It was nearly time to bid farewell to Kyoto, but not before visiting one of its most famous sites. Leaving my Ryokan behind, I joined the locals commuting to school and work at the nearby Umekoji-Kyotonishi station to head to Arashiyama, home of one of the country’s most famous bamboo forests. Like Fushimi-Inari Taisha a couple of days prior, it was a popular destination and whilst the crowds here didn’t quite rival that of the temple, there was still enough people wandering through the streets and forest to make it a tour in dodging people’s camera shots. I’m not completely sure what I was expecting here, but whilst it was a nice place to wander through, it was a little underwhelming for my expectations, and not half as big as I’d expected either. Still, I did make a point of wandering back and forward, crowd dodging and trying to make the most of the awkward lighting that trickled through the bamboo canopy.
At the far end of the walk, a junction split towards a Japanese garden and tea house to the right and a bamboo-lined path to Kameyama park to the left. As I walked along the track to the park, I could get right up to the bamboo, looking through the tightly packed forest. It was a little sad to see people had carved their names into the canes, a form of graffiti in nature. As I got closer to the park, a few other trees appeared on the edge of the bamboo grove, and suddenly I found myself at a hilltop and a viewing area overlooking the Katsura river. I’d always planned on taking a wander beyond the bamboo grove, but I ended up loving the rest of my time in Arashiyama a lot more than I did the time in forest itself. It was another stifling hot day but the blue sky and scorching sun belied the weather system that was moving in from the south. Here, there was just lush green hills flanking the broad river below in the valley, and across the far side, I could see a temple breaking through the foliage.
Cutting through the park, a series of paths took me down the hillside to the riverbank. The place was buzzing with people walking the promenade by the river while a series of boats chugged up and down the waterway. Surrounded by greenery with the city life feeling far away, I joined the throngs that crossed the river where views upstream were interrupted by a dam creating a small cascade. A lot of people on the far side were there to take river boat rides or visit the monkey park, but I passed them all by, walking along the river bank, leaving the crowds behind and feeling lost amongst the natural world that filled my view. Thick trees grew up the slope to my left, and the river by my right was a stunning green colour. I passed terrapins drying themselves on the river bank, and as a couple of locals punted slowly up the river beside me, I spotted a large egret fishing in the shallows. I sat for a while soaking it all in before starting the slog up the hill to the hidden temple.
I took my time in the heat, already sweating, but my attention was soon to be grabbed by a beautiful brown and blue butterfly that landed briefly on the ground. At the top, I was personally welcomed into the temple and pointed towards a lovely hut full of comfy seats and a plethora of historical information and photographs about the history of the place. From the balcony out the front I could just make out the city of Kyoto across the tall trees on the far side of the river. After a brief look around, I headed back down the hill and enjoyed my wander back along the river past more terrapins swimming and sunning themselves, this time with a power boat chugging past me as I walked. The scene that greeted me as I came around the bend in the river was one of a multitude of people enjoying themselves in row boats, the hills behind Kyoto framing the view.
I hadn’t originally planned on visiting the monkey park as there was a fee to enter, but having not seen any macaques whilst up in the temple, I decided to visit the Arashiyama monkey park after all. The track started steeply through the forest, with many people struggling in the heat and with the incline. At one point whilst deep in the forest I was shocked to come across a crab walking across the path. Despite around two weeks in the country by this stage, and an awful lot of walking, I hadn’t at all acclimatised to the heat and I too was tired getting up to the upper area. But it was worth it to spot some Japanese macaques hanging out around the trees. This was no zoo. The macaques were free to come and go as they pleased, and despite the crowds of people around this upper level, most of them didn’t seem to care, simply going about their business, be it sleeping, grooming or fighting with each other. There was a variety of ages too, with youngsters chasing each other in play and adults asserting their dominance to the others. At the top of the final flight of stairs to the viewing area, a female breastfed her baby, neither giving a damn about the chain of people waltzing past and taking photos of them as they went.
The view at the top was incredible. Never mind the monkeys walking about, I could see most of Kyoto from here, neatly nestled among a horseshoe of green-covered mountains. After standing there for a moment soaking it all in, I turned round and realised that a young baby was sitting relatively close by, munching on some food in solitude in a patch of shade. I might not think much of human babies, but baby animals are adorable, no matter what the species. Baby monkeys are no exception. At the back of the area was a water hole and a building that people could go into to buy monkey food to feed the macaques in a sort of reverse zoo where the monkeys were free roaming and the humans were behind bars. It was a popular activity but one that I didn’t agree with as I feel the animals should remain wild and not be allowed to habituate to people or associate them with an easy meal. Behind here, a path led up to a higher area with another perspective of the park and Kyoto beyond.
As I stood at the top a monkey family appeared nearby, the youngster pausing to pull some leaves, a mutual stare exchanging between us. Below me, a couple of macaques ran across the roof of the building while others drank from the water hole. I meandered among them, slowly walking down through the upper trails with youngsters running above me and to my side. A steady stream of people arrived as I begrudgingly left the place behind, winding my way back down the hillside and back to the river, boats continuing to plough their way across the water as I returned. A sign for happy hour tempura and beer caught my attention, and my rumbling stomach lured me inside for some much needed sustenance. By the time I re-emerged from the cafe, a bank of clouds had moved in from the south, the leading edge of a typhoon that was due to hit shore in a couple of days.
The streets of Arashiyama were as much a delight as the nature had been. Very much geared towards tourists, I didn’t really care as I wandered among boutique shops and a plethora of stores selling anything from Hello Kitty and Studio Ghibli souvenirs to kimonos and artisan wares. A large Miffy statue grabbed my attention to a Miffy-themed bakery where I partook in a pastry and cake washed down with a hot drink served in a Miffy cup. I wandered past animal cafes, a side of Japan I wasn’t a fan of, jostling the thick crowds on the pavement until the end of the shops denoted the place to catch the bus to my last Kyoto destination. The huge queue at the bus stop left me wondering if I’d actually have any luck getting on a bus, and this was one of the few times the bus was exceptionally late in turning up. When it did, it was already quite full, but I was able to squeeze on, eventually reaching a small bus interchange in the middle of nowhere where we all had to bundle off and join another huge queue, impatiently waiting before yet another squeeze onto another tightly packed bus.
The crowds at Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto’s famous golden temple were suffocating. A brief walk upon entering the grounds led to the south edge of Kyoko-chi pond across which stood the temple. As brilliant as the golden facade was, it was a jostling match here as people pushed and shoved to get the photograph that makes the place famous, with the reflection of the temple in the pond’s water. It was sad to see tourism ruin a place like this and I ended up hating the place simply because of the horrendous crowd here. When I was in Samoa earlier in 2019, I had been astonished to be asked to move at a swimming hole where I was relaxing because I was ruining the aesthetic of someone else’s posed Instagram photo. Here, several months later in Japan, I couldn’t believe it when people obnoxiously asked others to move despite the lack of free space, just so they could pose for a photo without other people in it. This is definitely the side of mass tourism that I hate. I snapped a few quick photos as the mass of people swept me along, literally being unable to stop at times due to the group movement along the trail.
Having had enough, I headed back to my ryokan to collect my luggage before walking the familiar route to Kyoto station. Just half an hour away is the city of Osaka, one which seems to leave such mixed opinions amongst tourists. Stepping out of the underground station at Shinsaibashi I could have been forgiven for thinking I was in America. The large gridded streets were lined by designer stores, and it felt a little disorientating as I cut through the streets to my hotel. I’d stayed in a variety of accommodation, but my last 3 nights in the country were to be spent in a capsule hotel. The lobby area was deceptive, but when I stepped out on my floor, I was met by a row of capsules, with no natural light whatsoever. Nonetheless I was excited to experience my little pod, which was a gorgeous little spot with a mattress bed. I laughed to myself when I opened the door to the bathroom to be greeted by a motion sensor toilet lid that opened up to greet me. Japan was still surprising and entertaining me and the delights of Osaka awaited.