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.

Our Short Oahu Getaway

Our short visit to Waikiki has been . . . perfect. In just two and half days here we’ve enjoyed great weather, gotten everything done we wanted and needed to do, and we‘ve relaxed.

The view from our lanai.
The view from our lanai

I don’t know what we did right, but the room we were given at the Hale Koa was on the top floor, with sweeping views of the resort grounds, the ocean and Waikiki Beach. We spent a lot of time at the hotel out on our lanai enjoying the view, whether that was for the sunset in the evening, or coffee and breakfast in the morning, or relaxing between other activities. Our room was spacious and comfortable, and the hotel had everything you could think of: restaurants, several bars, casual dining options, two pools (one for 18 and older only), beach access and rentals, tennis courts, a day spa, a gym, and beautiful grounds for strolling. Most things are for military only (you have to present ID to get in), but a few things, like the day spa, are open to the public with military receiving a discount. We laughed that Brett probably had the longest hair there (for a guy), and seemed to be the only retiree not sporting a ball cap that stated “Retired <branch of service>.”

Our hotel tower, one of two at the Hale Koa. Our room was on the top floor, second from the left.
Our hotel tower, one of two at the Hale Koa. Our room was on the top floor, second from the left. The Maile Pool (18 and older only) is in the foreground; there’s another larger pool on the grounds for families and children.
The Maile pool looking down from our lanai
Looking down from our lanai at the Maile pool.
Beautiful landscaping surrounds the Hale Koa.
Beautiful landscaping surrounds the Hale Koa.

One of our primary reasons for coming to Oahu was for the girls to do some shopping. Neither has really bought any new clothes for two years other than t-shirts for school, and with WenYu needing clothes for college they were eager to hit the stores. After we checked in on Wednesday afternoon we took a short walk over to the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center to let them get started. Brett and I turned them loose while we found a quiet seat outside and enjoyed coffee and lemonade, and watched Japanese tourists shop and learn the hula (they picked it up very quickly).

Sunset view from our lanai on Thursday evening
Sunset view from our lanai on Thursday evening

We slept in on Thursday morning, enjoyed our breakfast on the lanai, and then walked over to the huge Ala Moana Center, about a mile away. The girls took off on their own once we got there, and Brett and I mostly spent our time window shopping but bought a couple of things for ourselves: I got new pair of slippahs (flip flops) and some lingerie, and Brett got a new 10-year shaving brush for his Father’s Day gift – his old one is on its very last legs. We met up with the girls in the late afternoon and rode the bus back to the hotel. Dinner that night was at one of the hotel snack bars, with the girls staying to swim for awhile afterwards and Brett and I heading back to our room to enjoy the sunset. We surprised the girls when they got back with some tasty cupcakes from the famous Magnolia Bakery – they have an outpost in the Ala Moana Center.

It's a tough job, but someone has to sit out by the pool
It’s a tough job, but someone has to sit out by the pool
New slippahs and a pedicure!
New slippahs and a pedicure!

Yesterday was dedicated to relaxation. We slept in again, had breakfast on the lanai, and then we all headed in different directions for a while. Brett visited the nearby Army Museum of Hawai’i, the girls went to the pool, and I went to the day spa for a manicure and pedicure. We all got together for lunch at another one of the snack bars (all the snack bars served really tasty food), then headed to the pool for an afternoon of swimming and sunbathing. The girls took off early and went back into town for one last round of shopping while Brett and I relaxed at the Maile pool for a while longer.

Dessert selections included carrot cake, raspberry panna cotta, chocolate mousse and mini fruit tarts
Dessert selections at the buffet included carrot cake, raspberry panna cotta, chocolate mousse and mini fruit tarts

We had not planned to do any restaurant dining, but one of the Hale Koa’s restaurants hosts an all-you-can-eat buffet every evening at a very reasonable price, and Friday evening we learned they were serving crab legs and peel-and-eat shrimp as well as the regular menu items, so we decided we had to go. Our table came with a gorgeous view of the beach, and the food was amazing! We all ate too much, but agreed it was well worth it!

Ou intrepid shoppers relaxing on Waikiki Beach at sundown
Our intrepid shoppers relaxing on Waikiki Beach at sundown

Then we headed down to the beach to view Diamond Head once more, and see the sun set, before heading back to our room to watch the fireworks show in honor of Kamahemeha Day, the biggest state holiday in Hawai’i. We ended the day getting everything packed and ready for this morning’s departure for home.

The remains of the day: Waikiki sunset
The remains of the day: Waikiki sunset

While we greatly enjoyed the hustle and bustle of Honolulu and Waikiki, we are glad to be heading home to our slower-paced island. The getaway was a great one though – we all had a terrific time, got what we needed and did not go over budget! Brett and I are especially proud of the girls and their shopping prowess – they found lots of great stuff and are coming home with money still in their accounts. We’ll definitely be heading back to Waikiki again, but next time will give ourselves more time for sightseeing around the island. We loved our time on Oahu!

Planning An Oahu Visit

Waikiki Beach. That's the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in the lower left-hand corner; the Hale Koa is right next door, just out of the picture.
Waikiki Beach. That’s the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in the lower left-hand corner; the Hale Koa is right next door, just out of the picture.

One thing we haven’t done since we moved to Kaua’i last year is visit any of the other islands. We’ve all transited through the Honolulu airport on various other travels, but that’s it. The Mystery Vacation™  is coming up next March, but we have been talking for months about taking a short hop over to another island and decided early next June would be the best time to go.

But, which island to visit? Urban Oahu? Beautiful Maui? The Big Island? Rustic Molokai? We put it to a vote and Oahu came out the winner.

The trip’s purpose is three-fold: Celebrate WenYu’s hard work (YaYu’s too) and her graduation; check out a different Hawaiian location (and remind ourselves why we left city living); and, most importantly for the girls at least, do some shopping. Kauai’s shopping options are extremely limited, to say the least, and there are things we all need to restock.

As military retirees we are eligible to stay at the Hale Koa Resort on Waikiki Beach. Located right next door to the famed Royal Hawaiian Hotel and Resort, the Hale Koa offers great rooms at very affordable prices. For example, an oceanfront room for Brett’s rank is just $221/night, taxes & fees included; a regular room without a view is just $152/night (we booked an oceanfront room). The resort has great restaurants and entertainment on site, but is also located within walking distance to many other affordable dining options. And, there’s beautiful Waikiki beach as well, right out the Hale Koa’s back door. The only downside to a Hale Koa stay is that there is no shuttle service to or from the airport. We’ll either have to hire a taxi, pay for commercial shuttle service, or rent a car.

There are several flights per day both coming and going from Lihue to Honolulu, so finding a flight won’t be an issue. What will be an issue is finding a good price. We have enough miles to fly for free using Hawaiian Airlines, but are saving those miles to get the girls to and from college so will have to pay full retail price. There are no kamaaina discounts for residents, either :-(.

While we’re not normally mall shoppers, the huge Ala Moana Center is located just a short 20 minute walk away from the Hale Koa, and the Hilton Village shops are right next door. Down the road the other direction there’s even more shopping. The girls want to visit the BIG Oahu Goodwill store, but that will require either a drive or bus trip. Brett and I would like to visit the Pearl Harbor Memorial site while we’re there and see some of the other sights like the USS Missouri, but will most likely do that via a bus tour arranged through the hotel. Mainly though we all hope to relax and soak up the sun on Waikiki. One of the great things about traveling with teenagers though is that we don’t always have to be doing the same thing at the same time!

So, here we go again. Let the travel saving begin again!!