It is really hard to fit the beauty of Kyoto into one post. In fact, it is hard to convey its magnificence via the computer screen at all. But I decided to split up my journey into segments to be able to tell you more about our experience at each place and hopefully depict at least the fraction of its gorgeousness. On our second day we set out to tour the western part of the town, starting with dreamy bamboo forest in Arashiyama. It is the westernmost part of Kyoto with beautiful semi-rural hillside covered with cherry and maple trees. This is the place where the aristocracy of feudal Japan came here to escape famine, riots, and political intrigue.
Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
Located within 10-minute walk from the station, beautiful Tenryu-ji temple (or Temple of the Heavenly Dragon) serves as a gateway to the forest. The space is absolutely beautiful with sprawling meticulously manicured landscaping characterized by Japanese gardens.
Although, the highlight of the place is certainly the thick emerald bamboo grove which is magical, mysterious, inspiring and peaceful at the same time. The soaring trees fill the space with an eerie green glow, and each stalk in the forest is its own hue. The light is flowing through the thick leaves while birds sing along the sounds of the wind blowing through the trees, leaves rustling and stems knocking against one another. A feeling of composure and tranquility takes over as you walk among the rows and rows of ringed, smooth stems.
We arrived around 10:30 a.m. and sadly the forest was already literally packed with tourists, which took away some tranquility from the atmosphere. I would highly recommend coming here early in the morning, probably even 8 or 9 a.m. to have the forest to yourself.
If you have time and interest, there is much more to Arashiyama than just a bamboo forest. You can take a boat tour along the river, play with and feed the monkeys at the park or walk across the famous Togetsukyo Bridge. Getting there is fairly easy, with direct metro line going there from Kyoto Station (JR Sagano Line, get off at Saga-Arashiyama Station).
Ryōan-ji Zen Garden
I must have been 10 or 12 years old sitting at an English language class with my tutor and I remember as part of an exercise I read a text about the zen temple in Japan with amazing rock garden. 15 solemn stones arranged in three groupings set in the gravel, but only 14 of them were visible from any particular vintage point in the garden. I was mesmerized and intrigued by the story and dreamed of the day when I could go there and count myself. Fast forward fifteen or so years later and I set foot in Ryōan-ji temple. The rock garden is probably one of the most quintessential images of Japan, a sight for meditative contemplation or a riddle to train the mind. In the Buddhist philosophy, number 15 signifies completion and the message conveyed by the garden is that completion is not possible in this world. The garden is also an epitome of Japanese wabi-sabi aesthetics, which finds beauty in transience and imperfection. The clay wall, which is stained by age with subtle brown and orange tones, reflects “wabi” and the rock garden “sabi”. Sadly, the tranquility of the place is sacrificed by the hordes of enthusiastic tourists. It is hard to get time alone with your thoughts and I never managed to get that peaceful Zen vibe, unlike my favorite Kenin-ji Temple. Too many people and too many distractions. Although fulfilling my childhood dream was priceless. Take some time to wander the premises with its beautiful hallways and the lake.
Kinkaku-ji Golden Pavilion
Sitting in the middle of the pond, the opulent gold-sheathed jewel-like Zen- Buddhist temple is absolutely breathtaking, although due to large crowds the experience of visiting it was quite frenzied.
The top two stories are coated with gold leaf which creates a spectacular sight when reflected in the pond’s still water. The lush green forest and nice gardens complement the temple making it a picturesque scene.
As you exit the main grounds of the temple, various food stalls are lined up offering different delectable snacks. My personal favorite find were these wasabi peanuts. So so good, we bought extra packs to bring home. The truth is, there is so much more to the western part of Kyoto than just these three sights, but when you are visiting City of Ten Thousand Shrines you are bound to make choices and ours fell on Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine next. Although that deserves a separate post. Stay tuned!