30 June 2016

Kyoto Daytripping: Arashiyama

Whilst staying in Osaka in April/May this year, I visited Kyoto on a number of occasions. One of the main reasons I chose Osaka as my base was its proximity to Kyoto and other locations in the Kansai region. Even though I enjoyed my trips to Kyoto, and certainly preferred it to Osaka (in terms of appearance and atmosphere), it still didn't quite live up to expectations, given its reputation as a must-visit destination in Japan (this is despite being awe-struck by two geisha I spotted one night in the historic geisha district of Gion - surely the quintessential experience for the tourist in Japan). Maybe it's because most of the times I visited Kyoto I had the misfortune of torrential rain so spent a lot of time in museums rather than wandering the streets or parks. Or perhaps it's because I'd reached temple/shrine saturation point by the time I visited those located in Kyoto. Either way, my two highlights of the Kyoto area are actually located outside the city itself: Arashiyama and Fushimi Inari (which I will write about in another post). Both of these places are in my opinion much more impressive than anything I saw in the city. If you ever spend a short stay in Kyoto, I would suggest making a day trip to one or both of these places rather than focussing solely on the attractions in the city itself.

Arashiyama is located in the western outskirts of Kyoto. If you take the Hankyu line to Arashiyama like I did, the first thing you do once exiting the train station is walk across Togetsukyu bridge which crosses the Katsura river. The river itself is covered in pleasure boats and is a good location to spot local wildlife.

Thickly forested riverside with pleasure boats

Cormorants enjoying a day of fishing on the Katsura river

The river as seen from a observation point near the bamboo grove

Once you cross the bridge, you are confronted by what looks like an extremely touristy area with masses of souvenir shops and tourists disembarking from coaches in their hundreds. Luckily, once you move away from this central area, the attractions tend to be less busy. The one exception to this is the bamboo grove, which unfortunately was horrendously busy, as I suppose is to be expected given it is the most famous attraction of the area. This was a real shame, as it seemed like a magical place, but you couldn't truly get a sense of this with the number of people walking through it. I was also slightly disappointed that there was only one designated path through the bamboo grove, and you could not simply wander through it freely.

Walking through the narrow path of the bamboo grove was one point at which I got extremely frustrated with people spending what felt like hours taking photos of themselves, with or without selfie sticks. It's quite a narrow path through the grove, so if there is a group doing this you not only can't pass but it takes up your entire view of the grove, which is somewhat distracting to say the least. I know I'm as guilty of taking photos as the next person, but sometimes I wish people would spend more time simply enjoying their surroundings rather than taking photos of themselves in said surroundings. I completely understand the need to record experiences for posterity, but not when it's at the detriment of enjoying the here and now. And that's the end of my selfie rant.

Bamboo Grove: vertical view

Bamboo Grove: horizontal view

After battling our way through the tourists at the bamboo grove, we went to a much more tranquil location: Okochi Sanso Villa. This is the former villa of samurai actor Denjiro Okochi, who carefully worked on the design of the gardens for 30 years. Since his death in 1962 the gardens have been open to the public. The entry fee is 1,000 JPY which includes green tea and a biscuit in the teahouse. Not only are the grounds themselves imprressive, but also afford stunning views of Kyoto as it sits on a hill. I also found the journey through the garden very interesting and different to any other Japanese garden I had visited (and I have visited quite a few now!). The paths between different locations within the grounds were frequently built up with foliage so that you were walking through 'tunnels', from which you could not see the overall plan of the garden, meaning that when you appeared in the next location it was all the more surprising and impressive. It also meant that the contrast between the 'closed' passages and the great open viewpoints of the city was even more breathtaking.

Restorative matcha and red bean biscuit in the teahouse

Chumon (middle gate)

Daijo Kaku (main building)

Jibutsudo (small temple)

After enjoying a quick lunch back down by the river, we visited Monkey Park Iwatayama. I was initially sceptical about this, partly because I expected it to be a quasi-zoo (and I'm not a huge fan of zoos), and partly because I'd stumbled across a 'monkey park' in a public park in Sakai the previous week which had been full of pretty mangy and unhappy looking monkeys. However, my preconceptions of Monkey Park Iwatayama turned out to be completely wrong, happily. The park is really just an area where the wild monkeys (Japanese macaques) that live in the mountains congregate because they are offered food. 

After buying your entry ticket to the park, a steep hike up the mountain for 20 minutes or so is rewarded by being able to get close to these monkeys in their (near-enough) natural environment. It happened to be the right time of year for baby monkeys to be born, which massively added to the cuteness factor.

Deep in thought

Family portrait

I'd prefer a hot bath


Just having a snack

But mummy I want to play

The monkeys and the turtle dove

If you visit the monkey park, definitely stick around for feeding time. The park 'ranger' has a bucket full of food from which he throws handfuls out for the monkeys, and they get so overexcited that they almost forget that they're wild (I had a couple of monkeys nearly run right into me in their haste to get to the tasty snacks). The monkeys are apparently omnivorous, and in the park they are fed things such as soybeans, chestnuts, peanuts, bananas, and even Japanese persimmons. No wonder they like to gather here from all over the mountain. Oohing and aahing over the baby monkeys was a great way to end the day in Arashiyama, and the sun even decided to come out for the first time all day.

If I went back to Arashiyama, I would love to spend more time simply hiking in the mountains. I spotted a couple of temples in forested areas in the mountains and it would be great to hike around there and discover some of the less well-trodden paths. As has been the trend for me so far in Japan, I've enjoyed the beautiful parts of the countryside more than the urban centres.

Have you ever been to an animal park?


  1. That baby monkey is the cutest! Apart from Nara park I've not seen much nature on my visits to Japan - although it's an excuse to go back!

    1. I know... I had to stop myself from squealing in delight the entire time I was in the monkey park! The nature in Japan is fantastic... especially coming from London where the most exciting thing you'll probably ever see is a city fox haha.