Resembling an ink wash painting, Arashiyama in the western outskirt of Kyoto has long been a favourite escape of the Japanese elites. Since the Heian period, the nobles came here to unwind from the hustle of the city. Today, foreign and domestic tourists flock here to see the evergreen bamboo groves of Arashiyama, as well as to find serenity at Tenryūji – a temple with a stunning mountain backdrop.
The history of Arashiyama (嵐山, “storming mountain”) and the adjoining Sagano dates back to the Heian period when the Japanese imperial family and court started building retreats along the base of Mount Arashiyama. Perhaps, a beautiful natural setting and close proximity to the capital city were the reasons why this place became the noble’s favourite relaxation spot. In later years, the retired Emperor Go-Saga had many cherry trees from Mt. Yoshino replanted here, making the area one of Kyoto’s most popular hanami spots.
Since planning my trip to Kyoto, I have always wanted to visit the bamboo groves in Arashiyama. Along with the torii tunnels of Fushimi Inari and the magnificent Kinkaku-ji, it belongs to one of the city’s most iconic sights. But no matter how often I saw this forest in photos, the real thing is more dreamlike than I could imagine.
Strolling through this verdant landscape of soaring bamboos in the early morning, I felt serene. There was virtually no noise, except for the rustling sound of swaying bamboos. Above, the sunlight beamed through the thick layer of leaves, casting a soft shadow on the hilly path. And there was the pleasant aroma of bamboo leaves lingering in the crisp morning air.
Bamboo has long been an unseparated part of Japanese culture and we can see bamboo in nearly every aspect of life, from ice-cream cups, chopsticks, baskets, fences to buildings. Even in myths and legends, the bamboo tree is metaphorically associated with the man’s strength. Many festivals also include the use of bamboo in various forms, most prominent is the Tanabata, also known as the Star Festival, which took place on the 07th of July in the lunar calendar.
Though many visitors came to Arashiyama to enjoy the beauty of nature, the nearby Tenryū-ji and its beautiful landscape garden should definitely not be missed. Ranked first among Kyoto’s five great Zen temples, Tenryū-ji (天龍寺, “Temple of the Heavenly Dragon”) is a star attraction in Arashiyama.
The temple was first constructed in 1339 by the shogun Ashikaga Takauji to commemorate his former friend-turned-enemy, Emperor Go-Daigo. These two used to be allies until Takauji turned against the emperor in a struggle for supremacy over Japan. By building the temple, Takauji attempted to appease the spirit of the former emperor. However, his attempt might be in vain as the temple was repeatedly ravaged by fires and wars over the centuries. What we see today is a mere reconstruction of the original temple which took place in the 19th century.
Having more luck than the temple buildings, Tenryū-ji’s gardens survived in its original form. It features a central pond surrounded by a circular promenade, rocks and pine trees, as well as the forested mountains of Arashiyama on the western side. The garden is the work of landscape designer, Muso Soseki, who also served as the first head priest of the temple.
Practical Information in Arashiyama
- Located at the western outskirt of Kyoto, there is a fair distance from the city centre to Arashiyama. Whether you go by train or bus, the trip takes around 20 to 25 minutes. Personally, I found the most convenient way is taking the JR train from Kyoto station to Saga-Arashiyama station (15 minutes, 240¥ one way).
- You can access the Arashiyama Bamboo Groves directly from the main street of Arashiyama. A 5-10 minutes walk from the train station will bring you there. There’s just one main path through the groves, which leads slowly uphill. The bamboo forest is located just a few steps away from the northern entrance of Tenryū-ji. Thus, it’s best paired with a visit to the temple.
- Being one of Kyoto’s most photographed spots, the bamboo groves are very crowded throughout the day. Therefore, it’s highly recommended to visit the place early in the morning. The groves are also less crowded at night, but it will be too dark to take photos.