IS IT WORTH IT: Arashiyama Bamboo ForestFiled Under:
Sagano Bamboo Forest, Arashiyama
You’ve seen the stock image before: a low angle shot of an overwhelming, towering, green bamboo forest and a lonely path. It invokes the sense of a quiet, intimate scene; the observer looking up at the bamboo swaying in the breeze, surrounded by an ancient, spiritual sing-a-long of the engulfing Japanese forest. This idealistic, tranquil place exists in Arashiyama, Japan, so the caption says.
Tourism information will tell you it’s the top of the Kyoto-travellers sight-seeing list; you’d be disappointed if you missed this spectacular sight! But do you really trust those reviews?
This is my experience and mine alone. Maybe your visit was the milestone of your Japanese trip. (I hope you pick up at least one of these along the way.) My visit to Arashiyama, as you can expect by my idealistic view of the bamboo forests, was riddled with unfulfilled expectations. Of course there were some silver linings but let’s start at the beginning.
Having researched the Arashiyama area myself, preparing to play the role of Ben’s personal tour guide for the day (Ben in the part of humble, pliable spectator), we flashed our JR passes and boarded the 15-minute train from Kyoto to Arashiyama along the Sagano line. Upon exiting, we became aware of the fact that many, many other sightseers were here on personal and organised tours of their own. Almost nothing ruins a private tour more than having to share it with human herds being shepherded to and fro by leaders waving pom-pom-ended sticks around like desperate piper’s pipes.
Reluctantly, we joined the herds and shuffled from the train station along a walkway, following signs pointing towards the main attraction. Anticipating a long walk to the forest, we tried to calm our crowd-claustrophobic heads so we could be ready for the serenity to come. Sploosh. The famous Arashiyama Bamboo Forest came too soon, only 200 metres up the path.
Imagining this as only the entrance, my hopes were crushed when I realised this small corridor of bamboo, separated from the tourist masses by a high fence, is the “forest”. The tranquillity I had come in search for was instead a sparse space of tall bamboo craning above tours of people unwilling to accept the fact that they were not alone here (read: absently stopping short in front of people, pushing their way through, congregating in big groups and blocking the path). Cameras beam up at the bamboo for the classic shot, while others take this opportunity to start their modelling career and sequester the crowded path for an impromptu photoshoots, getting annoyed when others don’t see the importance of their outdoor studio space.
It’s not worth it! I screamed internally, wondering who got paid for publicising such an underwhelming, bamboo forest and allowing hundreds of tourists a day to stumble up the path. I sure hoped that the neighbourhood would produce some more aesthetic experiences. I looked over at my increasingly-agitated tour group: let’s get the fuck out of here.
I should mention here that we were so optimistic of covering the huge area of Arashiyama in a day that we brought our longboards to cruise around on. Longboards in Japan are a pretty rare thing – being an open “rebel” in Japan is not really the thing to be done – but we didn’t realise ‘til now that skate-able pathways/roads were equally as rare.
Winding towards the nearest exit, cursing as we passed the busy and expensive Tenryu-ji temple, we found a sign describing the other sites we might have a chance of silence in. Skating as much as we could, we continued until we spotted another sign. I pulled out my notebook; the most intriguing spot I’d researched was nearby. “This way”, I say, dragging my companion towards Rakushisha Residence.
Rakushisha is the modest, walled, 17th century home of Mukai Kyorai. A treasured student of Japan’s most famous haiku poet, Basho Matsuo, Kyorai’s home was once the scene of his extremely reclusive life. Now, by handing over ¥200 at the gate, you can experience the small cottage and it’s lush surrounding garden – complete with stone plaques with Kyorai’s haikus etched in (only in Kanji though).
The name of the residence, Rakushisha, refers to the unfortunate event that occurred to the inhabitant: one autumn, Kyorai watched as his persimmon trees, laden with fruit ripe for selling at the markets, were obliterated by an overnight storm. Seeing the poetry in this unfortunate reminder of life’s fleeting riches Kyorai dubbed his home “the cottage of fallen persimmons”.
Sitting under a vine-covered canopy, listening to a bamboo water feature tick-tock it’s water up and down, we looked out at the persimmon trees that gave the cottage it’s name. A peaceful moment set over us. As writers, we contemplated the serene conditions Kyorai would have worked in while surrounded by mountains and forests centuries ago. A dream most writers hope to fulfil sometime in their lives; the perfect solitude for creativity, of living simply and within your means, of letting your mind slow to the beat of nature.
Flashes, footsteps and foreign voices shatter our serenity, and it’s time to move on. Lugging our skateboards over pebblecrete, a cruisers nemesis, we headed away from the main tourist crowd and began winding up the hills of Arashiyama; giving jealous stares to those tourists choosing the convenience of rented bicycles along the way.
Although a tourist mecca, the further you walk in Arashiyama, the less likely the signs will have English or romaji. I had not expected this as a rookie tour guide and therefore detailed maps weren’t available at these crossroads (honestly I’ve still yet to find a simple, helpful map online). My course was based on a general direction towards spots I wanted to visit, as well as how skate-able, or quiet, a road looked. We managed to roll a little bit, winding through the narrow streets of Arashiyama’s obviously well-to-do suburban streets until finally we came across another striking site.
There are many temples in the area, all asking you to pay your entrance to the divine, so it was important to us and our pockets that we chose the temples carefully. I had been intrigued by the multiple moss gardens available to view in the area and we had just stumbled upon the lush entrance of the Gioji Temple.
Hanging back in hopes of avoiding a loud group of giggling ladies, we ventured up the walkway, paid our dues (¥300) and stepped inside. A vast, dense garden greeted us with the perfectly planned peacefulness ever-present in Japanese gardens. A small path directed us past a magical field of moss, dotted with trees and bordered by a small creek. Then through other sections and perspectives of the same garden, mesmerising us with it’s blanket of green.
Unfortunately the magic was dimmed by the noisy group we hadn’t been able to shake. Their constant chatter and insistence on 30 photos of each and every thing in the garden made it difficult to concentrate on the beauty. Having reached our max limit of dealing with crowds in traditional peaceful places (a feeling familiar to anyone who has ever been to Kyoto), we picked up the pace and slipped out the other side.
Having only brought a stash of emergency snacks, we were starving for a satisfying meal. The confusing, uphill walking, dragging of skateboards, the frustration of crowds and pebblecrete pathways were beginning to take their toll on this Arashiyama tour. I was failing as a guide and the dreaded hangrys were beginning to take over. Occasionally we passed small restaurants selling traditional foods but the exorbitant prices found in tourist traps around the world were alive and well here. We were on a budget today and determined to stick to it.
So, we kept walking. And walking. And walking. Further and further uphill. As guide, I knew I had to get my group into a cheap and interesting temple soon or else my already destroyed reputation would become even more difficult to claw back. Having reached the outskirts of the neighbourhood, we entered the only temple left: Otagi Nenbutsu Temple.
Otagi Nenbutsu Temple
Luckily, this was one of the places I had researched. Buddhist followers were especially devoted at this temple and the grounds were covered with curiously-carved small stone statues, each one unique in it’s representation of the followers who had passed to the next life. An eerily beautiful site, we wandered through the active cemetery, listening to a service being conducted in a modest building on site.
Venturing through a bamboo lined stairway leading further up the hill, we entered another cemetery site. One of the least popular spots in Arashiyama, possibly due to it’s far-off proximity to the denser temple sites, this was the place we almost reached a sense of total calm.
But with our legs aching and tummies rumbling, we gave up on the rest of the day. Having exhausted our energy and patience, we were ready to admit defeat and return to Kyoto. Finding the way back to the station was hastened by our realisation that “train station” in Kanji looks like the letters JR, along with the steep slope of the hill. Finally making it back, we notice the other, similarly tired-looking, tourists around us.
Reflecting on my tour, as all good tour guides do, I concluded that Arashiyama is the kind of place where it’s important to plan ahead; food, water, transport, maps and must-sees are all things that are best worked out before making your way there. As tour guide I chose specifically to cater to our interests, but underestimated the remoteness and breadth of the location. If we had wanted to stay longer there are many other things to fill our time – the most amusing being Iwatayama Monkey Park.
As we hopped the train back to Kyoto, we considered ourselves officially Templed Out. There is so much to see in, and around, Kyoto but after a while, unfortunately, it all starts to feel the same. That’s why the peaceful moments became so important to us; we wanted to fully indulge in the energy of these sacred places without the constant fizzle of tour groups and their cameras.
Arriving at Kyoto’s JR station, we headed to the 10th floor for our favourite ramen shop. Spending all the Yen we saved avoiding temples on refilling our tired, hungry bodies; ordering huge, noodle-filled bowls, perfect gyoza, crunchy karaage and towering Asahi tallies.
With a camera memory full of beautiful, screensaver-worthy images, I had to admit that there was some good times to have in Arashiyama. However for the ill-prepared, short-tempered budget traveller, there were plenty of bad times lying in wait, too.
Time spent: 5 hours
Price: Temple entrances start at ¥200
Where is it: Saga Arashiyama station via JR Sagano Line, Arashiyama and Sagona area
Closed: Rarely, some temples over the New Year period
Worth the Dime or Waste of Time: Worth a few Dimes, if you research and are genuinely interested in seeing more temples, this time with a sweet mountain theme. Just take some food, water, good shoes and strong legs.