When Tokyoites want to get away, they book it south to Kamakura and the beach. When Kyoto residents need a bit of green, they head west to the leafy suburbs of Arashiyama and Takao.
Arashiyama doesn’t even feel like a suburb. Step off the train and walk through the quiet streets and you’ll be forgiven for thinking you’ve landed in small town Japan. Add to that the charm of the river and the numerous temples, and Arashiyama is a place you could linger for a while.
Most people who come out here, however, have one agenda – the bamboo forest. Perched on the edge of the Arashiyama district, this stretch of majestic bamboo never fails to delight. Some may be disappointed that it doesn’t stretch on for miles; in fact, you can easily walk the length of the forest in about 3-5 minutes. Still, in a country so bent on modernization at times, it’s a wonderful escape from the concrete and iron.
At the beginning of the bamboo forest, don’t miss out on the gardens of the Tenryu Temple (Tenryu-ji). This stroll garden features flowering plants in all seasons, from irises to azaleas to red winter berries. A path takes you high above the main part of the garden to get a good view of the sizable pond, though you can also view the garden from the porch of the temple hall. (At the moment, the temple itself is under renovation and seems to be closed for a bit. The garden is still open.) And if you get a bit hungry, the tofu restaurant Shigetsu is right on the grounds of the garden. Pop in (though it’s wise to reserve ahead if you can) for a shojin ryori meal (Buddhist temple cuisine that is all vegetarian). Admission to the garden is ¥500.
Most travelers do visit Tenryu-ji (and it’s well worth it), but if you’re looking for a bit of a garden experience without the crowds, head for the opposite end of the bamboo forest. Here you’ll find the path leading up the hill to Okochi Sanso, a villa once belonging to movie star Denjiro Okochi. For a ¥1000 fee, you’re free to roam the nearly 20,000 square meters of land. There are multiple paths to follow, beautifully landscaped areas and some wild back-to-nature potions, a tea house and a small museum (near the bathrooms) showcasing photos from Denjiro’s career. On clear days, you’ll also get stellar views back toward Kyoto City. Tea and a traditional sweet are included in the entrance fee so don’t miss out.
Head down Arashiyama’s main street (with its numerous tourist-friendly restaurants) to the Togetsukyo Bridge. This bridge has stood here for over 400 years, though the current version was built in 1934 to replace the previous structure that was lost in a flood. The bridge has featured in many old ukiyo-e (woodblock) prints and, more recently, in several historical films. It gets extremely crowded here in spring and fall due to the cherry blossoms and autumn leaves; in summertime, you can watch cormorant fishing from the bridge.
Cross the bridge to the southern side of the river and climb the hill (a good, steep 20 minute endeavor … consider yourself warned!) to the Iwatayama Monkey Park. Don’t be surprised if you run into some of the advertised simians on the way. This monkey park is rather unique in that it’s the monkeys who are allowed to run free, while the humans are asked to remain in a central cage during the monkey’s feeding times. You do have to pay a ¥550 admission fee (at the bottom of the hill) but it can be a unique chance to see snow monkeys (Japanese macaques) up close.
There are plenty of backstreet temples, tea shops and little sights to see if you spend the day poking around but for a quick overview of one of Kyoto’s most popular escapes, don’t miss out on the sights above.