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The view from the garden at Okochi Sanso Villa

14 May 2018. I take the train past the stop for Arashiyama and travel on to Kameoka. I’d read that there is a two-hour boat ride down the Hozugawa River to Arashiyama and it seems like a sweet way to begin the day. Alas, there had been too much rain the day before. The river is a wild animal, flowing swift and deep, and waiting to attack at any moment. No boats are running. Disappointed I walk back to the train station and journey backwards to Arashiyama.

If you Google top sights to visit in Kyoto, Arashiyama is always there on the list. It’s a district on the western outskirts of the city, and one article rightly describes it as touristy. I suppose it’s one of the places to visit if you’re short of time in Kyoto, as I was, and want to check off the main sights. With this enticing introduction I share my day there. Hopefully I’ve encouraged you enough to continue reading.

I have a kind of list for Arashiyama – a temple, a private garden, the ever-so-famous and hyped bamboo grove, the equally famous and hyped Togetsukyo Bridge, the less-well-known kimono forest, and of course the monkey park.

I begin with Tenryū-ji Temple, a World Heritage Site that was initially a villa built in 1305. In a civil war Shogun Ashikaga Takauji had bested Emperor Go-Daigo, thus becoming the ruler of Japan. Go-Daigo died, and soon after Ashikaga dreamed of a dragon arising from the river. He concluded that Go-Daigo’s spirit was not resting peacefully so he converted the villa (where Go-Daigo had been raised) into a Zen temple to mollify the Emperor’s spirit. Having been brave enough to fight and win a war he was apparently afraid of ghosts. Oh the frailty of the human spirit.

The temple was lost to fires and wars eight times over the years. Most of the current buildings date from the 1800’s. Nevertheless the strolling pond garden survived the centuries in its original design. The complex consists of several buildings, all exemplary examples of Japanese calm minimalism.

The shrine to Emperor Go-Daigo:

Tenryū-ji is a serene space, only I’m not feeling serene, so sadly it doesn’t penetrate, although I appreciate its beauty. I am, however, quite tickled by this,

and it makes me smile despite the horrific story behind it. It’s one of the two main paintings in the building. The other, understandably, is of a dragon. The face belongs to Bodhidharma, known in Japan as Daruma, the Indian monk credited with being the founder of Zen Buddhism. Apparently he cut off his eyelids so he wouldn’t fall asleep during meditation. It speaks to me of desperation and/or an incomprehensibly fierce devotion to his path. I guess we all do what we have to do. The painting still makes me smile.

I roam the exquisite garden, allowing the serenity to seep in a little. In the tradition of Japanese gardens every turn brings another vista of perfectly calculated beauty, right down to the posing heron.

And on the street outside: a monk going about his business completes the picture of Zen Buddhism in Japan.

Although I appreciate the sparse beauty of Japanese Buddhist temples I find them very reserved, almost stand-offish. It makes me welcome all the more the approachable flavour of the Buddhist temples of South East Asia where Don and I would just wander in and plop down on the floor to meditate for as long as we wanted. I never felt this was possible in Japan unless we were “accredited” members of the congregation. Having said that, there was absolutely nothing to stop me sitting in the main hall of Tenryū-ji and meditating except for my mood. Full disclosure: I was more concerned with getting good photos than simply being present and enjoying where I was. A lesson to myself that I seem to have to learn over and over.

Moving on I walk to the nearby bamboo forest. It really is very beautiful, albeit crowded with tourists like me.

The only time to see this wonderful space unoccupied is to get there very early in the morning. The bamboo is remarkable, reaching so high that I must crane my neck to see the tops.

The sixteen square kilometre forest was created as part of a park designed by Muso Soseki, the same priest who designed the garden at Tenryū-ji Temple. A natural bamboo forest is a rare and lovely thing. When the poles sway in a gentle wind the rustling leaves high up in the trees sing a song of welcome, but honestly the thing that interests me the most on the short path through the forest is this:

I am guessing she is a model, or a performer of some kind. She clearly has an entourage with her. Perhaps they have been doing a photo shoot. She is dressed as a very high-end prostitute from Japan’s Edo era. Courtesans such as this, known as Oiran in Tokyo and Tayuu in Kyoto, were able to choose their clients. Potential clients would have to woo her, visiting her house many times and bringing expensive gifts, and doing all they could to impress and entertain her until eventually (hopefully) she says yes.

From the bamboo forest it is a short walk to the Okochi Sanso Villa and garden. Popular silent-film actor Okochi Denjiro (1896-1962) created the garden over a thirty-year period. I follow the carefully signed track through the garden past the villa,

the diminutive Jibutsu-do Shrine,

past viewpoints,

along cobblestone paths and stairs, past broad expanses of lawn, past cherry and maple and pine trees, past areas of rich green moss, under wooden arches, past stone lanterns, and through forests.

It’s a gorgeous garden, and despite the large numbers of tourists in Arashiyama few of them have come here. I have the place almost to myself. Somehow I manage to miss that my entrance fee covers matcha tea and a sweet at the teahouse. I suppose I’m too busy wanting to get to the next thing.

The next thing is something I’ve been looking forward to, having seen pictures of it during my research for Japan. It’s the kimono forest at Keifuku Randen Tram Station. I’m disappointed because it doesn’t live up to my expectations. Nothing can kill your enjoyment of a place more effectively than unmet expectations. I know this, but it seems to be another lesson I have to learn over and over. Man oh man there is just no pleasing me this day.

Either the colours of the kimono fabric have faded significantly over the six years the kimono forest has existed or the colours in the photos I’ve seen online have been seriously over saturated. I suspect a bit of both. More disclosure: the photos below are also somewhat oversaturated, but they look prettier that way. My photo, my vision, but if you go to see it know that the colours are not nearly so bright.

The kimono forest is, however, quite wonderful, even with faded colours. It is an art installation by Yasumichi Morita consisting of 600 clear acrylic cylinders, each two metres high and encasing kimono fabric. They are scattered in groups all over the station grounds.

Following the path down the kimono lane

I come to a small pond called Ryu no Atago.

The pond is situated at the core energy point of Randen Station. The sign says:

Pond of Dragon

Wishes are granted if the dragon that
Landed in Arashiyama is prayed to.

If you immerse your hands in the water
Your heart will be filled with peace and you will be lead to happiness.

Boy do I ever need this. I hopefully immerse my hands, waiting for peace and happiness to strike. They don’t. Well at least not immediately, but anyway the dragon globe and pond is a delightful surprise at the end of the kimono path.

Making my way back to the street I turn left and walk to the river

It’s the Katsura River, a continuation of the Hozu River and the Oi River, and known as the Hozu in Arashiyama, and the Katsura from then on. Or something like that. I never quite figure it out. I also never figure out the hype around the Togetsukyo Bridge. The bridge is an iconic landmark of Arashiyama. It’s a bridge. Across a river. On the far side of the bridge the river has a lovely side channel where you can rent pleasure boats.

and beyond that a path up to the Iwatayama Monkey Park.

I hadn’t realised that there would be a long hike up to the monkey park. It doesn’t matter. It’s a forty-minute steep uphill hike and just what I need. There is nothing like some serious aerobic exercise to help you feel better. And at the top there are spectacular views of Kyoto, and monkeys! Over a hundred Japanese macaques roam freely around the central buildings and forecourt, and through the surrounding forest.

They are the same species as the famous Japanese snow monkeys that in winter soak in the hot springs way north of Kyoto.

I watch them grooming each other, chasing around after each other, mothers caring for young ones, and many rushing to the open area in front of the buildings when an attendant comes to feed them.

I follow some of them into the forested area, and watch a baby stumbling over the rough ground, it’s new legs not yet strong enough for the rough terrain. A couple of steps and fall down. A couple more wobbly steps and down again. The mother is close by but leaves it be.

I see another tiny one putting on the same endearing display, and a couple of teenagers getting aggravated with each other.

Although Iwatayama Monkey Park is a commercial enterprise there is great freedom to observe the monkeys as they run playing and fighting or lazing around in the shade grooming each other. It is as natural a setting as possible without being entirely in the wilderness. I’ve seen monkeys in true wilderness on a kayaking trip in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. There was something so entirely heart-stopping about that experience – watching an entire troop leap from tree to tree. And I’ve seen monkeys in urban India. Iwatayama is about half way between the two.

It’s a brilliant sunny spring day, the sky is a warm blue canopy, and a gorgeous view of Kyoto and the mountains beyond is right in front of me. I guess life’s not so bad after all.

Post script: months later, writing this post and talking to Don about it I realise what my problem was. Simple really. I was lonely. I had no one to share the day with. I’ve so rarely been lonely that I couldn’t identify what was wrong at the time. I didn’t like travelling without Don. Some days were harder than others, but I just kept putting one foot in front of the other because what else was I to do? Even so I still wouldn’t put Arashiyama near the top of a list of things to do and see in Kyoto unless you have a particular interest in any of the sights there. From Youtube videos I would recommend the open-boat trip through white water from Kameoka to Arashiyama which Don and I plan to do when we’re in Kyoto this coming March.

Next post: A day trip to Nikko and the very beautiful Toshogu Shrine.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2019.