Arashiyama: Kyoto’s Spiritual Hideaway

Arashiyama: Kyoto's Spiritual Hideaway. Arashiyama is a forested area at the western fringe of Kyoto.
Arashiyama is a forested area at the western fringe of Kyoto.
Arashiyama is a forested area at the western fringe of Kyoto. It borders the western part of the mountain ranges that enclose Kyoto on its three sides. Because of its distance from the coarser rhythm of the city core, it is relatively peaceful. What it lacks in bustling excitement it makes up for in its spiritual landscape and refined simplicity.

That said, Arashiyama is far from being hidden. A weekend in the slow season of winter sees plenty of Japanese day-trippers roaming the streets in their kimonos. It has a gentler pace, yes; but it still is one of the most popular destinations in Kyoto.

Since the imperial court moved to Kyoto in 794, Arashiyama had been a preferred location for the aristocratic families and their country estates. During this time, Buddhism as well as Japanese classical literature reached its peak influence. Consequently, it is a place abundant in literary and artistic allusions.

The most famous of such, of course, is the Tale of Genji, the world’s first novel, written before the 11th century by Murasaki Shikibu. The novel centres on the romantic life of Hikaru Genji, a prince who was demoted to a commoner. In the story, many of Arashiyama’s temples set the stage for Genji’s adventure.

Arashiyama: Kyoto's Spiritual Hideaway. Arashiyama borders the western part of the mountain ranges that enclose Kyoto on its three sides. Arashiyama: Kyoto's Spiritual Hideaway. What Arashiyama lacks in bustling excitement it makes up for in its spiritual landscape and refined simplicity. Arashiyama: Kyoto's Spiritual Hideaway. Since the imperial court moved to Kyoto in 794, Arashiyama had been a preferred location for the aristocratic families and their country estates. Arashiyama: Kyoto's Spiritual Hideaway. Walking along Katsura’s upstream in Arashiyama. Arashiyama: Kyoto's Spiritual Hideaway. Wooden boat on the Katsura river in Winter. Arashiyama: Kyoto's Spiritual Hideaway. Togetsukyo Bridge is the only bridge in Arashiyama that crosses the Katsura River.

Arashiyama is a forested area at the western fringe of Kyoto. Because of its distance from the coarser rhythm of the city core, it is relatively peaceful. What it lacks in bustling excitement it makes up for in its spiritual landscape and refined simplicity.

One such temple is the Tenryu-ji, a temple of Zen Buddhism with one of the finest gardens in Kyoto. Tenryu-ji locates beside the Katsura River, the major waterway of which Arashiyama developed around. Follow the river upstream takes me through a gorge of rolling mountains that plunge into the jade-coloured water.

Along the river floats quietly the hired wooden boats propelled by boatman with giant poles. In autumn, the rich species of trees cover the entire mountain range in brilliant shades of reds, transforming the gorge into an artwork resembling ancient Japanese ink wash painting.

At Katsura’s upstream stands Senko-ji, a 400-year-old temple. Perched on a crag in the mountains, this tiny, slightly dilapidated sanctuary is inhabited and maintained by a single Zen Buddhist monk.

Unlike the more famous temples in Kyoto, Senko-ji is off the beaten track. To reach the place, one needs to walk along the Katsura River and climb a long and steep set of stone steps. Though this excursion is slightly demanding for me, I am rewarded with a contemplative view of the gorge and a transcendent moment where the soul becomes one with the surrounding nature.

Arashiyama: Kyoto's Spiritual Hideaway. At Katsura’s upstream stands Senko-ji, a 400-year-old Buddhist temple. Arashiyama: Kyoto's Spiritual Hideaway. Unlike the more famous temples in Kyoto, Senko-ji is off the beaten track. Arashiyama: Kyoto's Spiritual Hideaway. Interior of Senko-ji in Arashiyama, Kyoto. Arashiyama: Kyoto's Spiritual Hideaway. Interior of Senko-ji in Arashiyama, Kyoto. Arashiyama: Kyoto's Spiritual Hideaway. Senko-ji with a contemplative view of the gorge.

At Katsura’s upstream stands Senko-ji, a 400-year-old Buddhist temple. Perched on a crag in the mountains, this tiny, slightly dilapidated sanctuary is inhabited and maintained by a single Zen Buddhist monk.

Returning downstream in a peaceful, meditative state, I arrive at the Togetsukyo Bridge. This bridge, translated literally as “moon crossing bridge,” is the only bridge in Arashiyama that crosses the Katsura River. It joins the two parts of Arashiyama forming an iconic motif frequently seen in works of artists and fabric dyers throughout Japan. South of the bridge is the entrance to Mount Iwatayama.

A 15-minute hike up this mountain leads me to the summit where hundreds of Japanese macaque roam freely. Although wild, these monkeys have grown accustomed to human presence. In the middle of the area sits a feeding centre managed by Kyoto University. From within the enclosure, visitors can purchase dried fruits and feed the monkey outside – a place where humans are enclosed in a cage for the pleasure of the animals.

The other side of the bridge, the northern half of Arashiyama, is the town centre. Along the Meiji-style cobblestone paths are the teahouses and shops converted from traditional machiya. Following the rickshaws on the busy street, I arrive at one of the most awe-inspiring forest in the world – the Arashiyama bamboo grove.

These towering stalks soar into the sky, wrapping me in its confine. As they sway in the wind, shreds of filtered sunlight dance around the stone pathway. Shades of green overlap and mutate like a spinning kaleidoscope. I close my eyes; I hear rustles of the bamboo leaves. I hear the whispers of the wind. And the bamboos stalks, I hear their collision, a playful counterpoint to the breeze. A ripple of meditative peace descends upon me. Arashiyama’s nature has, once again, touched me with its spiritual grace.

Arashiyama: Kyoto's Spiritual Hideaway. Top of Arashiyama mountain where wild monkeys live. Arashiyama: Kyoto's Spiritual Hideaway. Wild monkeys and feeding centre at Arashiyama. Arashiyama: Kyoto's Spiritual Hideaway. Japanese macaque roam freely on the mountain hills. Arashiyama: Kyoto's Spiritual Hideaway. Japanese macaque asking for food. Arashiyama: Kyoto's Spiritual Hideaway. Shades of green overlap and mutate like a spinning kaleidoscope. Arashiyama: Kyoto's Spiritual Hideaway. As bamboos sway in the wind, shreds of filtered sunlight dance around the stone pathway. Arashiyama: Kyoto's Spiritual Hideaway. I close my eyes; I hear rustles of the bamboo leaves. And the bamboos stalks, I hear their collision, a playful counterpoint to the blowing of the breeze.

 

NEWSLETTER

Receive beautifully crafted in-email photo stories from around the world, direct to your inbox.

Your details are protected and will not be passed on to any third parties.