In a new city, it’s sometimes difficult to know where to start exploring. Pam had lived in Kyoto for 2 years. On our first afternoon there Ruth and I had her must-see list but no plan, so we went to the excellent central train station’s visitor center, waited our turn, and asked rather plaintively, “Where should we begin?”
The woman, who had the no-nonsense demeanor of a retired teacher, grabbed a map and circled an area called Arashiyama.
“How do we get there?”
She circled the Arashiyama Station on the map and drew an imaginary line along the JR San-in (Sagano) Line.
June is a sweaty time in Kyoto. One hour later, we and about 200 other hot people exited a Japanese Rail car, and Ruth & I soon learned that the woman had directed us to one of the most popular tourist sites in Japan, the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. In fact, it was on the cover of our 2013 Lonely Planet Japan.
But before finding the bamboo, we experienced our first local Buddhist Temple, the Tenryu-ji. In 1339 a priest dreamed of a dragon emerging from the Oi River. According to Lonely Planet, this dream was interpreted as a sign of the Emperor’s “uneasy spirit” so a temple named Tenryu-ji, or heavenly dragon, was built at his villa. The temple repeatedly burned during wars so the current one dates from only 1900. We were told it was very traditional but at the time didn’t know if this was true or not. It was. The Sogenchi Garden on the Temple’s grounds featured contoured mini-mountains, Zen influence, and was also traditional. Unlike the temple, however, it was ancient and still looked pretty much the way it did in the 14th century.
Arashiyama, a residential area with many shops, mini-farms, and several very old temples at the base of Kyoto’s western mountains, was as crowded as Grand Central Terminal on a Friday afternoon. We dodged bicycles and baby strollers, stood in lines, and became seriously dehydrated before discovering the much-photographed bamboo grove that Lonely Planet calls “a magical place…otherworldly…hypnotic”. It bordered Sogenchi and provided another entrance to the Temple. Lonely Planet warned me that pictures can’t possibly do it justice as you already know from seeing the photo above. To experience it in person is to understand its silent mystique.