Finding Peace in the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
The first morning in Kyoto we decided to venture outside the city and visit one of Kyoto's most popular sights: the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. Heralded as being one of the "most beautiful groves on earth" and designated a "National Historic Site and Place of Scenic Beauty" by Japan, the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is a place unlike anywhere else. It's a place where you can escape yourself, as long as you manage to escape the throngs of tourists as well.
We set off to Arashiyama by bus. There are multiple ways of getting to the Grove, and most people will opt for the train option since you avoid the chance of getting into any traffic jams, but the bus route for us was much faster and this way we were able to see Kyoto as we drove. To get there by rail, you simply take a train from Kyoto Station and take the JR Sagano/San-in Main Line to Saga-Arashiyama Station. The ride takes 15 minutes followed by a 10-minute walk to the Bamboo Grove.
To take the bus, you get on the Kyoto City Bus 28 heading to the Arashiyama-Tenryuji-mae bus stop. Some people are much more intimidated by bus travel rather than the train since it is easier to get lost or take the wrong bus. Understandably so. The Kyoto bus system was rather easy to use although there were a few quirks that differentiated it from other bus systems. The first is how you get on. In Kyoto, you enter the bus through the back and pick up a ticket from a small machine next to the door. This ticket will determine your fare when you get off the bus. There is a display above the driver which states in both Japanese Kanji and Roman letters the names of the bus stops. The announcements are only in Japanese. To exit the bus, you ring the bell and approach the front to put your ticket in the machine. A fare will be displayed, and you must give the driver the exact fare. Most areas of the city have a flat fare so you can quickly calculate for yourself how much money will be needed, so you have the exact coinage ready.
As you approach Arashiyama, the first thing you'll see is that the flat vistas disappear for mountainous ranges. In the early 700-1100s, wealthy nobles would travel to Arashiyama to enjoy its natural landscape and escape the city. While it's still true that people come here as an escape, now this place is for everyone, rich or poor. The word "Arashiyama" translates into "Storm Mountain". The mountains here are covered in lush trees, and because of this, they are slightly dark, giving them their intimidating name. The mountains look down on the Ōi River, creating a picturesque view as you drive in.
Arriving in Arashiyama, you get off the bus and walk up the main street to enter the forest. Entering the forest by bus also gives you access to the less used entrance, and you'll notice that there are much fewer people here than where the train station drops people off. The streets of Arashiyama in the early morning are relatively quiet. The main street of Arashiyama is quite touristy, so early in the morning not many people are out walking the streets. Arriving as early as you can is the best way to view both the city and the forest before it is overrun with sightseers.
Even the manhole covers here in Arashiyama reflect the natural surroundings.
The Bamboo Grove, take up over 500 meters of winding pathways. Different parts of the path veer off giving access to the various other attractions that are housed inside the forest. The Tenryuji temple and Nonomiya Shrine serve as markers which flank either end of the path.
As you first walk into the forest, you'll be immediately struck with the overwhelming quiet that the grove creates. You are enveloped by these towering emerald stalks, so tall they almost stop light from entering in.
The later it got into the morning, the more and more tourists with selfie sticks started popping up. The calm and peaceful nature of the forest began to lose it's relaxing atmosphere the more and more it started to fill up. To some degree, it becomes a bit overwhelming. The best thing to do is make sure to come in early or late in the day to avoid the crowds. And if one area becomes inundated with people, quickly pass through the crowd, and suddenly you'll see that the path opens up. The dense areas of individuals tend to be formed by bus tours, all walking through together, so if you pass by them quickly, you might find that space they just left is pretty empty.
The bamboo itself is truly stunning. The stalks are so thick and bright green in the sunlight. The trunks creak ever so much when a big gust of wind passes through, and they make the eeriest, yet wonderfully delicate, noise. Like a old, worn floor when you walk across it in the night.
Inside the bamboo grove, you'll stumble upon the Nonomiya Shrine. This little Shinto shrine is where unmarried imperial princesses have journeyed to purify themselves before their marriage. The deities that are enshrined here include “Nonomiya Okami”; God of Health and Wisdom, "Shirafuku Inari Daimmyojin"; God of Conception, Smooth Childbirth, and Prosperous Business, “Shiramine Benzaiten” and most importantly for single women, “Nonomiya Daikokuten”; God for Matchmaking.
Good luck talismans are sold near the shrine to give good fortunes to the receivers. Their colourful embroidery is so striking and makes even the happiest person feel in "need" of a good luck charm.
Many couples make their way here to pray for a good marriage with their partners. We were sure to stop momentarily to ring the bell, clap our hands, and bow to the shrine. A little more luck can't even hurt :)
This shrine is also a place where married couples wish for a healthy baby and painless childbirth. So you'll often happy couples holding hands or pregnant women writing their wishes on the ema boards near the front of the temple.
Beside the temple, there is a cemetery with hundreds of obelisk stones standing guard beside the gate. Each one represents either a person or an entire family, who are entombed below. Since it is law in Japan that a person is cremated after death, whole families are often buried together. Their living relatives will often come to visit their graves and place offerings when they do. These offerings are often things the people enjoyed in their waking life. You'll see things like books, beers and even dishes of food laid out on top of the stones. It's a wonderful tradition that makes it feel like those people are still with us. Coming out at night to dine, read or drink in the moonlight.
At the end of the woods, you'll come across the "Sagano Scenic Railway", which has also been dubbed "the Romantic Train". It's a retro-style steam train which runs along the Hozu River, giving viewers some fantastic views of Arashiyama as it chugs along. The station itself is stunning and makes you feel like you've stepped back in time.
Throughout the maze of bamboo, artisans pop up around every corner, selling various crafts made out of the pliable substance. They shape the bamboo into birds and animals with the most delicate touch.
Bicycle rentals around the grove are available is you want to cruise through the grove as well as explore the other areas around the forest. There are also many rickshaws which will carry you and one other person through the pathways, although these tend to be pretty expensive and I found the best way to explore was by foot. Take your time. Listen to the wind blowing through the bamboos and soak up as much of the tranquillity as you can.
As the day wore on towards the afternoon, crowds got increasingly intense. Dan was getting frustrated, and we knew it was time to go. You can't fault people for wanting to come here, it's truly a wonder, but the immense amount of tourists do dampen the enjoyment you get from this place. We weaved our way out in the nick of time. Thankful for coming as early as we could and managing a few undisturbed moments. Finding peace within this chaos isn't something that comes easy, but when you do find it, that's what makes the journey worth it.
In the end, you can't stop people from coming here, and you wouldn't want to. But what we discovered, just down the road at the Ochi Sanso Villa Garden, was that making people pay a small amount to explore both reduces and controls the traffic as well as helps preserve the environment. Something for Arashiyama to consider, a small entry fee to the grove would prevent the massive tour groups from coming on mass. It would help preserve the forest and also aid in controlling the flow of people. Allowing everyone a relaxing and transcendental experience. Changes like this are on their way in other places in the world so I wouldn't be surprised if we saw it here soon. And trust me, it will be a welcome change.