Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Kyoto See: Arashiyama - The Maple Leaves Capital

At Tenryuji Temple, Mount Arashiyama as backdrop

Our main purpose for the November 2009 trip was to see the famed maple leaves of Japan. Kyoto is one of the "hot" places in Japan for maple leaves viewing and Arashiyama, at the Western district on the outskirts of Kyoto city, is recognised as one of the TOP 3 maple leaves viewing spots in the whole country. So naturally we had to dedicate one full day to Arashiyama in light of its multiple sightseeing places.

Arashiyama was also the only place in Kyoto where we took the JR train instead of buses, which are a more common way of getting around to the major sights. From the main Kyoto JR station, we took a 15 minute ride directly to Saga-Arashiyama Station (one way: 230 yen), where we then proceeded on foot for the rest of the day.

Arashiyama is famous for several things besides its maple leaves and scenic views. Our first stop was Tenryuji, one of the biggest Zen temples built in 1339, and a maple leaves hotspot, with its hundreds of maple trees lining up the temple grounds. For once, we were more interested in the foilage than the temple history or architecture. Like the thousands of locals who cram into the grounds each day during autumn, we were not disappointed as we were greeted by a riot of colours. It was like being in the middle of a painting, and I just couldn't stop taking photos.

Riot of colours - I like!!!

One of Tenryuji's main buildings

After Tenryuji, we made our way to the Arashiyama town centre to get to the next landmark - the Togetsukyo (Moon Crossing Bridge) over the Hozu River with Mount Arashiyama as backdrop, supposedly offering spectacular views. We happened to be in Arashiyama during a public holiday on 22 November (coincidentally also Samurai's birthday) and the town was just PACKED with people. And Samurai T has never been very good with crowds.

People mountain, people sea at town centre

Not surprisingly Togetsukyo was crowded as well. But I was a little bit disappointed with the views as I was expecting more. The forested Mount Arashiyama was not as vibrantly coloured by koyo like I had seen in some photos, but maybe my mood was affected by the overcast sky and the thousands of people swarming around me. On a quiet day I suppose the setting would have been quite poetic as stated in guide books.

The sparkling Hozu River

Mount Arashiyama - not as colourful as expected.

After a quick lunch (I couldn't quite remember what we ate), we proceeded to the famed Bamboo Groves for a look. The bamboo is cultivated for the manufacture of traditional crafts like mats, cups, art etc at Arashiyama. Walking into the Bamboo Groves along a designated narrow path was fun, and would have been great if we were not with a billion other tourists. It was mysterious and atmospheric, and I felt like I was transported to the movie "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" in the scene where the main characters fought on top of a bamboo forest. It was a Zen moment.

If I were a panda, I would have died of happiness.

Next, we decided to just walk around town to absorb the atmosphere and try to visit another temple (Jojakkoji) in the vicinity. Although we were very tired by then (we were on an overnight flight and we came here directly after dumping our bags at the ryokan), it was a lovely walk in the cool autumn weather, with the occasional sprinkling of rain. The town itself was quaint, with many traditional buildings housing tea houses, crafts and sweets shops. Combined with the marvellous autumn foliage it was really romantic.

A pretty sight along our route

According to my research, Jojakkoji Temple was the final home of an Empress-Dowager during Heike, and was initially built as a nunnery. The temple's principal treasure was the statue of the Jizo surrounded by Japanese maples. The temple is built halfway up the mountain, so be prepared for some huffing and puffing, and the grounds are incredibly large. But we were duly rewarded for our efforts because the maple leaves looked even MORE amazing than at Tenryuji Temple.

Such glorious maple trees at Jojakkoji Temple

Fallen leaves on moss covered ground - poetic!

Surprisingly, despite its immense beauty, there were significantly less crowds here than at Tenryuji, probably due to the fact that it was further away from the town centre (and entailed climbing), and it was also drizzling in late afternoon. We were able to enjoy the scenic beauty in peace and we did not even enter the temple itself for the Jizo. It was close to my idea of heaven (at least a part of it) and I was reluctant to leave except the sun was setting and it was time for us to make our way back to Kyoto for dinner.

A worthwhile trip indeed.

A dreamy landscape at Jojakkoji.

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