Autumn has come.
What does Japan offer in the fall? As the leaves change and the temperature cools, tourists migrate up and down the country, enjoying the finer weather. Many of those tourists will go to Kyoto city in the Kansai region.
Beyond the many beautiful sites, it's the traditional feel of Kyoto, the city that endured so much transformative Japanese history, that makes it special. The beauty in this city speaks for itself, and there is perhaps no more beautiful site in Japan than at Arashiyama.
Arashiyama (嵐山, or “Storm Mountain” or “Monsoon Mountain” in English) is a district and mountain on the western edge of the ancient capital, known for its scenic views, overlooking the Kyoto city and the Katsura River. The area frequented by tourists is generally understood to be "Arashiyama," and complete with its surrounding shops and restaurants, it's worthy of an entire day's trip. Indeed, Kyoto is so much better than the one day given it by far too many travelers. Save that day for Arashiyama.
Arashiyama can be reached via Hankyu, JR, by bus, or the Keifuku Electric Railroad. For Hankyu, change at Katsura Station on the Kyoto Line, to the Arashiyama Line, and ride it to its terminus at Arashiyama Station. By subway, one can ride the Tozai Line (the red one) to its western terminus at Uzumasa-Tenjingawa and either ride the #11 Kyoto Municipal Bus (“市営11”), or switch to the Keifuku Electric Railroad's “Dentetsu Arashiyama Line.” This above ground tramline runs through the streets of the ancient city. It can be a bit slow, but it is a charming ride, and it is convenient in central-western Kyoto, beginning as far back as Shijo Station (Karasuma on Hankyu), walkable from most of Kyoto's city center. Alternatively, one can take the JR Line's San-in Line from Kyoto Station to Saga-Arashiyama Station. There is a slightly longer walk from here. Don't use a taxi unless you hate money.
Locating the area from the station will not be difficult. Once you emerge, follow the crowd. Indeed, the moment you arrive within eyesight of Arashiyama, you'll find a lot of other people had a similar idea in mind. The demographics of the crowds will skew more international on weekends.
It's really crowded.
But remember, it's crowded for a reason. You won't have to go far to see why. Hopefully you've got some time on your hands, so embrace the crowd, guard your possessions, and take a nice stroll.
If you're walking from Saga-Arashiyama Station or Keifuku's Arashiyama Station, you'll have an extended stroll with lots of shops on either side. If you're already hungry, try some local Kyoto delicacies. If you're the adventurous type, try to wait for a whole lunch – you've got some exercise ahead of you!
Eventually you'll come to the famous Togetsukyō Bridge (渡月橋 or “Moon Crossing Bridge”). You'll probably recognize it from the backs of Kyoto postcards or from travel agency promotional pictures. This area is iconic to city and country. Spring, summer, fall, or winter, it could be one of the most beautiful places in all of Japan.
You could probably sit here all day and enjoy it. The leaves fall slowly – savoring every moment of their autumnal beauty, or perhaps frightened solid by the mass of tourists. Shops stream with customers, dispensing treats and souvenirs, tokens of Japan's vibrant traditional culture. Fall breeze brings fresh air down from the mountains, feeling so quaint, you'll forget you're on the edge of a busy city. The water, pure from Kansai's clean mountains, tumbles over rocks, under delicate, old-fashioned wood and stone architecture, off to be shepherded by cement alleyways downstream, Japanese style.
It's not unlike the steady stream of tourists, maintaining their constant, low rumble of awe toward the beauty all around them, clicking and flashing their cameras in broad daylight as well as dusk, as they shuffle past to Arashiyama's many beautiful sites. Enjoy it until it makes you ancy.
There is a wide, relaxing area on both sides of the bridge. One can take pictures from stunning angles, enjoying the bridge at any time of day. Remember, this area is packed with tourists from Japan and abroad. Western travelers may even be approached by Asian teenagers, eager for a picture with far-traveling foreigners.
From whichever direction you've come, there are more shops and sites on the other side of the bridge. It's worth crossing at least once, if only for the beauty and unique views. The best course is crossing once or twice with a goal of ending up on the west side, the right bank of the river, closer to the mountain.
There's more to explore in this area. Walk upstream and you'll find calmer waters. Here one can rent a canoe for two or three. It can be quite romantic journey, or just a relaxing sashay, whichever you prefer. This experience is particularly beautiful during the cherry blossoms or autumn foliage, and it's cheaper than most meals for two.
Speaking of meals, hopefully you brought some hunger to Arashiyama – there are lots of sweets shops and delicious hot buns to try. Kyoto is most famous for bentos, and you can try some great, all-encompassing meals in the small village here. But be careful – you may encounter tourist prices. But don't eat too much yet – the best is yet to come!
Looking around, you'll notice many more nice shops. Appreciating the quaint village can be done without yet getting engrossed in these. It might be better to save those for when you're departing, or you'll have to carry purchases everywhere. Do keep in mind possible early closing times however, in case you need to pick up some omiyage here.
Walking downriver, one will find beautiful temples nestled into the forested mountainside. Exploring their mazelike layouts is a worthy venture. Apart from their peace, beauty, and intrigue, some of these temples offer stunning views of Kyoto city. But leave room in your lungs – better lookouts await!
Indeed, you may have noticed the huge mountain behind you.
And perhaps you were wondering what these silly signs mean:
You'll have to climb the mountain and see for yourself. Don't bring fireworks.
The mountain is a short beautiful hike. It's maybe 15-20 minutes, and it is a straightforward path with some steps. Nonetheless it is probably a good idea to stretch before trying to go up. If you go in later autumn, you likely won't encounter any bugs. But hopefully you'll be able to enjoy the beautiful flowers along the path. This is a family's hike, and you should expect to see children on any given weekend. And near the top, you'll likely encounter the first of the area's many residents.
Don't worry! The monkeys are not aggressive. But to be safe, don't make eye contact with them. Feel free to say hello and proceed to the landing.
It's not quite on top of the mountain, but your destination will be obvious. This place, with its commanding views of Kyoto city, is home to hundreds and hundreds of wild Japanese macaque (Japanese: Nihonzaru or Saru), Japan's only native monkey. They frequent this area and are quite accustomed to humans.
Inside the tourist shack, you can buy peanuts with which to feed the monkeys (or pick them off the floor). Park rangers will ask you in whatever they suspect to be your native language to please only feed the monkeys from within the shack, through the wired windows to the outside. Monkeys can be heard stomping around the roof, looking for the next peanut to poke its way through the fence.
Outside, monkeys loaf around amongst the tourists, looking for extra food left behind, jostling each other, never escaping the eyes of the watchful park rangers. The rangers are prepared to control the monkeys, who are nonetheless generally used to people. Despite the crowds, there will be plenty of monkeys to go around. Feel free to try to get your funniest or coolest picture with a monkey, but remember not to make eye contact with them and not to touch them.
This is the culmination of Arashiyama. Savor the natural beauty of the area and of Kyoto city. One can sit with the monkeys and wonder what these intelligent mammals are thinking. You might discover more than you expect here.
You might discover that they're just as curious about this wonderful place as you are.