After a few days in Osaka and Kyoto, we moved outside of the big city to Arashiyama; located on the outskirts of Kyoto. This is more of my kind of town since I’m not a big-city kind of guy. However, the big cities in Japan are remarkably clean, safe, and quiet compared to the rest of the world. In Japan, I didn’t feel as compelled to “escape the city” as I usually do in big cities.
Major Sites in Arashiyama
Hot Springs and Hospitality
Arashiyama is basically still in Kyoto, but it is not anything like the big city. It’s sort of a resort town, home to a few hot spring hotels, called Onsens. Hot springs and Onsens are located all over Japan, especially around the more volcanically active areas such as Mount Fuji. Several of the hotels around Arashiyama are also Ryokans, traditional Japanese hotels. Our hotel, Togetsutei, is a Ryokan with an onsen. Ryokans can be pricey, but it was worth the expense to better experience the Japanese culture, food, and hospitality.
Ryokans are probably what you picture when you think of “traditional Japanese rooms”: sliding doors with paper windows, tatami mats, futon mattresses, short tables, and chairs with no legs. Yes, you pay extra to sleep “on the floor”.
The service at our hotel was excellent. They offered a traditional Japanese breakfast (with a few western items thrown in like coffee). While we were at breakfast, the room service would roll up our mattresses and replace the floor space with the tea table and chairs. During the afternoon they would come into our room and serve us tea. When we returned again after dinner, they had reset our mattresses for sleeping. They offered us umbrellas when it was raining (even after checking out). I was impressed with the service and hospitality. It was an art-form.
Experiencing the Onsen
Beneath our hotel was a tunnel that connected across the street to the other section of the hotel and the hot water source. The hotel has an entirely finished room where the water flows in and settles in a pool, similar to a large hot tub. People seek out onsens in Japan for their natural healing abilities. Often, the onsens are public baths. We shy Americans opted for a private bath.
It was surprisingly exhausting (but at the same time relaxing) sitting in the hot water for an hour. The room offered showers inside of the room to wash before you get into the hot water. During our time in the hot water, we used the shower a few times with cold water just to cool off. In addition, the hotel provided everything we needed to make it relaxing: robes, slippers, towels, soap, ice water to drink, and buckets for cold water to pour on your head. They got it all figured out!
Arashiyama is located on the Katsura River, adjacent to the mountains. Our hotel was right next to the bridge that takes you over the river into town. The river and mountains combine for fantastic scenery. It looks like the end of October is a great time of year to visit with the trees changing color. On two of our three days it rained. Not ideal, but the rain created fog that rolled over the mountains; making the area even more mystical.
Right down the street from our hotel was the path leading to the Arashiyama Monkey Park. Located a few hundred feet up the mountain, the park is home to dozens of Japanese Macaques. It is a fairly long and steep walk to “meet” the monkeys, but it is worth it once you get there. The park has been preserved to let the monkeys live on the mountain with frequent human visitors.
At the top of the path, there is a building that allows the humans to safely feed the monkeys without having to worry about getting chased down for more food. There are several signs warning not to feed the monkeys in the park. I didn’t get many good pictures due to the many warning signs stating not to get too close. Some monkeys were friendlier than others too.
The monkey park is an easy stop in Arashiyama. It’s a good workout climbing the hill to the park too. It was 500 Yen to get in. If you want to feed the monkeys, you can pay for “monkey feed” consisting of peanuts and apple slices. The park also offers another great view of downtown Kyoto.
Just a few steps from our hotel, we walked up a path along the river which leads to the Daihikaku Senkoji Temple. There are several signs on the walk to the temple promising the best view in Kyoto to lure tourists. The temple was very small compared to what we had seen in Kyoto over the past few days, but it was quaint and peaceful. We dropped in on a tour group that was having a Q&A session with a buddhist monk. And the temple did have a good view.
On our last day, we walked just up the hill from our hotel to the Horinji Temple. It doesn’t seem quite as popular as many of the larger temples we visited, but I enjoyed it. We only saw a couple of people, so the setting was much more peaceful compared to the temples in the city. The fog was rolling down the mountain too, which made the experience even more memorable. We took our opportunity to make a wish and ring the bell at the temple.
Across the river in Arashiyama sits the Tenryuji Temple. Probably the most famous temple in the area, the area also contains beautifully landscaped gardens and a pond with weeping trees. There is also a tour inside of the main temple where you can admire the architecture and artwork. It was difficult to get a good picture of the temple due to the pond and trees in the way. Photography is not allow inside of the temple.
Bamboo Forest (more nature)
Surrounding the Tenryuji Temple are Kameyama Park and the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest. There are several rickshaw services offering to give rides to tourists through the bamboo forest. We walked through as there isn’t too much to see other than bamboo. It is a unique and peaceful walk, but it can get crowded.
The town is certainly a tourist destination, so we didn’t spend too much time in town other than to get a meal and see the Tenryuji Temple. The most interesting sight we saw in “downtown” Arashiyama is near the light rail station. Next to the station there is a path decorated with lights wrapped with kimonos. It is known as the Kimono Forest, and it’s cool to walk through at night. Kimonos are the traditional dress of Japanese women. Especially near the temples (and the kimono forest), we would see dozens of women dressed in kimonos.
Back to the city
After threes days in Arashiyama, we were ready to return to Osaka. The more populated areas in Japan seem to have better food. That was the only downside to Arashiyama: the food wasn’t as good. Some restaurants also had strange hours. On one particular rainy night, the restaurant where we planned to eat (that was supposed to be open) never opened its doors. Dinner was in a narrow window for most places (5-8pm). As much as we enjoyed our time in Arashiyama, it would be nice to get back into city for the conveniences and better food.
Recommendations for Arashiyama
Get out of the city
First, I recommend going to Arashiyama. It’s in the city, but at the same time it’s not. It would be a great (and super convenient) place to vacation if you live in Kyoto or Osaka. Transportation to Arashiyama from Kyoto is very cheap. It was under 300 Yen from Kyoto Station! Arashiyama was also very Zen, if I may use the term. I enjoyed the more “natury” temples and atmosphere since we were surrounded by mountains as opposed to the urban setting of Kyoto.
Try out an Onsen
I highly recommend trying out an onsen as well. You don’t necessarily need to stay at a ryokan (although it was a cool experience). Most onsens allow you to pay to use the hot spring tubs for the day if you are not staying at the hotel.
For train and/or nature enthusiasts
There is also a “romantic train ride” which we attempted to ride. Unfortunatly we got on the wrong train; so we missed it. Speaking of trains, there is a scenic train that passes through the mountains along the Katsura River.
Opting for the cheaper alternative, you can just enjoy a walk through the bamboo forests, or visit a few of the many temples in the area. Plus there are monkeys right up the mountain. How can you go wrong?
Arashiyama is a tourist destination, so there are plenty of shops to get unique gifts like matcha tea or candy.