Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Arashiyama, Kyoto, Japan

I first read about Arashiyama (嵐山) on a magazine featuring a photograph of the Bamboo Groves. It looked magical with the sunlight peering through the stalks. Immediately smitten, I dreamed of going there someday. When I read more, I found out that Arashiyama also directly translates as "storm mountain". I thought it was fascinating, and I wondered what was tempestuous about the beautiful mountain. My interest was piqued even more and I knew it was going to be one of my most favorite places in Kyoto.

Arashiyama is located on the western outskirts of Kyoto, roughly less than an hour away from the city center. From Higashiyama, I took the Tozai Line to Nijo Station, and then switched to the JR Sanin Line to Sagaarashiyama. The train ride going to Arashiyama was very enjoyable. Parts of the Sanin Line is on elevated train tracks, so there were good views of the seas and mountains.

Tenryuji Temple (天龍寺).

Tenryuji Temple (天龍寺) Garden.

My first destination was the Tenryuji Temple (天龍寺). It is considered as one of Kyoto's five great temples, and has been a World Heritage Site since 1994. It was built in 1339 by Ashikaga Takauji in honor of Emperor Go-Daigo. The original buildings were mostly destroyed by calamities during the course of time, however, the garden survived and is still in it's original form. It was designed by the famous Muso Soeseki. I thought it was one of the most beautiful gardens in Kyoto. It has a big pond with lots of koi, and surrounded by decorative rocks, flowers and pine trees; adding to its charm is the Arashiyama Mountains as its backdrop. I could totally imagine it as an ukiyo-e print.

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove.

From Tenryuji, I walked to the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. Finally! I wanted to cry... It was really magnificent in person! The sunlight cutting through the stalks was indeed very beautiful; It was just as I imagined it. It was a breezy afternoon, and the bamboos were swaying in the wind. It was nice walking along the path cutting through the grove.

Saga-Ogurayama and Saga-Nisonin.

From the Bamboo Groves, I walked to Saga-Ogurayama and Saga-Nisonin, Leading up to Saga-Toritomo. Between Saga-Ogurayama and Saga-Nisonin, I passed by a small shop selling little figurines and other small souvenirs manned by a friendly grandpa. I was there for a while inspectioning figurines, and figuring out what to buy for my father (he likes these stuff). In the end I bought some trinkets for him, and I bought for myself a couple of scarves with cherry blossom and bunny prints. Leaving the shop, I passed by this huge field leading up to Saga-Nisonin where I saw two girls sketching the scenery :')

Blue skies and powerlines :)

Dango and tea!


I had a nice, long, leisurely stroll on the Saga-Toritomo Street, going up to Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Temple. The street has been preserved in the style of Meiji Era. Most of the buildings along the long stretch of the street are machiya style, some of which are private residences, while some have been converted into shops and restaurants. I took a break in one of the shops selling dango and tea. The nice couple who owned the place were very friendly. Since I was the only customer at that time, they kept me company while I was having tea. They chatted with me and were very curious where I was from, and why I was traveling alone, because they thought I looked a bit young to be doing so. I told them I have always wanted to visit Japan, specially Kyoto. After saying thank you and goodbye to the nice couple, I continued my long walk to Otagi Nenbutsu-ji.

Otagi Nenbutsu-ji (愛宕念仏寺).

Aside from the Bamboo Groves, Otagi Nenbutsu-ji (愛宕念仏寺) was one of the highlights of my trip to Arashiyama. It has been called "one of the true unknown gems of Kyoto", and I have been curious about it ever since I read about it's history. It was founded way back in the 8th century, and has seen a lot of natural disastes from floods, fires, and typhoons. What is most interesting about the temple is the thousands of small statues called rakan (someone who has attained nirvana). You can spend hours looking at these quirky statues. A lot of them have interesting facial expressions, or are sporting something humorous. Most of them are now covered with moss, while some have also been damaged. They were carved in 1981 by different people under the tutelage of Kocho Nishimura, in honor of the temple's refurbishment.

Interesting rakans! Do you see the one carrying a camera?

The temple is relatively secluded. It is very out of the way for most tourists, so very few people actually go there. From the Bamboo Grove, it took me roughly an hour to get there by walking (it would have probably been faster, but I had a few stop overs). In fact, when I was there, there were only four of us, and at one point I had the whole place to myself. The thick forest can be creepy, especially when you are alone, but I felt quite brave that day and even climbed up a bit to check out a Shinto Shrine which looked like it was already forgotten. I felt a little sad when I found a shack where visitors can hang their votive tablets. It was sparse, and some read dates which were already way back. It really looked like very few people do visit there. I think it deserves much more appreciation.

I took my time looking at the statues, and taking notes of those which I find interesting and amusing. I thought if I had a traveling gnome, just like in Amelie, I would have placed him together with the thousands of rakans. It would have been a great polaroid! Alone, I sat there for a while and wondered if I could visit this place again.

Otagi Nenbutsu-ji.

Otagi Nenbutsu-ji felt like it was the end of the world. Outside the temple was a tunnel cutting through the mountain. I imagined that if I crossed that tunnel I would be transported to the world of Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away! Otagi Nenbutsu-ji is my second favorite temple / shrine, after Fushimi Inari Taisha.

"With faint dry sound, like steps of passing ghosts
The leaves, frost-crisped, break from the trees and fall."
Adelaide Crapsey

From Otagi Nenbutsu-ji, I took a bus going to the Togetsukyo Bridge (渡月橋), one of Arashiyama's well known landmarks. It literally means Moon Crossing Bridge -- how romantic! It is famous for its cherry blossoms during spring, and autumn colors on the slopes of Arashiyama. There is a riverside park nearby with lots of restaurants and souvenir shops. I sat down for an udon, my late lunch for the day, on an outdoor stall. I walked around the shops and the along riverbank afterwards, and had chocolate ice cream. Aside from this couple having their wedding photoshoot on the riverbank, there were mostly students and groups of friends hanging out. I sat on a bench and enjoyed the scenery. I still haven't found out why they called Arashiyama 'storm mountain', but it doesn't matter.

Udon at Togetsukyo Bridge (渡月橋).

Togetsukyo Bridge (渡月橋) and Katsura River (桂川).

The sun was almost setting as I took the train back to Kyoto. The orange glow of the sun was spilling inside the train car and warmed the cabin. I thought, I am very lucky to have had the opportunity of being here. The trees and rooftops we passed by looked golden, and as always, the powerlines looked seemingly infinite.

Walking around Arashiyama.

When I arrived in Kyoto, it was still early in the evening, so I went around the Kyoto Station Area (京都駅). I walked a little bit, exploring the Kyoto Tower (京都タワー) area and nearby Yodobashi. When it got too cold, I decided to head back in the station and look for something to eat. I had dinner in one crowded-looking ramen stall, but this time, there was no place for customers to sit down, instead we ate the ramen on a counter while standing. The place is packed with salarymen and travelers, their bags still on their shoulders, or left on the floor. It was probably how it feels like living in a rush. People give their orders, pay, eat their ramen swiftly, and walk out. It was all happening too fast, but there was courtesy in the atmosphere. People give curt nods and say thanks when people pass them water, or their change, or when people give way. It was an interesting experience.

Kyoto Station (京都駅).

Manneken Belgian Waffles. Yum!

Kyoto Station is really huge -- it has restaurants, cafes, department stores, and even a hotel inside. The maze of the shops at the lower level can be a bit confusing! I discovered this shop called Manneken selling Belgian waffles. The long queue initially intrigued me, and being a sucker for sweets, I decided to try it. They have the best chocolate waffle, and they were only 147 yen each! I took home three pieces that night :9

Merry Christmas from Kyoto!

Kyoto Station (京都駅) and Kyoto Tower.

For a change, I decided to take a bus back to Higashiyama that night. As I exited the terminal, I saw this giant Christmas tree, and I am reminded why even though it's bittersweet, Christmas remains my favorite day of the year. The Kyoto night time bus ride made me feel a little melancholic, but maybe that's just what happens when you have big bus windows, night time cityscapes, and Death Cab for Cutie playing on your iPod.
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