Sitting on the west side of Kyoto, the Arashiyama area is renowned for its mountain scenery, Togetsukyo wooden bridge, vast bamboo grove, and the World Heritage-listed Tenryuji temple. It is particularly popular in the autumn, when the turning leaves render the mountains even more beautiful.
To really enjoy the season, we recommend starting your day by taking a 25 minute ride on the Sagano Romantic Train through the scenic Hozu Gorge to Kameoka Torokko station and then floating back down the Hozu River to Arashiyama on a wooden boat (there is a shuttle bus to take passengers from the train station to the boat landing).
This is a great combination, but you need to plan ahead, as all seats on the Sagano Romantic Train are reserved and usually sell out quickly. Try to get your tickets at least a few days in advance, either at the ticket office of any major JR West station, or buy them on line.
If you can’t get tickets for this train, don’t despair. There is an alternate route to reach the upriver boat landing. Take a JR train from Kyoto, Nijo or Saga-Arashiyama to Kameoka. From there, it’s just a few minutes walk to the riverside landing.
Wooden boats like the ones that once carried freight down the river to Kyoto leave the landing about every hour; more frequently in peak times. The 16 kilometer trip takes around two hours, so in winter the last boat leaves by 14:30, a good reason to make the trip first thing in the morning and then spend the afternoon exploring the rest of Arashiyama’s delights.
It usually takes three boatmen to get a boat through the gorge (four in high water). One is at the back, steering, while one at the front poles (the river is relatively shallow) and one rows. Usually the one on the oar also keeps up a running commentary about the gorge and the history of the boats. Although most of the commentary is in Japanese, the boatmen make everyone feel welcome. Rudimentary words of English or Chinese, together with a lot of pointing and gesturing get the job done.
The first stage of the river–from the boat landing to the first major bend, where the river enters the gorge–is relatively flat. The boatman/guide spends a lot of time pointing out the abundant bird life and aquatic animals. The river’s waters are usually very clear and fish are often visible.
As soon as the boat enters the gorge, white water appears as the river begins its descent.
In some places the river passes through man-made channels, some quite narrow. (Ladies and gentlemen, please keep your hands inside the boat at all times!) In other places, nature has made the channel narrow and fast.
The boatman handling the pole often uses it to ensure that the boat doesn’t scrape the rocks at the water’s edge. In some places, the pole has worn a hole in the rock from the boatmen regularly striking the same spot with their pole. In these spots, the boatman shows off a bit by trying to make sure he puts the pole in the hole.
In some places, the river levels off and becomes quiet, allowing passengers time to enjoy the scenery. Sometimes the river’s surface is almost mirror-like. Occasionally we were also treated to the sight of Japanese macaques clambering on the rocks alongside the river.
The boat passes under a few bridges and we are even treated to the sight of the Sagano Romantic Train high above us.
Shortly before we reach Arashiyama, a small boat pulls alongside to sell refreshments, including oden, squid fresh off the grill, and cold drinks.
The ride comes to an end just above the Togetsukyo Bridge, where a series of weirs causes the river to broaden into a pond popular for rowing boats and other pleasure craft. It is also at this point that the river’s name changes to Katsura River as it continues through western Kyoto.
There has been a wooden bridge spanning the river at this location for over 400 years. Scenic at any time, for a special sightseeing opportunity try to get here between December 13 and December 22, 2019, when the bridge and the hillside in its autumn splendor will be illuminated from 17:00 to 20:30.
The flow of the river over the weirs also makes this a popular spot for cormorants and wading birds to catch fish.
There are plenty of temples and villas to explore in Arashiyama–too many to detail here. The shops on the main drag are also enticing. Or maybe this is the place to take that ricksaw ride you’ve always wanted to take.
If you’re game for another special Japan experience and have timed your journey well, you could have a Buddhist vegetarian lunch at nearby Tenryu-ji. Shigetsu, a restaurant inside the temple, serves Buddhist vegetarian lunches daily from 11:00 to 14:00. Click here for details and to make a reservation.
In any event, Tenryuji and Sogenchi, its spendid garden, are not to be missed.
As an added bonus, if you exit the garden at the back (north gate), the path leads directly to the western section of Arashiyama’s Bamboo Grove. This tends to be the less visited part of the bamboo grove. I won’t bother posting a photo, since the Internet doesn’t need another photo of Arashiyama’s Bamboo Grove. Besides, it’s more awe-inspiring in person.
Another itinerary option (assuming you can make all the necessary reservations) would be to start with an early lunch at Shigetsu, have a quick walk through the bamboo grove, and catch the Sagano Romantic Train from Arashiyama Torokko station to Kameoka Torokko station. Then catch the shuttle bus to the boat landing and float back down to Arashiyama, returning by late afternoon.
© 2019 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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