My first day in Kyoto started with a jaunt to the Iwatayama Monkey Park in Arashiyama (which kind of led me OUT of Kyoto- or at least verrryy far west of Kyoto- and about the length of a trip to Astoria from the Upper West Side).
The small town of Arashiyama (I think it’s a town? I still don’t entirely understand Japanese geography.) is nestled in the Japanese hills and the Togetsu Bridge connects the mainlands over the Katsura River. This landscape transports me back in time and I can practically see rickshaws and carts being pulled over this bridge by farmers from hundreds of years ago. The landscape is so charming and on the Monkey Park side of the river there are dozens of little shops set up along the waterfront. It seems like a sleepy little town that just happens to have thousands of visitors pass through every day.
The Monkey Park is quite literally atop a mountain (aptly named Mt. Arashiyama), which I failed to recognize as I began my ascent and was quite winded shortly thereafter. Following a 15 minute walk up the mountain and a 500 yen entry fee, there is a plateau where dozens of snow monkeys roam and a hut where you can buy bags of apples or peanuts for 100 yen and feed them from inside through fenced windows.
The monkeys are not caged at all- they are free to wander, explore, and live on the mountainside. A posted sign stated they sleep higher up on the mountain and usually come down to the feeding hut because, well… food. There are handlers/guides who make sure that the monkeys and the humans don’t get too close for comfort (or a lawsuit) but besides that, the monkeys seem to have it pretty good!
Following my monkey excursion I crossed the Togetsu Bridge to reach the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove in Arashiyama Park. The Grove is lovely and picturesque and free! It was here that my luck of relatively uncrowded touristy locations began to turn. As a beautiful, popular and free attraction there were dozens of groups to navigate around and as wonderful as it was, I couldn’t help but wish it was a little quieter, more serene.
Bamboo is one of the strongest natural materials on this Earth (maybe the strongest? I don’t know, I am not a scientist.) and I find it’s groves to be so awe inspiring . To be surrounded able and around by such power and sleek, cool, natural beauty is a true phenomenon.
I only spent about 15 minutes walking through the grove, as it was a shorter path than I anticipated, and the swarming crowds made it less desirable to linger.
The Grove path led me into the Kameyama-koen (Kameyama Park) and I spent about 20-30 minutes ambling aimlessly, looking at the statues and monuments erected for historic men and women: an established poet and an imperial loyalist turned matriarch. So much history exists all around- we just need to take more time out of our day to stop and recognize it. I also appreciate when I find a sign/plaque is already translated into English! In the popular spots around Japan most signs are given, at the least, a very basic translation. However, most plaques and markers in less touristy places-of-interest are only in Japanese which makes it hard to figure out what I’m looking at! I love knowing why a statue or memorial was erected, but I also understand that Japan doesn’t owe me an English explanation because I came here not knowing how to speak their language!
The park was situated next to the Katsura River and eventually I found my way down to a path directly along the river where I found a riverside restaurant to snag lunch. I was seated at a table with another solo traveler- a Korean girl who spoke lovely English, who also happened to be vacationing in Kyoto by herself for a couple days. I was so happy and humbled to see that there are more girls out there – all across the world, taking advantage of their free time and going on adventures.
Following my lunch I followed made my way back to the train station in the center of town and passed so many fun boutiques and cafes along the way- if there is one thing Japan has got on lock, it is shopping. A nearly infinite supply of specialty food items and cute treats and touristy souvenirs and handmade goods and stunning textiles all clustered together in small shops and businesses along any main street you might come across.
Outside of one of these shops, I even encountered a public foot onsen (bath). You paid 200 yen to stick your feet into a nice heated tub while people watching and overlooking the Katsura River! I did not take advantage of this but as I sit in my apartment after a long day of work, I am absolutely regretting that decision.
I didn’t peruse the shops for too long because it was only about 2:30 pm, earlier in the day than I had anticipated, and I decided to head back into Kyoto proper to check out Nijo Castle- which had been on my “maybe” list.
I took a cute little local train all the way to the end of line from Arashiyama into central Kyoto and made it to Nijo Castle by 3:30! (I walked about 3/4 of a mile from the last train stop to Nijo Castle, because I always prefer to walk in a place I’ve never been especially if the weather is nice! But I digress, because I am going to save my Nijo Castle experience for another post!
Arashiyama was as charming and whimsical as I could have hoped for. I am glad I got to get out of Tokyo and see some of the older side of Japan!