Arashiyama is like a little village within a city. An easy 30-minute train ride from Kyoto Station will bring you to a serene picturesque spot with lush hills, wide river, centuries-old shrines and bamboo forests. The latter is what attracts most of the tourists here, although there is plenty of other things to see and do in Arashiyama. Even though I visited the grove during my trip to Kyoto in April, I craved to go back and explore more.
Like every other tourist my journey began at the beautiful Tenryu-ji Temple, or Temple of the Heavenly Dragon dating back to the 14th century. It was ranked first of the Five Zen Mountains of Kyoto and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The space is absolutely beautiful with sprawling meticulously manicured landscaping characterized by Japanese gardens. The main feature of the garden is a beautiful pond surrounded by rocks, pine and maple trees and the forested Arashiyama mountains.
The temple grounds also serve as a gateway to the bamboo forest. The transition from a lush colorful garden filled with maple trees to an equally lush verdant bamboo forest is quite impressive. I never managed to arrive to Arashiyama early enough to find it empty, and the place can certainly test your tolerance for crowds. However, the space is still magnificent. The soaring trees fill the space with an eerie green glow, and each stalk in the forest is its own hue.
After exiting the grove, I took left and proceeded to the banks of the Ōi River. Honestly, this was the best part of my visit.
Here, you can either take a leisurely stroll along the bank of the river, or take a boat ride. The place was deserted and I felt I truly escaped the hustle and bustle of the touristy place and found myself in a secluded peaceful haven. The foliage scene here was captivating with the colorful mountainside in the background. I took my time taking photos, sitting at the bank of the river and taking in the beauty of the fall season.
I then proceeded to a more central part of the town, towards the famous Togetsukyo Bridge, which is a lively area and leads to the shopping street along the Arashiyama Station. It is lined up with tons of souvenir shops selling all sorts of knickknacks and sweets. I think Kyoto has the best souvenir shops in Japan, everything there is so tasteful and cute and affordable, I really have hard time finding the equivalent in Tokyo. I couldn’t resist picking up a few little souvenirs for myself and a few Christmas gifts for my mom.
The best advice I can give anyone traveling to Japan is to be curious and inquisitive. It’s always good to be prepared, research and have the list of things to see and do, but to discover your little Japanese magic it is important to go off the beaten path, take the backroads, and peer into private gardens. My curiosity this time led me to discover a very nice cafe in Arashimaya. I was on my way to the station when I got a glimpse of this garden with gorgeous murals down one of the alleys and decided to take a closer look.
I found myself at a very traditional Japanese cafe/restaurant with a very untraditional name – exCafe. None of the staff spoke English to verify this, but they seem to specialize in desserts, although since it was closer to lunch time I decided to sample one of their lunch set menus. While waiting for my food to arrive I tool a liberty to browse and admire the beautiful interior. Although not too big, the decorations were insanely beautiful, with gorgeous paintings of lions on the traditional sliding doors. It contrasted well with tatami floors and floor to ceiling windows overlooking the Japanese garden.
My food was not disappointing either. I got a bit of lightly cooked vegetables, tofu (local specialty) cooked two ways, shiso (salt-based) soup, pieces of salmon, ham and shrimp, and rice. I particularly enjoyed my delicious selection of vegetable tempura served with a side of matcha salt.
Of course I couldn’t leave without trying their dessert (duh!). Just look at this beautiful plate!
A roll of softest angel cake with rich matcha custard was absolutely sublime. On the side, a beautifully drizzled maple syrup and mini mont blanc with a slice of tangerine were a nice touch as well.
Finishing off with a mug of matcha tea I felt like I discovered a little piece of paradise in Arashimaya. After all, it’s little moments and discoveries like these that make the trip memorable. Am I right?
Have you been to Arashiyama? Did you discover any hidden gems?
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