Nearly every district in Japan has stolen our hearts in some way, but Arashiyama is an extra-special place.
It’s where Jake almost proposed (he ended up doing it the next day at Fushimi Inari shrine), and where we enjoyed what was maybe our favorite afternoon together ever, riding bikes through sleepy side streets and eating lunch at a tiny restaurant on the water. We distinctly remember looking out over the river to the forested mountainside, sitting on bamboo mats, and beaming at one another. “Wow, this is so nice.”
When we visited in spring 2018, with the cherry blossoms in full bloom, it was much busier than our first visit in late May 2013. Despite the crowds, the pink trees brought a new sense of magic, and returning gave us a chance to go a little deeper.
Here’s what you can’t miss when you visit this district, which can easily be explored on foot. You could do it in a half-day, but you’d be wise to devote a full day to this nationally designated Historic Site and Place of Scenic Beauty.
Get lost in the famous bamboo grove. The second-most photographed site in Kyoto (second to Fushimi Inari), the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is incredibly peaceful even during peak season. We read mixed reviews before going (“It’s just a short path,” “It’s too crowded with tourists,” etc.), but we are so glad we didn’t mind the naysayers.
The paved pathways are surrounded by soaring bamboo stalks that look even more beautiful when a light breeze rolls through. Be sure to pass the beginning of the path and go a bit deeper, past the temple, where the crowds thin and the bamboo thickens. It’s amazing to find yourself immersed in such a serene place within minutes. Take your time wandering and reflecting, and photographing the trees from unique angles.
In and around the forest, you’re also likely to see groups of typical young women shuffling around in kimono – the bamboo forest is a popular place to play dress up.
Say a prayer or make a wish. Just inside the bamboo grove, you’ll reach Nonomiya-jinja, a small shrine that was once used as a temporary sanctuary for princesses. Emperors often sent their unmarried daughters there to undergo purification before they were taken in a procession at Ise Grand Shrine, one of Shinto’s holiest sites. Nonomiya-jinja is especially popular with women, as it’s where the God of Health and Wisdom; God of Conception, Smooth Childbirth and Prosperous Business; and God of Matchmaking, among others, are enshrined.
While you’re there, consider purchasing an ema, a small wooden plaque on which Buddhist and Shinto worshippers write prayers or wishes. Then, write your prayer or wish on the plaque and hang it up so the kami (spirits of gods) can receive it.
Visit temples, shrines, villas and museums. There are many important sites within walking distance in Arashiyama. The most important temple is Tenryuji, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The sprawling Zen temple features a beautiful garden and mountain views, and is located right off Arashiyama’s main drag.
Other can’t-miss sites include Okochi-Sanso Villa, the former estate of Japanese period film actor Denjirō Ōkōchi; Sagano Doll House, the only museum of ancient dolls in Japan; and Gio-ji, a tiny but scenic temple that overlooks a moss-covered grotto. These are just a few of the sites to visit in Arashiyama, so do your research and plan your route based on your interests and the amount of time you have.
Walk across Togetsukyo Bridge. The symbolic Togetsukyo bridge spans more than 500 feet (155 meters) across the Katsura River, and has a history that goes back more than 1,000 years. Rebuilt in 1934 after repeated flood damage, it beautifully embodies the best of Japanese architecture, as it’s a replica of the original bridge built during the 7th century.
Most people cross the bridge during daylight, but it’s worth knowing that Togetsukyo translates to “moon crossing.” The name was inspired by Emperor Kameyama, 13th-century emperor who saw the moon rise over the bridge, giving an illusion that the moon was crossing the bridge itself. You essentially can’t explore Arashimaya without crossing it on foot, either, because it connects the northern and southern regions.
Feed monkeys up close. Up in the mountains of Arashiyama, away from most of the crowds, is Monkey Park Iwatayama. This open area is home to more than 100 snow monkeys (Japanese macaque) native to Japan, and gives tourists a chance to feed and see them up-close.
The entrance is just south of Togetsukyo Bridge, and it’s a 10-minute hike up to the actual monkey park. Be sure to heed the warning signs: don’t touch the monkeys and don’t look them in the eyes. While the monkeys are human-fed and some are very friendly, they are still wild. Because of its elevated location, the park also offers wonderful views of the landscape below, so be sure to snap some pics.
Get out on the water. If it’s your thing, one of the best ways to explore Arashimaya is by renting a boat and rowing around the Hozu-gawa area. Simply visit the shack just a few minutes walk away from the Togetsukyo Bridge to rent a boat. Each boat fits up to three people, making it a fun and affordable way to entertain kids, or get away from the hustle and bustle of the crowds. Going out on the water also you a chance to get an extra-close view of the water banks when the cherry blossoms bloom during spring and the hillsides turn a beautiful color during fall.
Take yourself on a mini food tour. From Japanese treats to Asian snacks, there’s so much to nibble on in Arashiyama. Souvenir shops offer tastings of wasabi nuts, sesame crackers, green tea cookies, sweet mochis and more. There are also several shopstalls selling savory Japanese snacks like croquettes, grilled meats and seafoods on a stick, and matcha soft-serve ice cream, to name a few. Take your time going between stalls and trying a little bit of everything. We especially loved watching one vendor cook Alaskan king crab legs using a brunt torch.
You can eat your snacks on the spot, or take them near the water to enjoy a picnic.
Ride bikes through the streets. If it’s not too crowded, riding bikes through the streets of Arashiyama is a pleasant and efficient way to get around. We rented ours in summer 2013 just outside the train station, and had a lovely afternoon exploring both the well-traveled and more remote streets of this very special place.
Getting there from Kyoto station:
- By JR train: Take the JR Sagano/San-in line to Saga-Arashiyama Station. From there, the walk is an easy 10 minutes.
- By bus: Take Kyoto City Bus 28 and get off at Arashiyama-Tenryuji-mae. The ride takes about 30 minutes.
- By subway: Take the Karasuma Subway line to Karasuma-Oike station and transfer to the Tozai Subway line, heading west. Get off at the last stop, Uzumasa-Tenjingawa, and transfer to the Randen Street tram, which takes you to Keifuku Arashiyama Station.