A sprawling area in western Kyoto centered around the Katsura River and surrounding mountains, Arashiyama is an extremely popular tourist spot visitors to Kyoto won’t want to miss. Any given day you’re likely to see people in kimono or yukata enjoying local food, shopping, and pilgrimages to the local temples. Rickshaw drivers wait to carry you to your destination, whether it be the natural beauty of the bamboo forest or the man-made temples that have stood in Arashiyama for hundreds of years.
A classic symbol of the Arashiyama area, the Togetsukyō Bridge is often the first sight that visitors head to see when they arrive. Spanning the Katsura River (also called the Oi River or Hozu River depending on the area) the bridge offers a splendid view up and down the river which varies dramatically from season to season. With Mt. Arashi serving as a backdrop, visitors can enjoy cherry blossoms, vibrant summer greens, and colorful autumn leaves on the mountain slope. On the Oi River side you can watch people in small rental boats paddle about, or take part yourself. The Togetsukyō (Moon Crossing Bridge) takes its name from the romantic notions of Emperor Kameyama in the 14th century, who noted that throughout the night it seemed like the moon was making its way across the bridge.
Sagano Bamboo Forest (Chikurin)
One of the most photographed sights in Kyoto, the bamboo forest in Sagano Arashiyama is a natural gem. Walking under the shade of the towering bamboo, you can feel somewhat lost in nature despite having been in a bustling open area moments before. The bamboo forest has entrances accessible from the main shopping street, Nonomiya Shrine, or Tenryū-ji’s gardens, and leads you up a slope until you arrive at the Ōkōchi Sansō Villa. Depending on the season it can be rather crowded on the path, but the wonder of peering off to the side into stalk after stalk of old bamboo growth isn’t diminished no matter the surrounding people. Some choose to take a rickshaw ride through the forest for an added experience.
Tenryū-ji, a registered World Heritage Site, is a true treasure of the Arashiyama district of Kyoto. Founded in 1339, the temple presently serves as one of the headquarters of the Rinzai School of Zen Buddhism. The name “Tenryū-ji” was suggested by Ashikaga Tadayoshi (brother of the shōgun Ashikaga Takauji) following a dream he had of a golden dragon flying into the heavens from the river just south of the temple. Tenryū-ji’s beautiful landscape garden and Sōgen Pond, famous for its use of shakkei (borrowed scenery), was laid out by Musō Soseki, an eminent Zen master. Tenryū-ji is also known for the Cloud Dragon painting in its Dharma Hall, and for the opportunities it offers visitors to participate in traditional Buddhist practices such as meditation and sutra copying.
A beautiful destination often overlooked due to its location at the end of the winding bamboo forests of Arashiyama, the Ōkōchi Sansō Villa is the former residence of Japanese period film star Ōkōchi Denjirō (1898-1962). Located in the foothills of Mt. Ogura, Ōkōchi’s Villa includes a traditional home, tea house, and Buddhist halls on the property amidst carefully planned and cultivated Japanese-style gardens designed to showcase the best of each of the four seasons. Despite being constructed relatively recently, the villa employs classic architecture and traditional techniques, appearing far statelier than its age would imply. The villa is also well known for its view of Kyoto City spread out below it. Though the admission fee is steeper than most of its kind, the price includes a cup of green tea and a Japanese sweet served in the teahouse where you can relax and rest your feet while enjoying the view. Fans of the samurai film genre can also enjoy an open air museum dedicated to the villa’s original owner and jidaigeki actor Ōkōchi Denjirō.
Intrinsically connected to the history of Imperial rule in Japan, Daikaku-ji was originally the villa of Emperor Saga (786 – 842). It became a temple after his death on orders from his daughter Empress Masako, and later served as a retirement palace. Though the original buildings inhabited by emperors were destroyed over time, they were replaced by structures transplanted from various locations. The man-made Osawa Pond on the grounds is one of the oldest surviving Heian Period garden ponds and was designed to look best when seen from a boat, which the temple sometimes provides for guests during festival periods. Because of its history as a villa, the layout of Daikaku-ji is slightly different than what you may expect from the average temple. The principle images at Daikaku-ji are the Five Wisdom Kings (Godai Myō’ō), particularly Fudō Myō’ō, and the most valuable treasure at the temple is a copy of the Heart Sutra written by Emperor Saga himself. The ikebana school Saga Goryū also calls this temple its headquarters and you can usually see a beautiful display of floral arrangements on your trip.
Despite its small size, Giō-ji is a worthwhile stop with an interesting history. Comprised primarily of a charming moss garden and a single thatched-roof building, this temple was originally a nunnery that fell into disrepair over time until it was taken under the wing of the larger Daikaku-ji temple. The moss garden is particularly lovely in summer and autumn, with lush green fed by the rainy season and dotted with flowers, then contrasting fall colors. A stream runs through the garden and various types of moss make up the softly marbled green surface. Within the single hall is a noteworthy circular window and several wooden statues of the famous historical figures associated with the site as well as the principal worship image, a statue of Dainichi Nyorai. The tale of the famous Giō, who was a nun at this temple, is detailed in the classic Tale of Heike.
Regarded as the first marker for the Atago Shrine on top of Mt. Atago, the famous Atago Torii Gate stands at a crossroads at the end of the Sagano sight-seeing trail, with one direction taking you along the foothills and the other farther up the mountain. Weather worn but still shining vermillion bright, this torii is placed between two old teahouses, Hiranoya and Tsutaya, which have both been around for four hundred years and retain their original grandeur and traditional structure. The torii gate standing tall between them makes for a lovely picture. Those who want to continue hiking up can move on to Mt. Atago, while those who’d like to rest can retire for a snack or meal inside the gorgeous interiors of the nearby teahouses.
Arashiyama Monkey Park
Located on Mt. Iwata in Arashiyama, the Iwatayama Monkey Park is home to a 130+ strong troupe of Japanese macaque monkeys. Though the monkeys are wild and live on the mountain, the research center/park is a place where tourists can observe and feed the monkeys from an enclosed hut. After buying a ticket at the base of the mountain, a 20-30 minute hike takes you up to the top, where staff will guide you to a small hut where you can sit and rest or purchase food that can be fed to the monkeys through the wires of the viewing windows. Scheduled feeding times by staff can be entertaining to watch, and you are free to roam about the park at your leisure or take a seat on one of the benches overlooking the spectacular view of the city. Just a warning, though- be careful about making direct eye contact with the monkeys!
Touted as "the best view in Kyoto", Senkō-ji is a Zen temple on an Arashiyama mountainside that does indeed offer a commanding view of the city. The temple is located halfway up a mountain twenty minutes away on foot from Arashiyama's famous Togetsukyō Bridge, and requires a bit of hiking up winding stone steps. Despite its somewhat inconvenient location, the site is well worth a visit for those seeking a good look at the surrounding mountains or the city skyline, or even just those who want some peace and quiet or to be surrounded by nature. Senkō-ji offers a relaxing place to get away from it all, and you can spend longer than you'd expect poking around the small grounds, sitting in peace in the viewing hall, or using provided binoculars to look for landmarks towards the city.
Located just south of the renowned Arashiyama district, it’s said Matsuno’o Taisha was founded in 701, making it one of the oldest in the area. Bordering up against a mountain, Matsuno’o Taisha’s distinctive main hall has been dated to 1397, and is one of the oldest extant buildings in the city proper that wasn’t lost to fire. The shrine’s spring is famous for its restorative properties and many sake and miso producers patron the shrine, their industries relying on pure water to survive. With a distinctive giant torii gate, three lovely gardens designed by Shigemori Mirei, and a sacred waterfall, this sprawling shrine offers quite a bit to explore. Keep your eyes peeled for turtles, and on your way out you can explore a small sake museum or purchase tsukemono.
Umenomiya Taisha, a shrine tucked away in a western residential district, is yet another one of Kyoto’s hidden gems. Home to a gorgeous pond and sprawling garden, Umenomiya Taisha shows a variety of charming faces in spring as flowers like plum, cherry blossoms, azalea, iris, and hydrangea bloom in colorful succession. Umenomiya Taisha has been well-known for centuries as a shrine associated with sake brewing and prayers related to childbirth, and various items connected to both are scattered about the grounds. In recent years, it has also gained a certain modern notoriety as the lounging ground of a bevy of cats beloved by photographers and cared for by the shrine.
Hozugawa River Boat Ride
A trip to Kyoto wouldn’t be complete without exploring the city’s gorgeous natural scenery, and one of the best ways to do this is to take a short train trip to the neighboring city of Kameoka and board the Hozugawa Kudari boat ride! This popular river route has a rich history dating back more than 400 years and offers visitors a chance to enjoy a leisurely and entertaining boat ride through one of Kyoto’s most beautiful areas.
Taking approximately two hours to travel 16 kilometers down the Hozugawa river between Kameoka and the well-known sightseeing area Arashiyama, the Hozugawa Kudari boat ride costs 4,100 yen for adults and 2,700 yen for children aged 4-12. Though most of the river provides a smooth, calming journey, there are a few rapids that supply some additional excitement along the way, and depending on the season you can enjoy cherry blossoms, vivid greenery, fall colors, and even snow! With the trip narrated by jaunty boatmen ready to point out local ravine wildlife, historical spots, comically shaped rocks, and good photograph spots, as well as to explain the finer points of boat steerage, you’ll be in good hands until you reach land once more.