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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.