Autumn is one of the best times to visit Kyoto, and for anyone visiting during the maple-leaf season of November-December, there is one place that I always recommend for a day’s exploration: Saga-Arashiyama.
The primary tourist attractions of Arashiyama (meaning ‘Storm mountain’) is Tenryuji temple. Tenryuji is a World Heritage listed Zen temple with a fantastic garden and the scenery of the surrounding mountains in the background. However, there are often far too many visitors in the peak season- so go there early in the day if you plan to visit. The area between Tenryuji and the beautiful Togetsukyo bridge (‘Moon-crossing’ bridge) can also be too crowded during the peak seasons of Spring (March-April) and Autumn (October-December). Still, in a way that is typical of most tourist areas in Kyoto, just a short distance away from the central sightseeing area are some amazing hidden treasures. The path on the other side of the Togetsukyo bridge which follows the Katsura river into the mountains up to a mountain temple (I have introduced this previously) is one such gem. Rakushisha and the area to the north of Arashiyama is another.
Bamboo grove to Rakushisha
You can enter the bamboo grove by walking along the main street away from the river and past Tenryuji temple. It will be on your left. At the entrance you will find a number of ice-cream shops and other eateries. The start of this walk is likely to be crowded, but as you get further into the forest, the crowds will ease, and you will find an opportunity to listen to the rustling of the bamboo above and admire the different shades of green and light as it filters in through the forest. Though there are some other bamboo forests on the outskirts of Kyoto, this is the most accessible.
As you walk you will find the Nonomiya shrine (free), which is especially popular for young women. This shrine is a reflection of the history of Arashiyama, which has its roots more than one thousand years ago as a playground for the nobles and royal family in the Heian period (794-1185). This shrine was a place for imperial priestesses to stay in order to become purified before taking up duties at Ise Shrine, the most sacred of Japanese shrines (in Mie Prefecture). Nonomiya shrine is also famous for the unusual torii (shrine gate) at its entrance, as well as the garden and bed of moss you will find on your right side after you enter through this gate.
As you walk through the bamboo forest, you are also likely to find the wonderful garden inside its grounds, Okachi Sanso (check signs). This garden and its buildings are the former estate of Denjiro Okochi, a famous actor who appeared in some of Akira Kurosawa’s early films.
Exiting the bamboo forest, you should come across a path that leads to Rakushisha and a number of temples (Nison-in and Takiguchi-dera). About a 5 minute walk after exiting the bamboo forest you will find an open field where locals still grow vegetables and rice. On your left side you should find Ogurasanso (お小倉山荘)a shop that is well worth dropping into if you enjoy Japanese rice crackers. A little further on from this you should find a statue of a group of four samurai from Tosa (now Kochi Prefecture in the south of Shikoku island). These samurai (including perhaps the most celebrated, Sakamoto Ryoma) were central figures in the Meiji Restoration (1867), which brought an end to the Edo period and started Japan on the path to modernization.
On the opposite side of this field is a little thatched house in a large garden. This is Rakushisha (300Y), the cottage of the poet Mukai Kyorai. Kyorai was one of the 10 disciples of haiku legend Matsu Basho, and one of the most important poets of the Genroku period (1688-1704), a period considered to be the ‘golden age’ of the Edo era (1603-1867). The name Rakushisha means the ‘house of the fallen persimmons’, and refers to a story in which Kyorai was enlightened after waking one morning after a storm to find that all of this persimmon, which he had planned to sell, had fallen.
As it is full of stones engraved with poems inspired by the area (translated in English on the brochure), Rakushisha is a great place to appreciate Japanese poetry. If you are inspired enough to write some yourself, there is also paper to write your own poem on and boxes for you to submit them for possible publication in the Japanese information brochure!
After leaving Rakushisha, it is well worth continuing on the path up along to Nenbutsuji, and dropping into one of the temples along the way. Gio-ji temple is especially worth visiting if you are interested in checking out some of the lesser-known temples of the area. For those who want a long walk, this path leads all the way up through a valley into the Nenbutsuji historically preserved area (about an extra 30 minute walk).
Nenbutsuji temple is famous for its hundreds of stone images mourning the many dead whose bones were discarded here in medieval times. Despite this sad history, however, the temple itself is a beautiful place to visit. This valley has a number of interesting shops and well preserved buildings, including thatched houses, some that were built around 300 years ago. Most of this path is very quiet and closed to most car traffic, so is an excellent location for a sightseeing stroll.
Past Nenbutsuji you will find a number of old restaurants in beautiful ancient buildings. The one next to the red torii gate (the entrance for Atago mountain) is recommended for those who want to have some powdered green tea (macha) after their long walk. Close to there you can get the bus back to Arashiyama or Kyoto.
Access: JR Saga-Arashiyama is about an 8 minute trip from Kyoto station by train, and the sightseeing area is about a 10 minute walk from this station. Please follow the maps. You can also get to there from Keifuku Arashiyama (from Shijo Omiya) and Hankyu Arashiyama (from Kawaramachi or Karasuma- change at Katsura) stations. From Kyoto station you can also get bus 28, though this takes a long time. The JR train is probably the fastest and most convenient way for most people.