Arashiyama, located in the western outskirts of Kyoto, is famous for its bamboo groves and it makes a nice one-day trip in Kyoto. I must confess that one of the reasons why I was drawn to Kyoto was that I wanted to see the bamboo groves in Arashiyama (the others being Gion and Fushimi Inari Taisha). Looking back, while walking in the bamboo grooves essentially ticked off one of the items on my to-do list, it was not the most memorable experiences in Arashiyama. What I like most about Arashiyama is the nature and the cute temples that it has. I got to Arashiyama by bus from Kyoto Station and it was around 40-50 minutes. Just from last year, Arashiyama has been also included in the zone where the one-day pass bus is valid (yay).
You know that you have reached Arashiyama when you see the famous Togetsukyo Bridge (or when you see many people getting off at that stop). The bridge is famous for its views and many films and wedding shoots are taken there. I did a quick google and the view is really quite fantastic in autumn! It is quite a pleasant river, there were other tourists who took the boats to leisurely enjoy the river. While it might be tempting, do not cross the bridge to explore the hills if you want to have enough energy to explore the more “famous” sites in Arashiyama.
The directions are pretty good at Arashiyama so it’s okay to walk around without a map. There are numerous toilets conveniently located in Arashiyama too, an indication of how touristy it is. After the Togetsukyo Bridge, the next “famous” place that you will see is the Bamboo Grove. The Bamboo Grove was made popular by the film “Memoirs of a Geisha”. On that note, it is funny how the movie deliberately advertised the Bamboo Grove. Anyone who is familiar with the geography of Japan will know that you don’t have to drive through Arashiyama (Western Kyoto) to get to Hakone. The Bamboo Grove was one of the reasons why I visited Arashiyama (or even Kyoto) but I must say that the Bamboo Grove was quite disappointing. There were simply too many tourists and sometimes people had to stand to one side to allow the taxis to go past. It was a bit too noisy and busy for me to enjoy the serenity that the Bamboo Grove was supposed to offer. But nonetheless, it is still beautiful the way it is.
After visiting the Bamboo Grove, I thought that it was about time for me to visit a temple (read: find a place to sit in the shade and relax). I live in a tropical country and I love the sun but the weather in Kyoto in late-May was a bit too much for me. The sun was very strong, areas with shade were few and far between and the Japanese mosquitoes like to linger very close to your eyes. The nearest temple from the Bamboo Grove was Tenryuji, incidentally yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site. I am not someone who chases after the UNESCO sites in the world but when I am just there, I love to visit these places and understand their historical value. I knew absolutely nothing about Tenryuji prior to the visit so I didn’t know what to expect but I must confess I was expecting something since it is registered as an UNESCO World Heritage Site. There is a beautiful garden at Tenryuji with many ajisai (or Japanese hydrangea) and there are numerous temple buildings surrounding a pond. Many people sat around the ledge of the temple buildings and stared at the pond. I did that too and that was a nice and relaxing break from all the walking. The garden area surrounding the pond (including the pond) has in fact been designated as a Special Place of Scenic Beauty too. It is quite funny because I remember when I was there, I was a bit disappointed at the view, I guess I was expecting something more. Furthermore, most of the signs there are in Japanese so I really have no idea what is the significance of various things. But 1 week later when I was browsing through the photos on a highway bus, I saw this photo of Tenryuji’s garden and I thought it was really, really beautiful and I couldn’t believe that I was once there admiring the view. Now that I am at home looking through all my photos of Japan, I can safely say that the Tenryuji’s garden is the prettiest garden in the temple that I have visited in this trip. Perceptions can change, sometimes rather quickly too.
After visiting Tenryuji, I decided to explore the Sagano area by foot to see less touristic, smaller temples. It was not the best choice because the walk from Tenryuji to the next temple that I visited was quite long – almost an hour by foot. The directions in this area were not as good so I was thankful to have a map to show myself around. Sagano reminds me a bit of Jiufen, Taiwan with the well-preserved streets and red lanterns except Sagano is a lot flatter than Jiufen. There were several bigger temples that I passed by but I did not enter because I wanted to go to the smaller and more creepy temples. The next temple that I visited was Adashino Nenbutsuji. The temple is known for housing ten thousand stone statues (or gravestones) which were used to memorialize the dead since the Hei’an Period (AD 794 – 1185). Every year, ten thousand stone statues will be lit with candles during a ceremony to memorialize the dead. This temple is certainly quite creepy and definitely not so touristic. I wouldn’t say this is my favourite temple but it is definitely something I wanted to see in Japan.
Initially, I thought that I would only be seeing gravestones in Adashino Nenbutsuji. In the end, Adashino Nenbutsuji gave me a big surprise – at the back of the temple was a bamboo grove which was very similar to the one that I have seen earlier expect it was completely empty! I sat on the stairs, ate some crackers, listened to the howls of the wind and admired how the bamboos swayed in unison. That was really quite a serene and relaxing experience. 🙂
Initially, I thought that Adashino Nenbutsuji would be my last stop of the day as I was already feeling quite weary. As I was trying to find my way to the bus stop, I met a Japanese old lady who seemed to be going to the bus stop too (she was talking to me in Japanese but I couldn’t understand her too well). The directions to the bus stop were not so good in Sagano too. I was actually quite surprised that she led me to the bus stop because I couldn’t really communicate in Japanese. When we approached the bus stop, she recommended this temple to me (I think that was what she did) so I decided to just go in and have a look. I thought we would be going in together but in the end, she sat outside the temple. I guess I interpreted her intentions wrongly.
Anyhow, the last temple I got to see in Arashiyama was a cute, charming one called Otagi Nenbutsuji. The temple is not even in the Japanese guidebooks but it is so cute! There are many Buddha statues with different expressions scattered all around the temple complex, it was quite some fun walking around and scrutinizing the whole array of facial expressions on the Buddha statues. Apparently, people who received blessings from the temple made these statues (I guess they didn’t make the statues themselves but rather ordered them) to thank the gods. Some of the Buddha faces were covered with moss and together with the mountainous backdrop, it makes the temple blend in quite well with nature. There are so many statues with cute expressions, I was so tempted to take photos of all of them. I am happy that I visited this temple, if someone were to ask me for the directions to get to the temple today, I wouldn’t be able to tell him/ her because I didn’t know how exactly I got to there. I made a few bad turns from the previous temple and somehow got there. Life sometimes works in mysterious ways.