Guide to Exploring Arashiyama, Kyoto

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

If you’re reading this, it’s safe to assume that you are either hoping to travel to Japan or at least, interested in finding out more about it. With that in mind, I venture a second assumption: if you like Japan, then you’ve googled Japan, and likely seen the magical bamboo forest. 

The towering, swaying bamboo stalks are situated far west of Kyoto in a district called Arashiyama. But apart from harbouring one of the most Instagram-able sights of Japan, the town is also home to several temples (they aren’t all in the Kyoto Centre though it may feel that way!). So, with that in mind I suggest that you try to keep a whole day aside for your visit as opposed to a quick run through the bamboo forest and back home. Or at the very least assign half day for Arashiyama and pair it with a visit to Kinkakuji temple in the morning. We opted for the latter but before I dive into what we did on this leg of our trip, a small warning: Arashiyama is crowded. Like a-cycle-can’t-budge-in-the-crowd crowded. More on that later. But again, I reiterate: it’s crowded. 

1. Kinkauji or Golden Pavilion
If you don’t have a whole day to stroll around Arashiyama due to limited time in Kyoto, then you’ll probably want to include the famous Kinkakuji Temple in your itinerary. The good thing about this plan is that Arashiyama is easily accessible from the temple and requires just a quick bus and train ride. This Zen Buddhism temple in Northern Kyoto is recognised as UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site and is most widely known for its extravagant exterior – with the top two floors covered entirely in gold leaf.

2. Arashiyama and cycling
After completing our visit in the morning to Kinkakuji, we reached Arashiyama and rented our cycle straight from the station. The temples in this part of Kyoto can be quite far from one another so walking isn’t always a viable option. The whole area also has a more residential and countryside feel to it so if you really want to explore the locales properly, we suggest getting off the main street’s tourist circus and cycle. Given the bamboo grove attracts immense crowds, we did a cycling tour around Arashiyama first before heading there in the evening.

But, remember my cautionary tale? Well as promised, now I elaborate. During my research I had been warned not to cycle in the bamboo grove. Not for any sacred reason, but because you physically cannot. There are people, people everywhere. So obediently we did our cycle tour of the area first and then promptly put in the address of our cycle store into Google Maps so we could return our vehicles and walk on foot to the groves nearby. But the bamboo grove is actually just around a narrow street which is right off the main street of Arashiyama. So, they aren’t a giant tourist destination highlighted on Google Maps, rather they are the ROAD on said map. Before we knew it, we were inside the grove, getting dirties from tourists left right and centre who wondered which obnoxious girl decided to ram a cycle into a path riddled with humans. We had no choice but to keep going as people were walking in both directions. The silver lining was that this truly was an exercise in a) how not to kill people and b) keep at it in the face of public embarrassment. 

3. Saga Toriimoto preserved street
This is a beautiful historic street lined by traditional townhouses (machiya). The charming old streets of the neighbourhood makes you feel like you’ve stepped back in time. Somehow, the street survived the wear and tear over the years and retained the Meiji Period machiya which used to be private residences but have since evolved into shops and eateries or even a doll museum as you’ll see. This part of the day is perfect for exploring along the way or for sitting down for lunch. It’s also the path less travelled, as most travellers won’t venture out so far so it’s your chance to take a breather from the “touristy” Japan.

4. Otagi Nenbutsu-ji
Walking from Saga-Toriimoto to Otagi Nenbutsuji, we’d forgive you for thinking you’ve gotten lost, but if you stick with the path your persistence will be rewarded with a beautiful and usually overlooked temple. This temple boasts 1200 statues of Buddha’s disciples (Rakan statues). But the unique part is that each statue was created by a different artist so each is distinct, depicting images of laughter, joy, and whimsy which are a contrast to the usually serene artworks found in religious monuments. This temple although very small was one my favourites on this Japan trip due to its unusual ambience and because it was completely devoid of tourists. 

5. Tenryu ji and Bamboo Grove
If you’re short on time and just want to see the main attraction, then it’s certainly a viable option. The grove can be accessed via the main street of Arashiyama, conveniently located outside the train station. Although, however short on time, it’s still best to pair it with the Tenryu-ji Temple as it’s essentially connected to the grove through one of its entrances. I also encourage you to pair it with a second sight like Tenryu-ji because on its own, I found the bamboo grove slightly overrated. Its chock-a-block full of people unless you go really early or really late and not worth the trek alone. But paired with a visit to other temples in the area, it can make a great day out. 

A quick tip for anyone thinking of making the journey. There is a foot onsen right next to platforms at Arashiyama station. It’s ridiculously cheap at just 150 yen (towels included) or even completely free if you rent a cycle from the station like we did. I bought some potato croquettes from the station (hopefully vegetarian) and rested our aching feet in the onsen before catching our train back to the hotel.

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  1. Ahhh I went to Japan last summer and seeing your pictures make me want to go back so badly :D

    xo Noor