If you’re off to Japan, chances are you’ll be headed to one of the country’s most iconic towns, the former capital, Kyoto. And if you’re off to visit Kyoto’s famous sights, then you’ll be wanting to spend a day exploring the Arashiyama region, made Insta-famous for amazing temples, gardens and a towering bamboo forest.
There are many different ways to experience Arashiyama and Kinkaku-ji, but I found a really simple and cost-effective way to do so was to take the Randen. It’s a small electric train or tram that can be taken from Shijo-Omiya Station and an unlimited day pass costs around 500 Japanese Yen, and a one-way fare costs 200 JPY, so definitely for this itinerary, it makes sense to grab yourself the Day Pass as at minimum you’ll be taking 3 trips.
Hop on board the rattling carriage of the Randen and head off to the end of the red line, Arashiyama, which will take about 25 mins. When you disembark, you can choose to either kick the morning off with a temple in the UNESCO World Heritage Listed Tenryu-Ji which is directly opposite the Randen Station or to wander straight into the Bamboo Grove. Whichever order you decide, both of these sights are worth the visit.
Tenryu-Ji displays one of the most pristine, perfect moss gardens with a beautiful pond-side setting for the temple and it’s easy to see why this is one of Kyoto’s most significant temples.
Tenryu-Ji is head of the school of the Rinzai Zen sect of Japanese Buddhism. The temple itself is simple, with large halls filled with tatami mats for prayer, but the real feature is that these prayer halls all face the beautiful garden and pond in the open air.
The background of the central pond is made up of the woodlands stretching up the Arashiyama mountains. Entry is 500 JPY just to visit the garden, and add 300 JPY for the temple buildings, too. I enjoyed the temple buildings, but if money is tight, the garden is absolutely the feature item.
Next, make your way to the famous Arashiyama Bamboo Grove and walk amongst the green, whispering trees. As you wander, discover the tiny shrine Nonomiya Jinja, which was once used for imperial princesses to purify themselves.
The shrine features a tiny moss garden and a small alter and is set in the midst of the forest. Wander back onto the bamboo path then and walk the circuit of bamboo trees, marvelling at the thickness of the healthy, lush trunks. If you stand still for a moment, you’ll hear the trees rustle and shimmy in the breeze and feel totally relaxed.
There are a number of other shrines and temples to see in this area, but if you’re time pressed like I was, then just wander and experience a few as you come across them, grabbing sticky rice cakes and dumplings from street vendors along the way until it’s time to hop back on the Randen to visit the famous Golden Pavilion, Kinkaku-ji.
Whilst not technically in the Arashiyama area, with that Randen Day Pass, your access to the amazing Golden Pavilion is sorted. Simply embark at Arashiyama and take the red line Randen back to stop A8 – Katabiranotsuji. Then, change to the blue line and go right to the end – stop B9, Kitano-Halubaicho. The Golden Pavilion complex is around 20-25mins walk from the station.
When you arrive at Kinkaku-ji, the pavilion is instantly mesmerising, especially if you’re lucky enough to see it light up when the sun’s rays hit it. It was a gloomy winter day when I visited, but fortunately, I still got to see a few moments of truly spectacular gold sparkling in the final rays of the day. For reference, Kinkaku-ji entry is 400 JPY.
The final stop for the day before heading back to the bustle of downtown Kyoto is the gorgeous temple Ryoan-Ji with it’s famous raked Zen garden of stones. It’s another 20 min walk, or a 3 minute taxi ride, depending on how you’re going for time. Like Tenryu-Ji, the pond and garden of Ryoan-Ji is peaceful, picturesque and simply beautiful, even in the depths of winter.
The point of difference in this temple, however, is the unexpectedly intriguing raked stone rock garden that features 15 placed stones in a rectangular Zen garden of moss and pebbles. Take a moment to sit, contemplate and try to spot all 15 stones. Spoiler: you can’t! The garden is designed so that only 14 of the 15 stones is ever visible from any vantage point.
Once you’ve gotten your zen fill from Ryoan-Ji, it’s time to head back to Kyoto for dinner. Wander to the Randen Station at Ryoan-Ji (about 5 mins walk) and take the Randen back to stop A8 – Katabiranotsuji, then change to the blue line for Shijo-Omiya. Just like that, you’ve managed to spend a day exploring Arashiyama and Kinkakuji – two of Kyoto’s most famous sights.