Since the Heian Period the Arashiyama District in western Kyoto has persisted as the ultimate vacation destination for Japanese tourists. It gets particularly popular during cherry blossom season in the Spring and in the Fall for viewing Autumn leaves. Near the JR Saga-Arashiyama Station (about a 30 minute ride from Kyoto Station) shops line the streets with attractive wares like figurines made from silk-worms, and to the North temples pepper the wooded mountains. Compared to central Kyoto, Arashiyama’s air is fresh and crisp with very little traffic coming through. It’s no wonder that Arashiyama is a designated Historical Site and a monumental Place of Scenic Beauty.
Despite this, many western guide-books only mention Arashiyama in their “other attractions” lists when talking about Kyoto. If you’re heading to Kyoto don’t miss the chance to see this area and the sites suggested below. Unlike downtown Kyoto the Arashiyama District doesn’t have the same number of public buses between each attraction, but all of them are within walking or biking distance. Bicycles can be rented for just 1000 JPY (10 USD) at the JR Saga-Arashiyama Station, and Rickshaw drivers stand ready to take you around town to give you a little private tour. Once you’ve decided upon your mode of transportation, head over to your first stop.
Hours: 9:00-16:30 (Summit is open until 17:00 March to September)
9:00 – 16:00 (Summit is open until 16:30 October to March)
Cost: 550 JPY
Start your day with a brisk 15-minute walk from the station, followed by some time hiking up an easy mountain summit, to the Arashiyama Monkey Park Iwatayama. The park is home to about 120 wild snow monkeys, the same you might see bathing in hot springs in the winter. As soon as I entered I could already see some of the younger ones swinging from branches and skipping around the mountainside. I felt a little nervous at the prospect of standing around these creatures, but also excited at the chance to interact with them. Tourists can feed the monkeys here, and the friendlier ones run right up to you if they know you have their apple chunks. Be careful though as to not look the monkeys in the eyes, as per the caretakers’ instructions, and don’t try to pet them. While you’re up here take in the view of Kyoto below. Once you’ve had more fun than…well, a barrel of monkeys, head down the mountain and North to the next destination.
Togetsukyo Bridge stretches 155 meters (508 feet) across the Katsura River. The first incarnation of this bridge dates back to 836, but the current construction dates back to 1934 when it was rebuilt to accommodate cars. The shape of the bridge retains its original aesthetic which embodies the traditional Japanese style. Although the bridge looks wooden, the structure is actually mostly made from concrete. The Togetsukyo Bridge is considered to be a masterpiece of natural scenic beauty as from here offers some wonderful views of the western Kyoto hills. Head downstream of the river for the best photo angles, or to take a break in the shade of a cherry blossom. Near here is the busiest street of Arashiyama where you can find souvenir shops, restaurants, and rickshaw rides. Also along the street is our next stop….
Hours: 8:30-17:30 (Admission ends at 17:00 from October to March)
Cost: 500 JPY for the grounds, additional 300 JPY for the buildings
In 1339 ruling Shogun Ashikaga Takauji built Tenryuji Temple to dedicate it to the late Emperor Go-Daigo. Takauji struggled against Go-Daigo for control over Japan and hoped that building the temple would appease Go-Daigo’s spirit. Over the years, Tenryuji’s buildings have been lost to fires and wars, but the central garden has survived for hundreds of years. Tenryuji ranks first among Arashiyama’s five Zen Buddhism temples and is now a registered World Heritage Site. Upon entering the temple don’t forget to remove your shoes and place them in the room to your left. Although the temple’s grounds are largely outside, the passages between the buildings are lined with a soft floor, so you can walk around easily without your shoes. Heading towards the back you’ll find the dedication room to Go-Daigo. You can look in, but entrance isn’t permitted. Going back to the front, collect your shoes and head right for the Zen Garden and landscape gardens. Follow the pathways and crowds to the next stop.
If you rented a bicycle at the beginning of this itinerary, you might feel frustrated towards me as you’ve probably been cycling through some rather crowded areas. From now on though, a bicycle will be your best friend as some of these destinations will get further and further apart. Arashiyama Sagano Bamboo Grove is located right next door to Tenryuji Temple. The dense forest covers about 16 square kilometers (3,950 acres) and the pathways stretch through about 300 meters (0.18 miles) of the space. The concrete path of the Sagano Bamboo Grove climbs slowly up a hill and ends in a “T” shape at the top. Left takes you back to Togetsukyo Bridge and right leads on to our next destination.
Side-note: You might notice some names, messages or dates carved into the bamboo as you walk by. Please don’t join in these acts of vandalism. Name carving harms the bamboo and makes an unpleasant sight for future visitors.
Hours: 9:00-17:00 (Admission until 16:30)
Cost: 500 JPY
This Nichiren sect temple was founded in 1596 by the monk Kukyoin Nisshin to live in seclusion. Even on peak season days for Arashiyama this temple hardly gets overcrowded with tourists. Built into a hillside, the temple features some buildings connected with stone and dirt paths, but the real attraction is the nature between each building. In contrast to perfectly arranged flora in most Japanese gardens, this area is a bit wilder. Moss and leaves carpet the grounds leading up the mountain and the trees bow low to offer you shade. That isn’t to say the areas go unmaintained, rather there is a balance between pruning the grounds while allowing them to grow freely. The quiet of the forest pervades visitors, and you can sink into a refreshing tranquility. Continuing north on the path you used to reach here, you can move on to the next temple.
Hours: 9:00 – 17:00 (Admission ends at 16:30)
Cost: 500 JPY
Some boast Gioji as the greenest temple in all of Kyoto. With its thatched roofs, mossy grounds, and hundreds of blooming maples it’s not hard to imagine this might be true. Gioji was once part of a much larger Buddhist temple, Ojo-in Temple, but after it was downsized during the Meiji Restoration the grounds here are all that remains. In legend, Gioji gets its name from the dancer, Gio. Gio loved the nobleman Taira no Kiyamori, but when she was rejected in favor for another dancer, Hotoke Gozen, Gio fled to the temple to become a nun. Years later, Hotoke Gozen joined Gio when she too was jilted by Taira no Kiyamori. Like most of Kyoto, the best time to visit is the fall when the hundreds of maples blaze in reds and golds. The entrance houses a tea shop where you can stop for matcha green tea and traditional Japanese sweets, or you can get a drink from the vending machines and take a break at the benches across the street from the temple. Left from the vending machine corner, take an immediate right and head straight to find yourself walking along some unusual streets.
The charming old streets of the neighborhood make you feel like you’ve stepped back in time. Somehow, this street survived the years and has retained its Meiji Period townhouse-styled buildings called machiya. The townhouses were once private homes, but now most have been converted into restaurants and small shops. You’ll even see a doll museum as you pass through. Most tourists don’t come this far, and the lack of crowds will give you a sense like you’re in “real” Japan. If you didn’t stop for lunch near Teryunji Temple and the Bamboo Grove, this is a great place to catch a meal. Bonus, less tourists coming through means little to no wait times for a table! The road here continues North on a gradual incline. Follow it to the fork in the road, you’ll see a teahouse with a Torii Gate, and head right of the fork for the next destination.
Hours: 8:00 – 17:00 (Admission until 16:45)
Cost: 300 JPY
From Saga-Toriimoto Preserved Street to Otagi Nenbutsuji, there isn’t much to see and you might feel like you’ve lost your way. But keep heading straight until you reach this often-overlooked temple for an unusual experience. Otagi Nenbutsuji was originally created in the year 770 in Higashiyama, but it suffered many calamities over the years. It was moved and rebuilt several times before finally being completed along the foothills of Arashiyama in the early 1980s. Otagi Nenbutsuji features around 1200 Rakan statues (statues of Buddha’s disciples), but these statues don’t show the solemn faces of religious leaders. Each statue was created by a different artist, so the Rakans all have their own style and face. The faces are mostly of a whimsical nature. The Rakan smile, laugh, and drink sake with a friend eternally in joy. A popular game to play is to find the Rakan who looks most similar to you! Upon leaving the temple, head back towards Saga-Toriimoto Preserved Street, but this time take a slightly different path through the more modern neighborhoods and rice fields to your final destination.
Hours: 9:00 – 17:00 (Admission ends at 16:30)
Cost: 500 JPY for the temple and 200 JPY for the garden around Osawa Pond
Take the larger two-lane road that parallels the side-street you arrived on. Head south, but then hit a left one block before the first traffic light. This road will take you to Daikakuji Temple. An important setting from Japan’s history, Daikakuji Temple is often used as a filming set for historical dramas and movies. Daikakuji Temple was originally erected as a palace by Emperor Saga and turned into a Buddhist temple by his daughter 34 years after his death. According to legend a severe famine hit the land during Emperor Saga’s reign, so he wrote the Buddhist Heart Sutra and the land recovered. The imperial sutra is still housed here and is put on display every 60 years. The next display will take place from October to November 2018. Daikakuji also features the manmade Osawa Pond, which is older than the temple itself, and a Japanese rock garden in the Shinden style. Daikakuji is used as a setting in the novel Tale of Genji, and it’s here that you can still feel the atmosphere of ancient imperial life.
Across from Daikakuji’s exit you’ll see a bus stop with bathrooms. If you’ve rented a bicycle it’s time to return it, but if you haven’t you can catch the bus here back to Kyoto. For a faster route, take bus number 91 back to Sagano-Arashiyama station to get back to Kyoto Station. For an easier route, take bus number 28 and ride it all the way to the Kyoto Station terminal. Bus 28 takes about one hour to reach the station, but there aren’t any transfers to have to worry over so you can catch that nap you’ll need after exploring all over Arashiyama!