From the north, east and west sides, Kyoto is surrounded by hills, leaving the city’s buildings to spill out in a southerly direction.

One evening, a few hours before the arrival of the New Year, we walked north in search of a hilltop view across the city. Arriving in roughly the right area we started looking for a route up to the viewing platform, based on a description in a blog we’d come across. After half an hour of wandering the crowded city streets, we decided to abandon the provided map and the hard-to-figure-out directions to find own way up.

Private view over Kyoto at dusk from Daimonji Yama.

Locating the road took no time, tucked away behind narrow residential houses, we found the route up the hill, and began our ascent. The sun was starting to dip behind the horizon, and the cold winter day was coming to an end. The wide concrete road quickly narrowed into a forest path flanked by ferns and protruding tree branches, which threatened to poke our eyes out. The climb up the quiet forest path was steep, my jacket created a kind of greenhouse microclimate and suddenly the day did not seem so cold anymore. At times it seemed like we were lost, but the trail was clearly visible, and going back was not an option. In addition, every hundred meters or so along the trail yellow markers had been knocked in to the ground and red ribbons hung down from the tree branches. We seemed to be on the right path.

On both sides of the steep path lay felled trees, which looked like they had been cut down long ago. It made me think of movies like “Wrong Turn” and “Blair Witch Project” and I imagined a forester was sawing not only trees, but tourists that had taken a wrong turn too. But the path was silent – no wind, no birds, nothing.

Venturing into the unknown.

Eventually, a vista across the whole city opened up in front of us and the silence of the forest was shattered by the rising sounds from the city below. Small houses appeared like cardboard boxes, planted on every patch of land from hill to hill. Through the pattern of densely stacked houses, cracks of roads were lit up. The city seemed so densely populated that it was hard to spot any parks, except for the tiny hills sticking out in the middle of the city.

The hill on which we found ourselves, standing alone, had stone fire pits etched into it, which formed a huge Japanese (Kanji) character. It turns out that a bonfire festival takes places in the city in mid-August, with five giant bonfires set on five separate mountains surrounding the city. Nobody really knows the origins of the festival, but it is believed to be an ancient ritual. Specific families have the inherited responsibility for organising these ceremonies and spend a lot of time volunteering their services to sustain the tradition.

Stone fire pits form a Japanese (Kanji) character
View over the city.

As we stood on the hilltop it was clear that we were at a site that was not intended to be open to the public. What wasn’t quite clear was what to do if we got caught. However, any initial worries disappeared at the sight of the vibrant city below.

Darkness fell quickly and with it came the rain. Returning back the way we came, through the forest, in the pitch black, without any lights, was not an option. We had to travel down toward the entrance to the fire pits. Just beneath the bottom of the Japanese character we found the entrance, using our phone lights to reach it. However, the gates were of course locked and so we had to carefully climb over the barbed wire fence to get out. Sometimes you have to work that little bit harder to have a more unique experience, and this one was worth the effort.