Kyoto’s Zen, in and around Arashiyama
It’s been great, Tokyo, but I’m finished with you. So long, farewell, and peace out: Kyoto stole my heart.
Stepping off the train was one of the most refreshing feelings after a 9-month-stint teaching in Tokyo. I’ve grown so accustomed to being bogged-down, cramped, and stressed-out, I didn’t realize how pressurized my life has become living in that city. I’m almost certain Kyoto air is filled with zen and relaxation, you can almost feel it. And you can certainly feel the general attitude of “why are you in a rush, anyway?”
I spent a few lovely days exploring the city limits as well as a neighboring temple-rich city of Arashiyama. I honestly wish I’d allocated more time to relax away the stress from living in Tokyo. Three days simply wasn’t enough to soak in the serene atmosphere, or enjoy the historical sites that populate every corner of Kyoto.
Side note: someone should bottle and sell Kyoto air and atmosphere. I would pay top-dollar to feel half as relaxed as I did in that city.
Kyoto is famous for being a temple city
Some of the oldest temples and shrines in all of Japan lie in Kyoto prefecture, and some of the most serene are in the neighboring city of Arashiyama.
Original shrines dating back to the 9th century wait, unscathed from war and natural disaster, protected today by monks and shrine priests. It’s so easy to imagine yourself living in the previous century (or even millenium) as you walk through the wooden buildings, filled with paintings and statues.
Giant Buddhas, called “daibutsu”, and other idols sprinkle the area, and you can’t walk more than a few blocks without stumbling upon another temple. But above all, the most peaceful neighborhood in all of Kyoto has to be Arashiyama.
The cheapest way to mosy about Arashiyama is by bicycle. For just 100 yen (less than 1 USD) I rented a shiny red bicycle (and map of the area) to use all day.
Zipping in, around, and through templed areas made the day fly by, especially on such a sunny day. It seems to me that most of the temples with entrance fees surrounded the bamboo forest (which I was most determined to see.) With map in tow, ride your bicycle to the outskirts of the area, and skip most of the pay-to-enter temples. There are quite a few free-of-charge that I found more impressive and entertaining than the ones within walking distance.
In the heart of Arashiyama lies the most famous bamboo forest in all of Japan, the Sagano Bamboo Grove.
A huge expanse of Moso bamboo shoots rise into the air. Their tops sway in the wind, letting the sunlight through in stripes. When the wind picks up, the bamboo bends and creaks, sometimes knocking together. Men (with fantastic calves) and silly hats pull tourists and women in full-out geisha gear through the forest, taking their photographs as they sit in the wagons.
Of course, I had to get a photo with one of the geisha women. In true Cassy fashion, I didn’t care how creepy I felt as I got the perfect picture of these painted ladies. I’ve seen many Japanese women don Kimonos or Yukatas, and get dressed up for “hanabi” festivals (fireworks shows), but I’ve never seen full geisha gear before!
After circling the city on bike, I stumbled upon a tiny shop, hidden among the residential areas in town. A gentleman as old as my grandfather carved small clay figures into Japanese persimmons, Tengu’s, and other mythological characters. These tiny hand-painted masks, bells, and other souvenirs were half the price of the tourist shops in town, and in my opinion, better quality.
I bought a fist-size bell shaped like Tengu to bring home to my grandfather.
I’m sure he would appreciate the grumpy-looking forest monster more than anyone else I know.
Above all, I’d recommend Kyoto to put the bounce back in your step. A few days here will give you your soul energy back. And there’s definitely no wrong way to experience Arashiyama. Some of the more popular temples I’ve listed below for your convenience, but I would recommend letting the day take you where it will.
One Temple, Two Temples, Three temple, More!
- Check out Kyoto’s travel website
- Matsuo Taisha
- Fo’ Free! Famous for clear, pure water and explorable landscapes
- Horinji Temple
- Also fo’ free. The sakura blossoms had just started to bloom when I visited this temple.
- Headlining temple near the main drag of Arashiyama. Probably filled with tourists at any moment
- 600 yen admission
- +500yen admission (separate) to see the Cloud Dragon Painting at Dharma Hall
- The gardens don’t need a reservation and are as good, (even better!!) than the Imperial Palace Gardens, without the need of tour guide + timed entrance.
- 1100 yen admission (includes a cup of matcha tea @ tea house)
- Adashino Nembutsu-ji
- Has about a million mini Buddha statues to honor monks that have died without kin, Located near the bamboo grove
Where’s the most serene place you’ve ever been? Let me know what’s up below, and send me your email so we can stay connected!