Japan, Kyoto: A winter journey starts in Eizan and ends in the forests of Kibune

The station for the Eizan Electric Railway has three ticket barriers and two tiny platforms. My awaiting train looks like it could have a starring role in a 1950s movie. It's a world away from Kyoto station's 34 platforms, frenetic pace and sleek bullet trains that disgorge hundreds of hurrying passengers. Here I share a carriage with just a dozen people. Two have already fallen asleep as we lurch off through north-east Kyoto and into the hills.

This is regarded as a visitor rush, mind you, provoked by snowfall overnight that has dusted Kyoto's rooftops and blanketed the surrounding hills in pristine white. Over the day I'll see a steady trickle of visitors keen to experience the snow, but none of the crowds that can sometimes overwhelm parts of Kyoto in the high season.

I get off at the final stop Kurama, a half-hour ride into the snow-hushed hills. This is a little onsen town where you can wallow in an outdoor hot-spring bath, a particularly delightful experience whenever rising steam meets falling snow. I'm keener to make the most of the landscapes by hiking, however. Snow is slumped on pine trees and on the tops of the orange wayside lanterns that show me the way up the hillside into a pretty winter wonderland of temples.

Tipped off by a local, I stop for a breather at one temple where a golden Buddha, hand raised in benediction, sits beneath tinsel-like ornaments that shower down around his head. Silver clouds are impressed into the blackened cedar beams around the altar. There's nobody else here except for a temple attendant lurking in the shadows, arranging offerings of apples. I've been to Kyoto many times, but this is the first time I've had a temple entirely to myself, never mind one so beautifully atmospheric.

Further up a hill is Kurama-dera Temple, founded in the eighth century on a site with attractive views over mountain ridges. Locals love this place. They come to stand at the mysterious intersection of energy lines in its courtyard, said to invigorate you with wellbeing. Only a minuscule fraction of Kyoto's international visitors ever see this place, though. No hullabaloo here, only the occasional rattle of fortune sticks and the clunk of a coin dropped into a wooden offer box at the altar.

The main hall's ornamentation glimmers in the low light of lanterns and candles. In the basement, down a staircase devoid of signage, is an extraordinary repository of porcelain vases containing the snipped-off hair of devotees. I wander along through its maze-like corridors and find the temple's three main gods enshrined in the semi-darkness of this spooky, lovely, strangely endearing place.

The walk back down the mountainside via an alternative route is perfumed with pine resin and incense. Two 800-year-old cedar trees tower over the path at Yuki Shrine. Already the snow is beginning to melt. Snow isn't a common occurrence in Kyoto, and by tomorrow it will all be gone, but this day has been a classic example of why a winter visit here is so rewarding. This has been a mellow day of sightseeing, out of season and in one of Kyoto's overlooked but culturally significant corners.

Kyoto is seldom in the news but, in the past couple of years, has been making newspaper headlines for its tourist overcrowding. With tens of millions of visitors descending on Japan's former capital each year there are certainly places – though seldom in winter – swamped in an avalanche of visitors. Temples are taking a pounding, locals have started protesting about the disruption to their neighbourhoods, leaflets have been distributed that offer polite Japanese advice on how to behave.

Overcrowding doesn't, though, have to be your Kyoto experience. For every tourist-crammed temple, there are several others with scarcely a soul, and often just around the corner. For minimal effort such as a 20-minute train ride, you can find peace on hillsides that have resounded for a millennium with little more than monks' chanting and the sob of wind in the trees. Today I've encountered no queues, few tourists and only a few more locals, consulting their fortune sticks and throwing snowballs.

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At the foot of the mountain, I pop into a Buddhist vegetarian restaurant, half empty. A giant metal kettle hangs over the old open fireplace in the centre of the room, which has low beams and farmhouse comfort. My starter of wild yam soup is warming and delicious, and is followed by sesame tofu and vegetables and steamed rice with barley. When the lady of the house pours me tea, the sound of the water gurgling into the cup is like a meditation, unsullied by tourist chit-chat.

After lunch, I take the train a single stop back towards Kyoto, alighting to follow a prancing river upstream and into a forested valley to Kibune, a rustic village of wooden ryokans and restaurants. In summer, you can hardly move here as visitors seek respite from the heat by packing dining platforms built out over the river. Now I count visitors only in the scores. They come to Kifune-jinja Shrine, dedicated to the Shinto goddess of wind and water, and float omikuji papers on its sacred spring to make their inked fortune forecasts appear like espionage letters under lemon juice.

Even further into the valley is overlooked Okunomiya, the shrine's original site and still its inner sanctum. It sits amid towering trees. Snow sits atop its stone lanterns like pixie caps. Icicles drip on its eaves. Like many Shinto shrines, it's a tranquil and strangely moving place and, today, I have it almost all to myself.

FIVE KYOTO WINTER WARMERS

TAKESHIGERO RESTAURANT

Food shops and restaurants offers discounts throughout February under the Kyoto Restaurant Winter Specials scheme providing an opportunity to experience the city's renowned high-end kaiseki cuisine at reduced prices. Savour a multi-course lunch for ¥10,000 at Takeshigero, flagship of a restaurant group founded in 1719 and renowned for its traditional Kyoto kaiseki style, which blends imperial, Zen vegetarian and tea-ceremony influences. See krws.jpminokichi.co.jp

RYOSOKU-IN TEMPLE

Each winter a select few temples, shrines and other important cultural properties normally closed to the public throw open their doors to lucky visitors. This winter Ryosoku-in, a sub-temple of grand Kennin-ji, Kyoto's oldest Zen temple, allows visitors to see its lovely gardens and architecture, and is featuring a special exhibition of its venerable Buddhist art matched with contemporary additions by famous Japanese artists. See ryosokuin.com

KITANO TENMANGU SHRINE

Towards the end of winter and long before vast crowds arrive for the more famous cherry blossom season, plum blossoms provide delicate colour across Kyoto. Kitano Tenmangu is one of the best places in all Japan to admire them, since its grounds feature 2000 plum trees. The thousand-year-old Shinto shrine hosts a blossom festival tea ceremony on  February 25 attended by maiko (apprentices) and geisha in splendid kimonos. See kitanotenmangu.or.jp

HANATOURO FESTIVAL

Arashiyama in western Kyoto is the scene for a 10-day light festival in December, which then moves to the Eastern Hills temple district for 10 days in mid-March. Expect rows of lanterns and flower arrangements, light-draped trees, light projections on to building facades and temples and shrines with special evening opening hours. Arashiyama's famous bamboo forest, with five kilometres of its pathways illuminated, is magnificent. See hanatouro.jp

TAIKO DRUMMING

No better way to be get warmed up and be introduced to a still-living and very active part of Japanese culture than over lessons in taiko drumming. Beating a rhythm on the large drums is surprisingly vigorous exercise and works up a sweat. You can drop in for a class at Taiko-Lab for an hour for ¥6000 and if you're hooked, sign up for private lessons. See taiko-center.co.jp

TRIP NOTES

MORE

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FLY

Japan Airlines flies from Melbourne and Sydney to Osaka, an hour by train from Kyoto. See jal.com

TRAIN

A Japan Rail Pass makes getting around on Japan's outstanding train system easy. Rail Europe offers passes from $390 a adult. See railplus.com.au

STAY

Ryokan Yoshida-Sanso overlooks the Eastern Hills temple district and has three main-house tatami rooms and a garden annexe. Rooms from $447 a person including breakfast and kaiseki dinner. See yoshida-sanso.com

Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of Japan Airlines, Rail Europe and Kyoto City Tourism Association.

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