Get Lost in a Bamboo Forest: Arashiyama

The day that I got to visit the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest I woke up intending to make full use of my Japan Rail Pass. I wanted to make sure I got to visit two important sites near Kyoto that were on a JR line in order to navigate between the two easily: Arashiyama Bamboo Forest and Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine. In this post, I will focus on my experience in Arashiyama.

If you’re considering a trip to Japan for more than a week, a Japan Rail Pass is a helpful tool to allow you to freely use the trains run by the Japan Railways Group, a company made up of six different railways companies. Depending the length of your stay, you can purchase a 7-day, 14-day, or 21-day pass.

The pass allows you to hop on any train run by the group but for greater distance trips reserving your seat ahead of time is recommended. You can also purchase the pass by area if you plan on staying around a certain location. Tokyo has JR lines that run through the city as well which makes travel within the city more affordable.

Getting to Arashiyama

The Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, located Northwest of Kyoto, is on the JR Sagano line. You can hop on this line from the Kyoto JR station and ride the train for about 15 minutes until you reach the Saga Arashiyama station. If you prefer to use the Henkyu Railway, get the train at the Shijo or Omiya stations in Kyoto towards the Arashiyama stop.

Using my JR pass I got off at the Saga Arashiyama station and made my way towards the entrance to the forest.

The Arashiyama area is the second most visited place  by tourists in Kyoto. Located at the base of the Western Mountain, the area offers visitors a stroll through the famous bamboo forest as well as various temples and shrines and even the former villa of a famous Japanese silent film star.

After a 10 minute walk through a residential area of Arashiyama (and after purchasing an ice-cream cone), passing through a small street with shops and restaurants, I made it to my first stop.

Tenryuji Temple

Tenryujii Temple is one of the main sites to visit in Arashiyama. The temple is a UNESCO World Heritage site and its grounds offer visitors a pleasant walk through gardens and various halls. The temple, built in 1339, was Shogun Ashikaga Takauji’s attempt to appease the wronged spirits of Emperor Go-Daigo whom he had turned on to gain power.

The temple is ranked first among the Zen temples of the city and houses its own sect of Rinzai Zen Buddhism.

I walked around the grounds exploring the different buildings in the temple complex. I took paths that lead up hills, through trees, and around the temple. At the Tenryuji temple, I sat down on benches that face the temple’s pond garden. After my exploration work-out, sitting in the temple’s shade looking onto the pond full of koi fish was very peaceful.

Winding paths in and around the nature at Tenryuji temple. | Photo by Alexandra Pamias
Winding paths in and around the nature at Tenryuji temple. | Photo by Alexandra Pamias
Tenryuji Temple overlooking the pond garden. | Photo by Alexandra Pamias
Tenryuji Temple overlooking the pond garden. | Photo by Alexandra Pamias

(To read more about Tenryuji Temple, visit japan-guide.com guide on the site)

Okochi Sanso:  A Silent Film Star’s Estate

After enjoying what Tenryuji Temple had to offer I made my way into the famous Arashiyama Bamboo forest. The forest was definitely one of the most spectacular display of nature that I have ever seen. Thousands of bamboo trees tower over you, admitting only small streams of sunlight through. I went from walking with big groups of people to finding myself alone on stretches of the path, allowing for perfect picture opportunities.

A rare moment with no people in the shot. | Photo by Alexandra Pamias
A rare moment with no people. | Photo by Alexandra Pamias

After walking along the path I reached the entrance of Okochi Sanso, a two-hectare estate that belonged to Japanese silent film star Denjiro Okochi (1898-1962). The ¥1,000 entrance fee seemed a little steep at first but I had read that it was worth it so I paid and climbed the hill leading to the actor’s former home.

The main house, Daijokaku, where Denjiro Okochi resided is an elegant example of typical Japanese architecture. Visitors are not allowed in the home but one can imagine how pleasant it must have been to live in a home with such a breathtaking view; the villa looks over the city of Kyoto.

Denjiro Okochi's Japanese Style Home | Photo by Alexandra Pamias
Denjiro Okochi’s Japanese Style Home | Photo by Alexandra Pamias
View from the slopes of Mount Ogura where Okochi Sanso is Located | Photo by Alexandra Pamias
View from the slopes of Mount Ogura where Okochi Sanso is located | Photo by Alexandra Pamias

While the main house is certainly breathtaking, it does not compare to the magical trek through the gardens of the villa. Visitors are lead through the gardens following a specific route that makes stops at the other landmark structures of the estate. These buildings, along with the main house, were declared tangible cultural properties by the Japanese government in 2003.

Before starting the hike, I came to a stop at Chumon, the Middle Gate. The wooden gateway, with a stone lantern and a stone buddha on either side, is a charming introduction to the path.

The Middle Gate (Chumon) serenely welcomes visitors into the Okochi Sanso gardens. | Photo by Alexandra Pamias
The Middle Gate (Chumon) serenely welcomes visitors into the Okochi Sanso gardens. | Photo by Alexandra Pamias

After walking on stepping stones through winding paths in the stroll garden, I reached the location of Jibutsudo, a Buddhist Shrine. The shrine is a Meiji-era building that was moved to the villa and it currently stands near the top of the estate, nestled among trees.

Jibutsudo, a small Buddhist shrine in Okochi Sanso. | Photo by Alexandra Pamias
Jibutsudo, a small Buddhist shrine in Okochi Sanso. | Photo by Alexandra Pamias

After taking the picture above, I turned right and continued my way through the villa. I soon as I reached the green gardens of Tekisuian, a tea house, I was hit by a burst of green. I waved to the gardener pruning  the bushes and walked down the stepping stone path to the tea house.

The stone path leads visitors through the tea gardens to the Tekisuian. | Photo by Alexandra Pamias
The stone path leads visitors through the tea gardens to the Tekisuian. | Photo by Alexandra Pamias

After visiting Tekisuian, I climbed down to the end of the route where I found Matcha tea and a sweet waiting for me.

Refreshing snack after touring Okochi Sanso. | Photo by Alexandra Pamias
Refreshing snack after touring Okochi Sanso. | Photo by Alexandra Pamias

After exploring the bamboo forests and surrounding area a bit more (and managing to get lost) I made the decisions to hop back on the train to make my way to my next sight: The Fushimi Inari Shrine.

What I Wish I Could Have Seen

As I made my way back to Fushimi Inari, I left Arashiyama thinking that I had seen all there was to see. Getting lost and not finding any other sites didn’t help either. But since then I have researched the area and realized I missed out on many others.

Here is a list of the places I have compiled using this Kyoto’s Visitors Guide that I plan on visiting in Arashiyama next time I get to visit Kyoto:

Randen (Keifuku) Arashiyama Station

Nonomiya Shrine

Seiryo-ji Temple

Rakushisha

Nison-in Temple

Adashino Nenbutsu-ji Temple

Atago Shrine

 

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