possible in one day, consider skipping Mt. Hangoku and continuing along the main road through the valley towards Habu after visiting Miyagawa Shrine.
The Eclectic Charm of Habu Village
At the end of the valley lies Habu, a once-thriving post town on the busy highway. The town had its own castle, a lookout fort perched in the hills that kept watch over this section of the Sasayama Kaido. Foundation stones are all that remain of Habu Castle nowadays, but the view from the mountainside is well worth the ascent.
A number of special sites are scattered throughout the Habu area. Nearby Fusai-ji Temple is a classic hidden gem, a sprawling Buddhist retreat in a quiet, contemplative forest atmosphere. The approach to the main gate is notable for its mossy path flanked by arching cedar trees. A unique wooden gate that incorporates a belltower in its design leads to the inner courtyard. Thatched roof buildings and a solemn main hall give the grounds an air of historic authenticity.
Surrounded by its Main Hall, temple kitchen, and temple gate, the grounds at Fusai-ji are quiet and tree-shaded, giving this temple a strong Zen feeling. Legend has it that the general Ashikaga Takauj …
Nearby, if you happen to visit in fall when the Habu mountainsides are aflame with autumn foliage, Yabuta Shrine will treat you to a magnificent display of golden yellow gingko trees.
Just off the road towards Habu lie the famous Okita and Nemuta Jizo statues. These stone carvings of Jizo, the Buddhist guardian of travelers, are common on roadsides all over Japan, but this particular pair has an interesting backstory. Located on what used to be the edge of the Habu, travelers entering and exiting the town would stop to ask the stones for a solid night’s sleep after a day of travel, or the energy to muster an early morning departure. The Jizos are a fun reminder of folk wisdom and superstition that used to rule the Japanese highways.
Little remains of the medieval Habu post town nowadays, but a number of historic homes are still scattered throughout the village. For a look inside a traditional countryside house, stop at Hirata liquor store. This sake shop is housed in a charming red and white farmhouse and sells Kyoto sake and a small selection of other local goods. It’s a perfect spot to pick up a souvenir and support the local community.
A hot meal for weary travelers was a key element of a thriving post town, and a unique restaurant in Habu still provides this today. Le Jardin Pop serves a lunch of French cuisine in a restored traditional home. The building is a stunning combination of historic Japanese architecture and European countryside charm. It’s a surprise to find a French restaurant in a small town like Habu, but the local vegetables and seasonal menu lend itself well to the setting.
A Natural Paradise of Water and Light
With so much to see in the region surrounding the Sasayama Kaido, another detour is worth mentioning. A side road off the highway after Habu grants access to Rurikei Valley, a four kilometer-long river ravine home to breathtaking seasonal scenery in one of Kyoto’s most celebrated National Parks.
The highlight of Rurikei is the nature walk through the valley. The trail follows a flowing stream, offering views of rugged, mossy landscapes and several small waterfalls. In early May, wild azaleas crowd the greenery, and the autumn colors in November are hailed as some of the best in the region. The trail culminates at Lake Tsuten, where the mirror-like surface of the lake flows suddenly down a concrete dam wall in a wide wall of rushing water.
Another hiking course stretches up the summit of Mt. Miyama, but it’s best saved for those looking for a more rigorous outdoor experience. Everyone else should head to the nearby Rurikei Onsen resort for some relaxation and fun.
Rurikei Valley, a nationally designated place of scenic and historical beauty, is a long ravine (500 meters tall and approximately 4 km long) with a spring deep in the mountains. Heading upstream towa …
Back on the Sasayama Kaido, it’s time for the final stretch of the road as it winds to the border of Kyoto. The hamlet of Amabiki lies on the eastern side of the mountain pass that leads to Hyogo Prefecture. With its tight cluster of traditional homes sporting triangular thatched roofs nestled right up the edge of a cedar forest, this compact village is a fine example of rural Japanese scenery. Two interesting landmarks stand out among the rice paddies that run the length of the village; one small, the other almost impossibly huge.
The first is Yakushido, a tiny Buddhist temple consisting of a single four square meter wooden building. This miniature house of worship sits alone in the middle of rice fields, and its large thatched roof is bigger than the building it covers. Looking almost like a little cupcake, Yakushido is often called “cute” by smiling visitors – not an adjective you often hear associated with Buddhist temples!
The temple’s wooden doors remain shut, but the hidden statue of the buddha of healing sits inside, quietly watching over the village and protecting travelers of ages past and today from disease. When the rice fields are flooded in early summer, the duality of Yakushido and its reflection in the water is a popular sight for photographers.
A towering companion to the diminutive temple can be found only a few minutes away at Amabiki Hachimangu Shrine. Soaring above the shrine is the holy Amabiki Muku tree, a 31 meter tall maple whose age is unknown but is counted at over 450 years. Large trees housing a god are often found on Shinto grounds, but the Amabiki Muku is said to be one of the three oldest in Japan.
The small community gathers together under the branches of this leafy guardian every 2nd and 4th Sunday of the month from 9:30 to 12:00 noon for the Amabiki Muku Muku Farmers Market. Locally grown vegetables are sold and dishes using these fresh ingredients are served to visitors. It’s a small affair, but a great way for the neighbors in this rural outpost to maintain close bonds. Of course, visitors from outside the valley are welcome to enjoy the festivities as well.
A Farewell to the Road
Amabiki is the end of the Kyoto section of the Sasayama Kaido. Ambitious travelers can continue on into Hyogo and reach the castle town of Tamba-Sasayama, but the Kyoto stretch provides ample adventuring opportunities as we have seen. A bus is available from the northeast corner of Amabiki Village to JR Sonobe Station. From here, it’s only a 40 minute ride by train back to Kyoto Station.