Postcard From: Arashiyama

The Togetsukyou Bridge crosses the K River, with Arashiyama in the back.
Togetsukyou Bridge crossing the Hozu/Katsura River (the river changes its name as it passes under the bridge).  There is a hint of the cherry blossoms to come on Arashiyama’s slope in the background.

Located on the western outskirts of Kyoto, the Arashiyama (‘Storm Mountain’) district is both a Japanese National Historic Site and designated Place of Scenic Beauty. Arashiyama is famous for both the explosion of cherry blossoms that cover its slopes in the spring, and the amazing displays of color in the fall when the leaves change. The district is also home to the breathtaking Sagano bamboo forest. I had wanted to see the bamboo forest again on our visit to Kyoto in 2015, so my daughter-in-law arranged a wonderful day’s visit to the district for our family.

The Karatsu River from the train
The Hozu River from the train. The river’s aqua color is gorgeous.

We began our visit to Arashiyama with a ride on the Sagano Scenic Railroad (also known as the Sagano Romantic Train), a private line that runs along the Hozu River as it heads east into the district (reserved seats only). The charming, old-fashioned trains run from Torokko Kameoka station to Arashiyama station, and offer superb views of the river and foliage along the way. We were about a week too early to see the cherry blossoms in full bloom, but it was obvious they would be spectacular. The train ride is especially popular in the fall when the leaves turn, and the views are said to be even more amazing than they are in the spring or summer. Visitors can also take boat trips down the river in the summer and fall, and we saw a few traditional inns and restaurants on the river banks where visitors stop and/or stay to enjoy the scenery.

At Saga-Arashiyama station, our grandson enjoys a traditional Japanese treat, mochi dango. The balls made from pounded sweet rice
At Arashiyama station, our grandson enjoys a traditional Japanese treat, mochi dango. The colored balls are made from pounded sweet rice and served on a stick.

The Sagano bamboo forest walk begins just across the street from where the train ride ends. It’s almost like entering another world as you step on the path, and pictures really can’t do it justice. Even the light seems different. Gigantic bamboo stalks surround the path and whisper overhead as you walk toward town. The forest path ends at the main road through Arashiyama, and takes around 20-30 minutes or so to walk from end to end and absorb the scenery. Visitors are not allowed to leave the path without special permission.

The bamboo path through the Sagano forest. The fence is made from dried bamboo branches.
The path through the Sagano bamboo forest. The fence is made from fallen dried bamboo branches.
The bamboo towers overhead, swaying in the wind.
The bamboo towers over the path, swaying in the wind.
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The torii at the entrance to Nonomiya Shrine, located about halfway down the bamboo forest path. The twisted rope on the torii is a shimenawa and is hung with shide (folded paper). The shimenawa indicates that a place has been purified, and is also thought to ward off evil spirits.
You don't see trash on the ground in Japan. Trash receptacles are everywhere, and trash is sorted for recycling.
You don’t see trash on the ground in Japan. Trash receptacles are everywhere (the ones in Sagano are appropriately made of bamboo), and trash typically is sorted for recycling.

Arashiyama is a popular area with visitors, and there are many restaurants and shops lining the main road featuring Japanese specialities and locally produced goods. Before heading down the main road through town, our group stopped at a traditional restaurant and enjoyed a tasty grilled beef and tofu lunch, but other restaurants along the road offered tempura, soba and other dishes. After our lunch we wandered down the street, stopping along the way to admire the goods for sale. I did some shopping at one store that sold items made from local bamboo, and purchased some hand-crafted bamboo spatulas to bring home. There were also several snack shops along the road, some selling traditional treats such as mochi dango, others offering ice cream and other treats. Even though it was very cold the day we were there, I tried a sakura (cherry blossom) ice cream cone – delicious!). The main street also had numerous souvenir shops where we found some of the more exotic flavors of KitKat bars, including roasted tea and wasabi (both were very tasty).

Grilled beef and tofu lunch in Arashiyama
Grilled beef and tofu lunch in Arashiyama
Japanese restaurants often present their menu outside using realistic plastic models of the items. If you don't speak Japanese, you can take your waiter outside and point to what you want.
Japanese restaurants often present their menu outside using realistic plastic models of the items. If you don’t speak Japanese, you can bring your waiter outside and point to what you want.
Young Japanese women visiting Kyoto often rent kimono for the day, to create a more "Japanese" feeling while they visit the sites.
Young Japanese women visiting Kyoto and the surrounding areas often rent kimono for the day to have a more ‘Japanese experience’ while visiting the area.

We strolled the main road until we eventually reached the wooden Togetsukyou (‘Moon Crossing’) Bridge that crosses the Hozu River. Actually, depending on which side of the bridge you’re standing on, you may be looking at the Katsura River – the river changes names as it passes under the bridge from east to west. The Togetsukyou Bridge was first built over 400 years ago, and has been used many times as a location in historical dramas. The bridge is famous as an outstanding spot to view the cherry blossoms (or autumn foliage) that cover the slope of Arashiyama.

Togetsukyou Bridge
The Togetsukyou Bridge carries both foot and light motor traffic.

The weather changed abruptly while we were viewing Togetsukyou, with the already cold weather suddenly turning stormy. We quickly hurried back to Arashiyama station and caught a train back into Kyoto, stopping for one more short visit in the Gion district before heading back to our machiya rental to warm up before dinner.

It was still cold when we got to Gion, but the rain had stopped.
It was still cold when we got to Gion, but the rain had stopped.

Postcard From: Fushimi Inari-Taisha

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Although I made many, many trips to Kyoto during my college overseas study tour and during our two navy tours in Japan, I had not only never visited the Fushimi Inari-Taisha, it had never even appeared on my radar of places to see in Kyoto. It wasn’t until I got active on Pinterest, and pictures of the vermillion tunnels of torii gates kept appearing over and over that I became more curious, and decided that on our 2015 visit to the city I would not miss visiting this shrine.

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Torii gate at the entrance to Fushimi Inari-Taisha
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Fox statue guarding the entrance to the shrine. Smaller fox statues can be found throughout the shrine.

Fushimi Inari-Taisha is the head shrine of the Shinto kami Inari, god of prosperity, worldly success and industry, and of fertility, rice, sake and tea. Inari is also the patron of merchants and businessmen. The thousands of torii gates (in Japanese, torii literally means ‘bird perch’) located in the shrine were each donated by businesses as offerings to Inari. Statues and images of foxes can also be seen throughout the shrine as fox (kitsune) are considered to be messengers to the gods. They are often seen with a key in their mouth, indicating their mythical role as keeper of the rice granary.

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The main shrine. Visitors are lined up to make offerings.
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Main shrine roof detail and lanterns.

The girls and I set out for the shrine on our last morning in Kyoto. Located on the south side of the city, on the side of Mt. Inari, it was easy to find, only a short trip by train from Kyoto station.

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Torii are engraved with the name of the business that made the donation.
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A smaller shrine area located midway through the grounds.
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Fox ema left at one of the smaller shrine areas. The ema cost around 300 yen ($3) – the purchaser draws on a face, then writes a prayer request on the back (for examination success, sports win, good job, etc.)

After entering the shrine, we hiked through the vermillion tunnels for well over an hour, weaving our way up and over hills and through the forest. The immense number of torii massed together is almost overwhelming, and yet the tunnels beckon you to walk through and follow their turns and twists to see where they lead. Just when you start to feel like you could get lost, there you are back at a familiar spot. And, throughout the shrine are located smaller shrines and rest areas where you can sit and have a snack, or write your prayer request on the back of a fox ema (small wooden plaques). Unfortunately, because we needed to leave in order to to catch our train back to Tokyo, we missed hiking through the last great tunnel located at the back of the shrine.

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WenYu enjoys some hot, freshly made takoyaki.
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YaYu enjoys a skewer of grilled pork – she said it was the most delicious thing she ate in Japan!

The shrine is a popular destination for Japanese tourists, and as is typical at many shrines, when you leave you enter a street of souvenir shops and food stalls. We stood in line to enjoy some Japanese street food: a version of takoyaki (round pancakes with octopus and herbs) and some skewers of grilled pork.

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In the Shinto religion, torii mark the transition between sacred and profane space. Walking through the tunnels does indeed give a sense of the divine, of being in a very special place.

I can’t believe it took me so long to visit this beautiful shrine, but it was definitely worth the wait. Fushimi Inari-Taisha is a fascinating combination of energy, beauty, and mystery (I would love to walk through the tunnels at dusk!), and has earned a permanent place on my must-visit list whenever I next visit Kyoto.

A Postcard From: Ninenzaka

Sakura starting to bloom on Ninenzaka
Sakura starting to bloom on Ninenzaka

If someone pinned me down and told me I had to pick my favorite place in Japan right now, I wouldn’t even need the time to blink my eyes before I replied,  “Ninenzaka (Two-Year Hill)!”

Jin-rikusha heading to the top of the hill
Jinrikisha being pulled by a VERY fit young man to the top of the hill

Located in the Higashiyama ward on the east side of Kyoto, the gently sloping street (and its nearby mate, Sannenzaka (“Three-Year Hill”) offer a view of what Kyoto must have looked like in the past. Both lanes are lined with authentically restored shops, many offering traditional Japanese goods or foods (and samples!), as well as teahouses, restaurants and homes. Unlike the rest of Kyoto (and Japan) there are no overhead electric lines to clog the sight lines making it one of the most beautiful and charming areas in the city. No motor vehicles are allowed on Ninenzaka either; if you don’t want to or can’t walk the only wheeled transportation allowed are jinrikisha (rickshaw).

Ninenzaka skyline
Second story Ninenzaka: Old style with a touch of today.
Lucky gourds (hyoutan) for sale
Lucky gourds (hyoutan) for sale
Old warehouse
Traditional warehouse (kura)
Traditional crafts (mingei) including clay bells representing the animals of the zodiac
Clay bells representing the animals of the zodiac and a set of Kiyomizu pottery chopstick rests (hashioki) with scenes of Mt. Fuji.
Ninenzaka makes a turn to the left and this is what appears!
Part-way down the hill Ninenzaka makes a turn to the left and . . . wow! Up until then, the Yasaka-no-to pagoda is hidden by the rooflines along the way.
Sake for sale in handprinted bottles.
Sake for sale in handpainted bottles.

And, one more thing . . .

Ninenzaka (or Sannenzaka) is a great place to stop and enjoy a Kyoto specialty: a matcha (green tea) parfait. YUM!
Ninenzaka (or Sannenzaka) is also a great place to enjoy a Kyoto specialty: a matcha (green tea) parfait. YUM!