Arashiyama

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Arashiyama gets its own post for the simple reason that I actually managed to tackle this part of Kyoto in one day, instead of the haphazard “look at this shiny item on the map, let’s go there!” approach that characterized the rest of it.

The adventure on the western side of Kyoto actually began the night before, when my couchsurfing host and I grabbed okonomiyaki in the neighborhood. He gave me a rough tour of the area, dulled somewhat by the fact that it was dark. Nevertheless, it set me up for an epic next day, exploring Arashiyama.

Daikakuji Temple

Daikakuji was one of the shiny items on my map; I didn’t know much of anything else about it. I had tried to get there the day before actually, after seeing the Kamo Shrines, but the bus ride across town took too long and it closed before I arrived.

Therefore, it became the first place I saw the next day. I did a bit of reading about it, so I knew that it had been someone’s residence before becoming a temple and that the place was famous for ikebana, or the Japanese art of flower arrangement. Many of the charms they were selling were ikebana-themed.

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The bus up to Daikakuji dropped off quite the crowd for Tenryu-ji. There were very few visitors at the temple overall, which made for a quiet morning contemplating art, architecture, Buddhist writings, and gardening. The best part of Daikakuji was the reappearance of the squeaky nightingale floors– it used to be a nobleman’s house after all.

Tenryu-ji Temple

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I bussed back into the heavily touristed area around Tenryu-ji. I looked through the souvenir shops and ate lunch before finally turning into this temple.

It’s famous for its garden (which cost 500 yen for entry, while the building itself was a 100 yen add-on), but everything was still winter dead. Again, you can imagine what it would’ve looked like during cherry blossom season.

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(Earliest sign of spring! Behind the tree, you can see a kimono-clad couple enjoying the sight)

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I made my way through the bamboo groves and skipped out on Okochi Sanso Villa.

Monkey Park Iwatayama

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The entrance to the Monkey Park Iwatayama is across the river from Tenryu-ji Temple. I say entrance because as soon as I bought my ticket, the lady told me I was in for a 2km climb up the mountain. At least, I think she said 2km. After Fushimi Inari Taisha from the night before, I seemed to have created a block for all thoughts related to climbing. I worried my ankle, injured years ago, couldn’t handle it but it did feel much stronger than the Great Wall and I made it up to see the monkeys just fine.

The park kept the climb light and funny with facts about Japanese macaques, as well as repeated warnings not to feed the monkeys (except in a specially designated area) or stare at the monkeys or otherwise provoke the monkeys into attacking you. It was written in some of the most earnest Ingrish I’ve ever seen, it was actually quite sweet.

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The top of the mountain opened up on yet another amazing view of the city below… but this time you could surreptitiously sneak a monkey into the foreground of your vista. The creatures were quite content to play around by themselves or hang out at the designated feeding spot where they delightfully scooped food out of the tourists’ open hands. The park also had wifi inside their warm resthouse so I could facebook about my experience.

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(People were not the only ones enjoying the view…)

I really enjoyed my time with the monkeys and thought the staff did a great job, despite being harassed by monkeys at every opportunity.

Tenzan no Yuu (onsen)

One of the few Kyoto experiences I was adamant about having (more so than green tea ceremonies or geisha sightings) was getting to soak in an onsen. My experiences with jjimjilbangs in Korea had been so favorable when it came to real rest and relaxation, I wanted to see how the famed onsen would compare.

But first, I had to find the place. I was swapping couchsurfing hosts that night and so had stowed my stuff in a locker at Kyoto Station. For some reason, it hadn’t registered with me that the onsen one of my couchsurfing hosts had recommended to me would also be in Arashiyama, otherwise I would’ve stowed my stuff somewhere a bit closer. I chose to make the trek back and forth from the station. I wasn’t sure whether the onsen would have the necessary bathing supplies, but they did: they had soap and you could rent a towel. Doubtless, the trek to Kyoto Station ate up a couple of hours and resulted in some unnecessary back pain from the backpack, but what’s done is done.

My couchsurfing host had given me directions on how to get to the onsen by train, but I had bought a bus pass for the day and was stubborn about making full use of it. I did my best to make the bus map and my couchsurfer’s map agree, but I eventually stopped a student for directions. (I asked in English. So far, my experience about asking people in Japanese results in more Japanese that I don’t understand.) She wordlessly led me to the train station and from there, I could figure out the rest of the way.

The onsen proved to be very similar to the Korean jjimjilbang, with its washing stations, sauna and variety of bathing pools. The bathing pools on offer were different though: there were tubs you could luxuriate in by yourself, a waterfall to sit under, and a place where people could lie down while the water ran along your back. My understanding is that several of the baths used special salts or had water sourced from the local hot springs to enrich the experience; only the hot spring spa in Jeju is really comparable. The saunas and one of the pools were also equipped with a TV tuned to one of those ubiquitous variety TV shows.

I wish I had more time to really soak up the onsen. It was great and I will honestly miss the communal baths of East Asia.

If there was one piece missing from my exploration of Arashiyama, it would be a visit to Adashino Nenbutsu-ji and Otagi Nenbutsu-ji to see thousands of creepy, little, fascinating stone statues.

[This post was originally published on March 13, 2015. It has been backdated for the sake of tidier, chronological organization.]

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