Arashiyama is a cultural treasure chest, surrounded by mountains, in the western part of Kyoto prefecture. When I look for respite from the liveliness of a modern Japanese city like Osaka, I often plan a day trip to this well-known area of Kyoto.
Arashiyama is also popular among tourists who can devote one day in their schedule to this fantastic town. In late July, two friends and I revisited Arashiyama to escape the overwhelming summer heat. The scenic walks through nature, a visit with wild Japanese monkeys, and the taste of a famous Japanese delicacy recharged our bodies and our spirits. Come with me as I recount my visit through this magical Japanese town.
Getting To Arashiyama
Though several train lines head to Arashiyama, I always prefer to take the Hankyu Arashiyama Line. Hankyu Arashiyama Station is the last stop on the line and leaves visitors off in the middle of a park with a path that leads into town. If coming from Hankyu’s Umeda station in Osaka, the trip will take you about an hour and cost only 390 yen (approx Rs 275). During this visit, I found the nests of sparrows under the eyes of the station. Small baby sparrows pop their heads out of the nest peeping and waiting for their mother to return with food–this to me is a sign of summer in Japan.
A Many-Splendoured Beauty
A small stroll west of the station brought us to the iconic Togetsukyo Bridge. The bridge marks the point where the Katsura river changes names and becomes the Hozu river. A view of the bridge spanning the river with the mountains in the background is thought to be one of the most beautiful scenes in Japan. In the spring, blossoming cherry trees spot the mountains in pink. In the Fall, the mountains are ablaze with leaves turning color. This summer, I got to enjoy the mountains blanketed in a lush vibrant green. Before crossing the Togetsukyo bridge my friends and I enjoyed sitting on one of the benches along the river in order to fully appreciate this display of natural beauty in Japan.
Ascent to Serenity
Adjacent to the bridge is a path leading up to the Arashiyama mountains. This particular path, by the Togetsukyo bridge, heads to the Iwatayama Monkey Park. The park is quite peaceful and only has three to five visitors at one time. Entrance to the park is 550 yen (approx. Rs 390 ) per person–an invaluable experience worth the small fee. The hike up the hill is mildly easy and there are places to rest along the way. People who have difficulty climbing stairs might not be suitable for this activity. When I visit Arashiyama with my best friend’s grandmother we usually skip this part of the trip.
After a brief 15-minute hike uphill, we saw wild Japanese macaque wandering the mountainside, playing in ponds, and resting in trees. There is a small building on top of the mountain where visitors can rest. Park workers are available to answer questions and for 100 yen (approx Rs 70) visitors can feed the monkeys from the inside of the resthouse. The monkeys are quite docile and completely safe to visit. If asked, a member of the park staff will take a photo of you next to the monkeys if you show them how to work your camera. The staff left some food in front of us for the macaques to snack on while we got our picture taken.
An Eel Meal
After the hike back down the mountain left us hungry and worn out in the summer heat, we decided to indulge in a dish called ‘unagi don‘-broiled eel over rice. ‘Unagi Hirokawa’ is a restaurant located a brief five-minute walk after crossing over the Togetsukyo bridge. Deciding to splurge, we ordered the ‘Una-Ju Teishoku’ for 3,700yen (approx Rs 2600) (‘Una-ju’ is a large serving of broiled eel over rice and ‘teishoku’ is the Japanese word for a set meal). The set came with broiled-eel over rice, Koi-fish sashimi, eel and cucumber salad, and a small bowl of soup. Broiled eel has a smoky-sweet barbecue favor with a smooth-earthy texture and is free of strong fishy odors and flavors. The meal was skillfully prepared and our table overlooked a small Japanese garden that ran along the side of the restaurant. The restaurant was quite popular which required us to wait for ten minutes before we got a table. Luckily, the restaurant has adequate seating inside for customers who are waiting on a tab.
With our stomachs full we decided to finish our trip by taking a walk through the quaint Arashiyama bamboo groves. Paths through the bamboo weave through the back areas of Arashiyama. We stopped at the Nonomiya shrine–a beautiful little place to say a prayer of thanks. If the weather is nice there is sometimes a man sitting just outside the entrance of the shrine selling postcards of scenes that he has painted from around Arashiyama–each postcard is 100 yen (approx Rs 70) and makes a great souvenir. Another three minutes north from the Nonomiya shrine is a shop selling a variety of homemade bamboo crafts. The bamboo chopsticks are beautiful and cost around 300 yen (approx Rs 210) each. Nobu and I bought two pairs for our home. I have been to Arashiyama over 10 times and always find something new to discover
- Trains from Hankyu Arashiyama station depart sporadically throughout the day but stick to a strict schedule. Take note of the train schedule after arriving at the station in order to plan your return trip.
- Bring a pack of sanitizing hand-wipes in your bag if you plan on visiting the monkey park.
- Eating eel is a traditional Japanese way to restore stamina and combat summer fatigue, known as ‘Natsu-bate’ in Japanese.
- Recent conservation measures taken to preserve the eel population, such as restrictions on fishing, have caused the price of dishes with an eel to sky-rocket. Keeping these prices in mind, going to a restaurant with a good reputation is highly recommended.
- When saying a prayer at a shrine try to use a Japanese five yen coin. The word for five yen in Japanese is similar to the Japanese word for destiny.
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