Since the Heian Period, the Arashiyama District in western Kyoto has persisted as the ultimate vacation destination for Japanese people. It gets particularly known for its cherry blossom season and 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 temples pepper the wooded mountains in the north. Compared to central Kyoto, Arashiyama’s air is fresh and crisp with very little traffic coming through.
Despite this, many guide-books only mention Arashiyama in their “other attractions” lists. If you’re heading to Kyoto, don’t miss the chance to see this area and the sites suggested below. Unlike downtown, 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.
You can rent bicycles for just 1000 JPY (US $10) 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 decide on your mode of transportation, head over to your first stop.
Start your day with a brisk 15-minute walk from the station, followed by a short hike up a mountain, 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.
Travelers 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 bridge dates back to 836, but it was rebuilt in 1934 to accommodate cars. The shape of it embodies traditional Japanese aesthetics.
From the bridge, you can take in the view of Kyoto's maple trees, but for the best photo angles head downstream along the river bank. The road that connects the bridge is the main street where you can find souvenir shops, restaurants, and our next stop.
Shogun Ashikaga Takauji built Tenryuji Temple in 1339 and dedicated it to Emperor Go-Daigo. Takauji fought Go-Daigo for control over Japan and hoped that building Tenryuji would appease Go-Daigo’s spirit. Over the years, Tenryuji’s buildings have fallen 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 a World Heritage Site. Upon entering the temple, don’t forget to remove your shoes and place them in the room to your left. The passages between the buildings are lined with tatami so you can walk around without your shoes.
Towards the back, you’ll find the altar for Go-Daigo. You can look, but you can't enter. When you collect your shoes, you can go right to enter the gardens. Follow the pathways and trails for your next area.
Arashiyama Sagano Bamboo Grove is right next 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. It’s a place for quiet reflection and a pleasant walk, but you might notice something troublesome.
Since April 2018, some travelers have taken up a nasty habit of carving names, messages, and dates into the bamboo stalks. Please don’t join these acts of vandalism. Name carving harms the bamboo and makes sours the otherwise natural beauty of this place.
The concrete path of the Sagano Bamboo Grove climbs up a gradual 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.
Founded in 1596, Buddhist monk Kukyoin Nisshin created this temple to live in seclusion. The temple features buildings that are connected with dirt trails, but the main attraction is the nature along the way.
In contrast to perfectly the arranged flora in most Japanese gardens, this place 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. Continuing north, you can move on to the next temple.
Some say that Gioji is the greenest temple in 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 it was downsized during the Meiji Restoration.
According to 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 was also 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 green tea and traditional Japanese sweets, or you can get a drink from the vending machines and take a break at the benches across from the temple. Turn left at the vending machines, and then an immediate right to find some unusual streets.
The charming old streets in this 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 are restaurants and small shops. You’ll even see a doll museum as you pass through.
If you didn’t stop for lunch near Teryunji Temple, this is an excellent place to have a bite to eat. The road continues north on a slight incline and leads to a fork where you’ll see a teahouse with a torii gate. Head right to get to the next destination.
From Saga-Toriimoto Preserved Street to Otagi Nenbutsuji, keep straight until you reach this often-overlooked temple for an unusual experience. Otagi Nenbutsuji was created in 770, 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 of Buddha’s disciples), but they don’t show the solemn faces of religious leaders. Each rakan was created by a different artist, so they have individual styles. They smile, laugh, and drink sake in eternal joy. You just might find a rakan that looks like you! When you leave, head back towards Saga-Toriimoto Preserved Street, but take a slightly different path through the rice fields to your final destination.
Daikakuji Temple was erected as a palace by Emperor Saga, and his daughter turned it into a Buddhist temple 34 years after his death. According to legend, a severe famine hit during Emperor Saga’s reign, so he wrote the Buddhist Heart Sutra, and the land recovered. The imperial sutra is put on display every 60 years. The last showing took place in 2018.
Daikakuji also features Osawa Pond, which is older than the temple, and a Shinden-style rock garden. Daikakuji is a setting in the novel Tale of Genji, and you can still feel the atmosphere of the ancient court.
Across from Daikakuji’s exit, you’ll see a bus stop with bathrooms. To get back downtown, you can take bus number 91 back to Sagano-Arashiyama station and then take the train. If you’re feeling tired, 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. You can catch that nap you’ll need after exploring Arashiyama!