Kyoto's Arashiyama district has been the ultimate vacation destination in Japan for centuries. Now, international travelers waking up to its charms, especially during the cherry blossoms bloom and when the autumn leaves change colors.
Near JR Saga-Arashiyama Station (30 minutes from Kyoto Station), shops line the streets with attractive wares and temples pepper the mountains on the north side. Compared to central Kyoto, Arashiyama's air is fresh and crisp with hardly any car trafffic.
Despite this, many guide books only mention Arashiyama in their "other attractions" lists. We're here to tell you that if you're heading to Kyoto, you don't want to miss out on exploring this area. Arashiyama doesn't have as many public transportation options as the center of the city, but all of its attractions are within walking distance.
If you rather not walk, you can rent bicycles for just 1000 JPY (about 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, follow this suggested itinerary to make the most of your day in Arashiyama!
Start your day with a brisk 15-minute from the station and a short hike up Iwatayama Mountain. The summit will bring you to Arashiyama Monkey Park, where around 120 Japanese macaques live. While here, you can toss them chunks of apples, and the bolder ones might even approach you.
Although they're cute and a few are friendly, keep in mind that they're wild animals and heed the caretakers' instructions. Don't look them in the eyes and don't try to pet them. But do take in the wonderful view of Kyoto city below!
Once you've had more fun than... well, a barrel of monkeys, head down the trail and go north to get to the next destination.
Togetsukyo Bridge stretches 155 meters (508 feet) across the Katsura River. The bridge dates back to 836 AD, but in 1934, the city rebuilt it with concrete to accommodate cars. However, the current construction still retains the same architectural elements it did in ancient times.
The bridge offers the best view of the maple and sakura trees on Arashiyama Mountain. Millions cross it just for the view in spring and fall. If you aren't keen on crowds, you can take in an equally impressive sight by sitting on the riverbank.
When you cross Togetsukyo Bridge, it takes you to the main street where you can find souvenir shops, restaurants, and our next stop.
As the story goes, shogun Ashikaga Takauji and Emperor Go-Daigo ruled Japan as friends and allies, but Ashikaga eventually betrayed Go-Daigo during a struggle for political power. Go-Daigo died in battle, and his ghost began to haunt Ashikaga. To appease the restless spirit, Ashikaga built Tenryuji Temple in 1339 and dedicated it to his old friend. Since then, Tenryuji has become the top-ranking Zen Buddhist temple in Arashiyama. It's also a registered UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Upon entering the temple, remove your shoes and store them in the room to your left. The passages between the buildings have soft tatami floors, so you don't need to worry about getting your feet dirty. The building in the back has an altar for Go-Daigo. Towards the front, you can look out over the landscape and rock gardens. You can enter these places for an additional fee.
If you decide to go into the gardens, you can loop around behind Tenryuji and follow the path to the next destination. Otherwise, head back to the entrance, turn left, and continue down the main road.
Arashiyama Bamboo Forest is next to Tenryuji Temple. The dense grove covers about 16 square kilometers (3,950 acres), and concrete pathways wind through about 300 meters (0.18 miles) of it. The bamboo stalks grow so high and densely that no matter how bright it is outside, they cast shadows all around them. It's a tranquil place for quiet reflection, and even when crowds come through, the bamboo seems to cast a calming spell. However, take a closer look, and you might notice something troublesome.
Since April 2018, some travelers have taken up a nasty habit of carving their names, messages, and dates into the stalks. If you come here, please don't participate in these acts of vandalism. Name carving harms the bamboo and sours the experience of future travelers. Besides, bamboo only lives for around 7-10 years depending on the species, so carving in it won't memorialize your trip for long.
The concrete path on the main stretch of the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest climbs op a gradual hill and dead-ends at the top. Left takes you back to Togetsukyo Bridge, and right leads to our next destination.
Founded in 1596, Buddhist monk Kukyoin Nisshin built Jojakkoji to live in seclusion. And secluded it is. When you walk through the main gate, you won't be able to see the other buildings of the temple complex right away, because they're all hidden in the forest. To get to them, you'll have to walk along the dirt trails.
The real attraction here isn't the temple itself, but the nature that you'll see on your walk. Unlike most shrines and temples that have painstakingly manicured gardens, moss and leaves carpet the grounds and the tree branches bow low. That isn't to say Jojakkoji is an abandoned temple. Rather, the caretakers prune the plants in trees in harmony with the forest's natural tendency to grow.
When you finish your walk, continue north to the next temple.
Some say that Gioji is the greenest temple in Kyoto. With its thatched roofs, mossy grounds, and hundreds of maple trees, it's not hard to imagine this might be true. Gioji was once part of a much large Buddhist temple called Ojo-in, but the Japanese emperor downsized it during the Meiji Restoration.
According to legend, Gioji gets its name from a dancer who went by Gio. Gio fell in love with the powerful military leader Taira no Kiyomori, who established the first samurai government and built Itsukushima Shrine. However, he rejected Gio for another dancer named Hotoke Gozen. Heartbroken, Gio fled to this temple to become a nun. Years later, Hotoke Gozen joined Gio after Taira no Kiyomori jilted her as well.
Gioji Temple is especially gorgeous when the maple leaves change color, like many places in Kyoto in fall. At the entrance, you'll find a small teahouse where you can stop for a cup of matcha and traditional Japanese sweets. Alternatively, you can get a drink at the vending machines and rest on the benches across from the temple.
After catching your breath, take a left from the vending machines and then an immediate right to explore the next area.
The charming streets in this neighborhood make you feel as though you've stepped back in time. Meiji Period-style townhouses called machiya line the roads, and the rickshaw drivers and tourists donning rental kimonos add to the atmosphere. Although this used to be a residential area, most of the homes are now restaurants and small shops.
If you didn't eat near Tenryuji Temple, this is another excellent place to stop for lunch. The road continues north on a slight incline and ends at a fork, where you'll see a teahouse and a large torii gate. Head right to get to the next stop.
From Saga-Toriimoto Preserved Street, keep straight until you reach the often-overlooked Otagi Nenbutusji Temple for an unusual experience. The original Otagi Nenbutsuji was built in 770 AD, but it suffered many calamities. It moved to several locations before finally settling on 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. Different artists created the rakans, so they have individual styles. They smile, laugh, and drink sake in eternal joy. You might find a rakan that looks like you!
When you leave, head back towards Saga-Toriimoto Preserved Street, but veer left through the rice fields to your final destination.
In the 800s, Emperor Saga commissioned Daikakuji Temple as an extension of his palace because he loved relaxing in Arashiyama so much. Thirty years after his death, his daughter converted it into a temple, and it's now one of the most significant religious halls in Shingon Buddhism. Although it's been a place of worship for centuries, you can still sense the atmosphere of the ancient imperial court.
Among the temple's treasures in a sutra that Emperor Saga himself wrote. During his reign, a severe famine struck Japan, and the lands reportedly recovered after he wrote the Buddhist Heart Sutra. It gets put on display every sixty years, and the next showing will be in 2078. Don't be disheartened if that date doesn't mesh with your travel plans. You can still see Osawa Pond, which is older than the temple itself, and a Shinden-style rock garden.
Daikakuji Temple is across from a bus stop, and you can get back to downtown Kyoto in two ways. If you need to get back quickly, board bus number 91 back to JR Sagano-Arashiyama Station and take the train. If you're tired, hop on bus 28. It takes about an hour to reach Kyoto Station on this route, but it'll give you enough time to take a much-needed nap!