If you were to rely solely on a guidebook to pinpoint all the must-see spots in Japan, Arashiyama would likely be one of the last places you visited, that is, if you visited at all. A western suburb of Kyoto, the area is not so insignificant that it fails to garner a mention, but most guidebooks simply sweep past it in a cursory paragraph or two, suggesting there is little of consequence in its boundaries. This is utterly baffling to me, because despite Kyoto’s myriad draws, Arashiyama turned out to be one of our favorite parts of the city, if not all of Japan.
And not just because of its monkey park! (Though that certainly didn’t hurt.)
Perhaps it is because we went in with no fixed expectations or itinerary and just gave ourselves the freedom to explore, but there is no denying that Arashiyama enchanted us. Unlike many places that make bold claims that they are Japan trapped in amber, a portal to the past, Arashiyama was one of the few places that legitimately felt like a gateway through time. It was everything we had envisioned Japan to be—tranquil, peaceful, beautiful—and seemed an epicenter where the country’s history and spiritual core blended harmoniously with daily life without artifice.
Obviously we felt like the monkey park was reason enough to visit Arashiyama, but for those of you weirdos for whom that would not be enough, fear not! There are plenty of other attractions in the area.
After tearing ourselves away from the monkey park, we slowly strolled toward what is probably Arashiyama’s most famous sight: the bamboo grove.
We made our way through it at an almost reverential pace, marveling at the cool green hue of the world as seen from within its towering shelter. Despite all the visitors around us scrabbling to get a look at the expansive swath of bamboo, I felt calm and content, the setting taking me back to our wedding, three years earlier, when we posed for pictures to commemorate the day in a grove much like this one.
Next was Nonomiya Shrine, a slip of a shrine really, one we only wandered into because dusk was beginning to fall and the warm golden glow of the lanterns as they flickered to life was too welcoming to resist. As we walked its paths, an etheral spirituality slowly began to infuse the darkening air, and as we contemplated the carefully cultivated moss gardens, we could feel the truly ancient ways this city and this place were tied to the earth.
Pulling ourselves from our dreamy torpor, our dilly-dallying was punished with a brisk power-walk as we swiftly made our way through Arashiyama’s gorgeous back alleys in order to reach Otagi-Nenbutsuji Temple, which I had first read about over at Never Ending Voyage. And not to discredit the monkey park (it knows it’s first in my heart!), but this quirky little temple was the entire reason why I had put Arashiyama on our list of places to visit in the first place! It would have been a shame to miss it, and although the temple is pretty much the farthest one from central Arashiyama, we managed to make it there about 10 minutes before the last visitors were admitted.
Given that Kyoto has a gajillion (or at least 1001…) temples, you might be wondering what was so special about this one that I just had to see it? After 18 days in Japan, we had seen a lot of temples, and they can definitely start to feel repetitive, but I’m pretty sure Otagi-Nenbutsuji is one of a kind. It is filled with hundreds of little cheerful little statues in a variety of poses, with a plethora of props (like cameras and kittens!), that are pretty much the definition of kawaii! Like most Buddhist temples, the grounds of Otagai-Nenbusuji were incredibly placid and still, but the statues filled us with a sense of happiness and frivolity that was certainly unique. Without a doubt, this was our favorite temple that we visited in Japan, and was definitely the most memorable.
These are but a handful of the many delights that await you in Arashiyama. Long a favorite sightseeing spot with the Japanese, I am sure it is only a matter of time before foreign tourists catch on and start flocking to the area in droves. After all, who can resist the call of that monkey park?