Kyoto’s westernmost district of Arashiyama has been a local get-away for hundreds of years. Stepping into the Sagano Bamboo Forest, it’s easy to see why Japan’s ancient elite chose this peaceful landscape for their summer retreats. The forest is a jungly thicket of bamboo trees (16 square kilometers in total), with a pedestrian path that cuts through to several temples and shrines that rest in the foothills of the surrounding mountains. The cooling effect of the bamboo (a dense ocean of green-hued stalks) provides some relief from the formidable humidity that plagues Kyoto in July and August.
It’s no wonder that Arashiyama has been designated a Place of Scenic Beauty by the government of Japan. Additionally, the Sagano Bamboo Forest is included on the Ministry of Environment’s 100 Soundscapes of Japan – an innovative effort meant to combat noise pollution across the country. Japan’s Soundscape Study Group received 738 submissions of site-specific sounds, and selected 100 of these to function as sonic symbols for local people, as a way to encourage careful listening to the noises of everyday. If you’re hoping to immerse your ears in the delicate rustling of the Bamboo Forest, it’s best to visit on a weekday morning, when tourists are few.
The Shrines and Temples of the Bamboo Forest
A few minutes into the forest path, the bamboo grove opens to expose a small Shinto shrine, a somewhat unremarkable structure with an enigmatic history. Nonomiya Jinja once had an important role in preparing imperial princesses to serve as vestal virgins at the Grand Shrine of Ise, one of Japan’s most important religious sites. The gods at this shrine have a reputation for attending to the needs of women, and visitors can purchase amulets that ensure safe childbirth, a healthy marriage, or easy conception. There’s also the odd-shaped Turtle Rock, a wish-granting stone that fulfills the desires of anyone who touches it.
Further into the forest is Tenryu-ji (open daily from 8:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.; 500 yen). Also known as the Temple of the Heavenly Dragon, it was built to assuage a Japanese shogun’s guilty conscience. In the early 1330s, shogun Ashikaga Takauji forced Emperor Go-Daigo off his throne and claimed power. But after the emperor died, Takauji suffered from persistent twinges of regret. Around that time, the Buddhist priest Muso Soseki had a dream in which a golden dragon rose from the nearby river, and he interpreted the dream to mean that the spirit of Go-Daigo was not at peace. Unnerved by this ill omen, Takauji built Tenryu-ji, in the same spot where the dead emperor had his favorite villa.
Finally, it’s worth following the bamboo path to Okochi-Sanso Villa (open 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.; 1000 yen), the estate of the famed actor Okochi Denjiro, who is best known for his roles in samurai cinema, a genre that draws parallels with American westerns. The gardens are lovely, and your admission fee comes with a free cup of matcha and a small Japanese sweet.
To get to the Bamboo Forest and Arashiyama’s main street, visitors must cross the Togetsu-kyo-bashi, a 155-meter long bridge spanning Kyoto’s Katsura river. It’s a popular spot from which to watch fishermen perform the tricky spectacle of cormorant fishing. Dotting Togetsu-kyo-bashi are usually half a dozen rickshaws, powered by a Kyotoite with a penchant for history and some impressive upper and lower body strength. For a fee, your rickshaw driver will steer you through the Sagano Forest, while relating the details of Kyoto’s long and colorful past.
Another way to experience the area is to take a scenic boat ride. After crossing the Togetsu bridge, you’ll see the signs for Arashiyama Boat Rental on the left-hand side. For half an hour or so, an expert oarsman escorts you upstream in a motor-less wooden vessel with a shallow hull that lolls close to the river’s surface. Often a boat selling snacks and drinks will pull up alongside yours; it’s a fun chance to purchase a beer or some oden in the middle of the Katsura’s pristine waters.
The Sagano Romantic Train, as it is officially called, is a sightseeing train that runs from Arashiyama’s Saga station to the resort town of Kameoka. On tracks positioned on the rocky ledges above the Hozukyo ravine, the train zips through Kyoto’s forests of bamboo and maple trees, exposing some stunning vistas of the river below.
No visit to the Sagano Bamboo Forest is complete without a side trip to the Iwatayama Monkey Park (9:00 a.m.– 4:00 p.m.; 550 yen), an inverted zoo where humans are the ones in the cages, and monkeys are free to roam the grounds as they please. The park is a steep climb uphill, but you’re rewarded with at least an hour’s worth of entertainment, and panoramic views of Kyoto.
Kyoto’s Bamboo Forest is easily accessible by train or bus. From Kyoto Station, take the JR Sagano/San-in line to Saga-Arashiyama station. Or, take bus #28 and get off at Arashiyama-Tenryuji-mae. From Kawaramachi or Karasuma stations in central Kyoto, take the Hankyu Main Line to Katsura Station, and transfer to the Hankyu Arashiyama Line for Arashiyama station.