Unconvering Arashiyama

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.

A rickshaw in the bamboo groves

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.

Bamboo in the bamboo grove. Imagine that!

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.

During our trip Steph has become quite the photographer, landing more than a few great shots in many of our posts. This is the first post where there is an even split in photos she has taken and photos I have taken (this one is hers!), and I wanted to note how proud I am of her skill and interest in photography, and congratulate her on the great progress she has made! — Tony

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?

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11 comments Leave a comment

  1. A beautiful post! I was literally smiling looking at the photos of the statues – they look delightful and interesting. There’s always something kind of special about exploring a place that is still a bit of a secret to tourists.

    Oct. 21 2012 @ 9:04 am
    1. Jessica author

      There is certainly something to be said about the tourist trail, but it really is nice to venture off it and explore a place that feels like it’s all yours to discover. Arashiyama definitely was that for us!

      Oct. 21 2012 @ 6:35 pm
  2. I love it! Those statues all made me smile back at them, esp the little gnome looking ones. 🙂

    And go Steph on rocking the photography as well! I imagine there’s not much more inspiring than a trip around the world. Did y’all do a post on what camera(s) you packed? I imagine Tony’s got some fancy gear, but I’m curious about how much you decided to actually haul around with you. hehe

    Oct. 21 2012 @ 9:36 am
    1. Eva author

      Tony has a photography series that is currently hibernating, but maybe your comment will prompt him to start writing it again! As part of it, he was going to talk about the cameras we selected for our trip (you might be surprised at how little gear we actually have packed!) as well as continuing to give tips for beginner photographers to help us get the best shots we can and improve our photos! Obviously he is a great teacher!

      Oct. 21 2012 @ 6:37 pm
      1. Steph

        *pokes Tony*

        I’ve noticed y’all pack light, but it seems like a lot of travel bloggers who otherwise pack light are a bit crazy about their electronics. lol & tips would be fun. 😉

        *pokes again*

        Oct. 21 2012 @ 11:06 pm
  3. Yay! I’m so glad you made it to Otagi Nenbutsuji. It’s such a unique place and it’s amazing that most people don’t know about it. There’s definitely enough to do in Arashiyama to spend a whole day there. We had lunch at the temple which was another interesting experience.

    Oct. 21 2012 @ 11:41 am
    1. Erin author

      We really were inspired by your post about Arashiyama, and Otagi Nenbutsuji definitely did not disappoint! I could have quite happily spent a few days there – it was definitely one of my favourite places in Japan.

      Oct. 21 2012 @ 6:38 pm
  4. LOVE this post. Really, the peace and tranquility exudes from your words about it, and that temple is so unexpected. I would love to visit.

    Oct. 21 2012 @ 2:35 pm
    1. jenn aka the picky girl author

      It’s always fun to see the well-known, famous sites, but sometimes it is even more fun discovering the overlooked places. This little temple is just so quirky and weird, I’m glad we didn’t miss it!

      Oct. 21 2012 @ 6:39 pm
  5. Individually, the statues are adorable, especially the little peaceful looking ones. But the hordes of statues? That’s bordering on creepy…my mind thinks they’re going to come to life, or some weird shit like that.

    Obviously, I’ve read too much horror this month!

    And I love Tony’s shout-out to Steph’s photography! All the pictures you guys are posting are phenomenal!! (even the creepy hordes of statues)

    Oct. 22 2012 @ 10:39 am
    1. softdrink author

      Well, I won’t argue about you reading too much horror (and that seems to show no signs of changing!), but I take your point. In truth, the temple was REALLY serene and not at all eerie, but I can see how it might not be captured by the photos (even if my mad photography skills are progressing nicely! 😉 ).

      Oct. 25 2012 @ 9:12 pm

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