It’s a dreary day in the UK today, and we have high winds on the way. Happily, my husband and I are off to Japan again soon. Hopefully the weather will be a lot better than it is here!
This year, we’re having a week on Shikoku (四国), staying in Takamatsu (高松) and Matsuyama (松山). With limited time, we decided to focus on Ritsurin Koen (栗林公園) in Takamatsu and the Castle and hot springs in Matsuyama. We also hope to catch the train to Imabari (今治) and cycle some of the way on the Shimanami Kaido (しまなみ海道). After that adventure, we’re off to Kyoto for the second week. Exciting!
Our horrible British weather made me think of Arashiyama (嵐山). Not because we’ve had wet and windy experiences in the town, but because the name translates as Storm Mountain.
Our first trip to Arashiyama was in 2009. We were staying in Kyoto and caught the train from the JR station at Nijo Castle across to Saga-Arashiyama. Our walk from the apartment to the station was our first experience of being seen as unusual in Japan. It was a hot and sunny day, and we paused to buy a can of Coke from a vending machine by Nijo Castle. This meant we were caught up in a stream of school children using the ticket machines outside the castle. As we wove our way through, we were greeted by calls of “Hello! Hello!” in English. Just past the castle, another group of uniformed teens queued patiently alongside the coach that had brought them on their school trip. “Hello! Hello!” called different voices. My husband replied, “Hello! Konnichiwa!” With his konnichiwa, the queue erupted into a sea of hands wanting to shake hands with this gaijin who had replied in their language. A babble of voices, a mixture of hellos and konnichiwas, and we moved on, calling out “Sayounara!” to their delight.
This reaction hasn’t happened to the same extent on our other trips to Japan, and I wonder whether there are more tourists visiting now than there were six years ago, making a pair of tall, fair skinned Westerners less of a spectacle for Japanese school children.
But on with our journey. We arrived at the Saga-Arashiyama station and walked towards town, past a museum that seemed to be dedicated to steam locomotives and pianos. As this website says, it’s an unlikely combination! We didn’t go in.
We walked into town, following signs for the Bamboo Grove. We passed small shops selling bags made from kimono fabric. At one of the shops opposite the road leading into the Bamboo Grove, I bought a couple of pretty bags. The shop was full of beautiful things and the owner was working at a sewing machine, running up the bags and purses that she sold.
Across the road from the shop, we began our walk into the Bamboo Grove. The street was really narrow, but cars still managed to make their way up there, alongside the pedestrians and rickshaws. It was a little like dicing with death at times. Along the way we saw a stall selling more souvenirs made from fabric. Nothing as tasteful as handbags made from kimono fabric, though. No. To my delight, the goods were almost all Hello Kitty themed!
Eventually, slowed by the other traffic, we made it to the Bamboo Grove. It was absolutely stunning, with the sunlight falling between the bamboo stalks, some of which were thicker than my arm. The bamboo seemed to stretch on forever, the tops of the stalks swaying gently, rustling in the wind. Occasionally there was the sound of knocking as the stalks banged together.
The new shoots were fascinating. They were covered in a pelt of velvet that split and peeled away as the stalks grew. The knuckles in the stalks seemed to happen at each growth spurt. One thing that surprised me was the amount of graffiti carved into the bamboo stalks. Presumably the Japanese equivalent of carving your name into the trunk of a tree.
We took a leisurely stroll through the grove and emerged at the top into a park that ran down to the Hozugawa river. A group of women were sitting by the side of the river, sketching their surroundings and writing haiku. I wanted to join them. Rows of rickshaws were parked alongside the river, shining in the sunshine. We walked back towards town past the pontoons where you could join a ride on one of the pleasure boats.
We were heading across the river to the Monkey Park on Iwatayama (岩山), and we needed to cross the Togetsukyo Bridge.
This picture was taken on our second visit to Arashiyama in 2013, more of which later. Togetsukyo translates as Moon Crossing. The original wooden bridge was built in the Heian Era, but the current ferro-concrete version was constructed in the 1930s. During the cherry blossom and autumn leaves seasons, it is the place to do your foliage and blossom viewing in Arashiyama. It’s also the vantage point to watch the boats during the Mifune Matsuri in spring, something that we might try to see during our visit this year.
Over the bridge, we stood at the foot of Iwatayama and the entrance to the Monkey Park. Entry is only 500円. After you pass through the red torii and walk up the path a short way, you reach a wooden hut. Here you buy your ticket and are given strict instructions not to make eye contact with any monkeys you might encounter on the walk up the trail, not to feed the monkeys who are roaming the forest and to make sure all food and loose items are secured away in your bags. We were advised not to try to take photographs on the way up, in case a monkey tried to steal our cameras. The climb up the trail was steep, but not too bad, even in the searing heat. We took rests along the way and the climb was definitely worth it when we emerged at the top of the trail into a clearing.
In the middle of the clearing is a small building that contains a café and a room where you can watch the monkeys and feed them with specially prepared snacks that you buy in the café. Feeding the monkeys is only permitted from inside this building, because the monkeys are very strong and you’d probably be mobbed if you went out into the clearing with food!
After feeding some of the monkeys, we went outside for a wander around the park. The views across Kyoto were stunning, and it was nice to wander around among the monkeys, who were mostly chilling on the grass or by the pool.
We climbed a small incline behind the café building and sat on a bench to watch the monkeys from a safe distance. They moved around in small groups, mothers with babies, couples stopping to sunbathe and groom each other. Away from the café, none of the monkeys tried to interact with us, preferring to maintain a slight distance.
Our second visit to Arashiyama was in April 2013. The day started with an earthquake. I woke up at 5.30 in the morning, wondering why the bed was shaking. I realised that the house was shaking and it was an earthquake. The news report later that morning said that the epicentre had been off the coast south of Osaka, around 120km from where we were staying in Kyoto. When we got to Kyoto station to catch the train to Arashiyama, trains heading west to Kobe were all disrupted because of the earthquake, which had measured 6.
On this visit to Arashiyama, we were following one of the walking trails in Judith Clancy’s book. Instead of heading into Arashiyama from the station, this time we headed north towards Daikakuji. This temple was originally built in the Heian Era by the Emperor Saga as a palace. The palace features in the Tale of Genji, which is one of the reasons I wanted to see it. After the Emperor died, the palace was converted into a temple and was the site of peace talks that reunited the Northern and Southern Imperial Courts after a long period of civil war.
Despite being converted into a temple, the buildings still have their nightingale floors, and as we walked around I enjoyed the chirrupping squeaks coming from the floorboards beneath our feet.
Our visit coincided with an international ikebana competition, and many of the rooms were filled with flower arrangements from around the world, depicting unique aspects of the local landscape. Even Russia got involved!
Behind the flower arrangements were some stunning painted screens, some more delicate than others.
The building is really impressive, but it didn’t knock me out the way that Nijo Castle did. The garden was very pretty. We hadn’t realised when we entered the temple that we could have carried our shoes around with us in a plastic bag, so had left them in the genkan. This meant that we couldn’t head out into the garden to look around. It was nice to view it from the veranda, though.
At the back of the main temple building is the octagonal Heart Sutra building. This houses an important treasure, a handwritten copy of the Heart Sutra written by Emperor Saga at Kobo Daishi’s request. The building is opened every 60 years to allow visitors to view the sutra.
Alongside the temple is Osawa Pond, a manmade pool of water created 1200 years ago for moon viewing parties at Emperor Saga’s palace. Today you can go for a boat ride in a dragon prowed boat. We wandered into a tea house type area to take some photographs before being politely asked whether we wanted to take tea in a way that meant “You really shouldn’t be here, but I’m too polite to ask you to leave.”
After our look around Daikakuji, we headed over to a preserved Meiji Era street, Saga-Toriimoto. We didn’t have a proper map with us, so had to rely on a photograph of a map that I’d taken at the railway station and the odd street map we encountered on the way. It was blazing hot by this time, and the walk seemed to take forever. Other people were marching in the same direction as us, though, so we eventually followed a woman who was carrying an actual map and seemed as confused as we were about where things were located.
Some of the buildings in Saga-Toriimoto are still private residences, but others have been converted into shops.
There’s a lovely atmosphere wandering up and down the street. Shop owners often leave their shops untended, and you can either pay for goods using an honesty pot or by paying someone at a shop across the street.
At the top of the street is Adashino Nembutsu-ji. I found this temple very moving. Almost everywhere you look there are gravestones. For over 1000 years, the bodies of people without relatives to mourn or bury them were brought to the top of this hill, and left unburied and without grave markers. In the 9th century, Kobo Daishi established the temple and the bodies were memorialised across the Adashino area using small statues of Buddha. In 1712, the current temple was built. The Buddha stones were collected up and brought to the temple grounds in 1903, where 8000 of them surround a stone pagoda in the centre of the temple grounds. It is a sobering sight.
Entry to the temple is 500円 and it is definitely worth a visit. We were both very quiet when we emerged from its tranquility. As with this blogger, I didn’t read the leaflet we were given when we paid for our tickets until we got back to the house that evening, so I hadn’t realised that visitors to the temple aren’t permitted to take photographs of the Buddha stones. Hopefully the photograph I did take isn’t too intrusive on the sacred nature of the stones.
Behind the temple is a pathway through a bamboo grove which emerges onto an open area that contains the grave of someone whose name I didn’t note down. This person chose to die in the Adashino area so that he could be buried there rather than at his family shrine. It is very peaceful up there, listening to the wind blowing through the bamboo. I can imagine why he wanted to spend his afterlife up there.
Back down the hill, we emerged into a square with a thatched hut on one side. This is the Rakushisha residence, which means Fallen Persimmon. The 17th century haiku poet Mukai Kyorai lived here. Mukai was one of Basho’s students, and Basho composed a few poems in the hut while visiting Mukai. The hut is surrounded by persimmon trees and gained its name after a storm blew the fruit out of the trees one wild night.
I didn’t pay the 200円 entry fee, but instead lurked outside trying to get a photograph of the hut. Another tourist woman was trying to do the same, and we laughed together about it.
We headed into the larger bamboo groves again, and heard men chanting in the distance as we walked. It was hard to see them through the bamboo, and I wondered what kind of ceremony was taking place. They must have been monks at Tenryuji.
Back down by the river, we called into a restaurant and ate hot kitsune udon. We had done a lot of walking and it felt good to sit down and eat while watching the river go by. People were out in boats, and a heron flew low across the water. It was a lovely evening.
East of the Togetsukiyo Bridge, where the Hozugawa River becomes the Katsuyagawa, we enjoyed some cherry blossom and some grilled mochi from a street vendor before heading back to the train station and home.
There are more places to visit in Arashiyama that we haven’t had chance to see ourselves yet. I’d advise spending a whole day there, if you can. If you can’t then the bamboo groves alongside Tenryuji Temple are a must, and I think Adashino Nembutsuji is also worth the walk up the hill. It’s a quick hop on the train from Kyoto and definitely a good side trip from the city.