Stretching almost 100 km from Kyoto city to the Sea of Japan is a forested mountain range dotted with quaint villages and farms. These mountains provide the people of Kyoto with a plethora of hiking trails and places to explore, but apart from the towns of Kibune, Kurama and Ohara, to the immediate north of Kyoto, the vast majority of this area is not often visited by foreign tourists. Amongst other things, the area is known for the Saba kaido (‘mackerel highway’), which was used in old times for the transportation of salted mackerel to Kyoto, as well as its wealth of vegetables and game meats.
As for sightseeing, however, the highlight of this area has to be the Miyama-cho area, amongst which Kitamura village and its kayabuki (thatched houses) is the primary attraction. While there is no accommodation in Kitamura (North Village) that is easily reserved in English, the lovely Miyama Heimat Youth Hostel makes an enjoyable stay in this area easy.
Miyama and Kitamura
Kitamura is designated a National Preservation Site and the thatched houses of this village are supported by the government in order to preserve the tradition of Japanese thatched housing for future generations. The construction and upkeep of such houses was once supported by local communities, helping keep costs down. With the break-down of such systems, however, the expense and care involved has prompted most people to live in other types of housing. As a result, the art of thatching has all but died out throughout Japan, and many of the roofs of houses in rural areas that were once thatched have since been covered with metal covers.
Though of a small size, a good example of a Japanese-style thatched building can be found along the west bank of the Kamogawa river in Kyoto just a little north of Marutamachi street (a place called Sanshisuimeisho (山紫水明処)).
I went to Kitamura with my parents in Autumn (November), and it was a lovely place to walk around. We left from Kyoto station at about 7 in the morning, which involved an early wake-up, but there were not many other trains after this. We changed at Sonobe and Fukuchiyama and got a bus to Kita. We arrived to Kitamura at a bit after 9. There are also good connections for a train leaving Kyoto at about 12:30 (arriving around 2:30)- which would be good if you are not interested in waking up so early!
Unlike many of the tourists sites around Kyoto city, it was quiet and free of touristy shops. We dropped in to the Folk Museum, and saw how they made the thatch, some of the tools they use in the area for agriculture and cooking, and really just chilled out for a while. The village is surrounded by mountains on one side, offering spectacular autumn views, while the fields on the other side of the village were full of vegetable and rice gardens and persimmon trees laden with fruit. The hills themselves are said to be home to a wide variety of animals, and we saw some hawks that lazily hovered down and stood on the roof-tops like sentinels. There was also a museum for indigo (ai) dying.
After this we just walked around the hills and fields and generally just enjoyed the warm day, before getting a bus to Wachi. We called the people at Heimat Youth Hostel a couple of hours in advance, and they came and picked us up from Wachi stop.
Heimat Youth Hostel
We really enjoyed this hostel, mainly because it didn’t have the usual feeling of a youth hostel- it was pretty quiet, small, very friendly, had very nice clean rooms and great food. We were also able to book twin rooms for ourselves. While the hostel is in a nice old building, the bedrooms have been fairly newly renovated, and the beds were also quite comfy. The only negative, perhaps, is that the toilets etc were shared, and you couldn’t use the kitchen, but as it is a small place and the food is good, it wasn’t so much of an issue.
They had a range of different foods, including vegetarian, wild boar (!), and use a lot of local ingredients. We had the normal meal, and were really happy with both the dinner and breakfast. Apparently they offer their services not only in English, but also French and German.
Access: See above, plus Heimat YH’s English site. If you call, you should be able to find out more about the bus timetable between Kitamura and Wachi. Make sure you call them well in advance about a pick up from Wachi bus-stop.
Price: A little expensive for a YH, but this place is something closer to a minshuku (like a BnB) in quality and service anyway. 3950Y per person for non-YH members, 3350Y for members. Dinner 1200Y, breakfast 700Y.