DIY Walking Tour of Arashiyama | Kyoto, Japan
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A small district on the outskirts of Kyoto, Arashiyama is where you want to go to explore the famous bamboo grove, see wild macaques, and enjoy gorgeous cultural gardens. After a short 20-minute transit trip from central Kyoto, Arashiyama can be completely explored on foot. All of the main attractions, shops, and restaurants are within a short walk of each other. This DIY walking tour can be done at a slower pace to fill up a whole day or can easily be a half-day excursion.
How to Get to Arashiyama from Kyoto
The best way we found to navigate Japan’s public transit system is by using Google Maps. Hyperdia is another great app for public transit, but you need to know what station you are leaving from and going to. For Google Maps, you can enter in your destination and where you are and it will guide you on the walking path to get to the station and which direction to go once you leave the subway. Depending on where you are staying in Kyoto, you will either arrive in Arashiyama on the JR train that arrives at Saga-Arashiyama Station or take the subway to the Randen Street tram and get off at the Keifuku Arashiyama Station. Both will take roughly 20 minutes if you are staying in central Kyoto.
You can also get a taxi from Kyoto, which will cost you around 2000 yen.
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
As one of the most popular spots in Kyoto and definitely the most visited in Arashiyama, this serene bamboo grove can become quite chaotic. For a chance at getting some people-free shots or at least the ability to take photos without massive crowds in them, arrive early. We arrived at 7:30 am and were accompanied by probably 50 or so other tourists. The most picturesque part of the path is a lot shorter than you realize, so unfortunately, the crowds aren’t as spaced out as you’d hope.
We had passed through the grove again at 9:30 am and noon to check out the crowds. At 9:30 am, the crowds had doubled but it was still easy enough to walk through and navigate around the people posing for pictures. At noon, there was a large mass of slowly moving people shoulder-to-shoulder walking through the grove. If you don’t mind starting your day early, make the bamboo grove your first spot of the day. If you know you can’t be bothered to wake up before 9 on vacation, save the bamboo grove for the late afternoon.
Getting to the bamboo grove can be a bit tricky, so follow the path in the map above.
Time Spent: 45 Minutes
A world heritage site, Tenryu-ji Temple is the most historically significant building in the area. The temple was established back in 1339 but was destroyed numerous times in fires throughout its history. The building there today dates to 1877, after the final restoration and rebuilding efforts. While the buildings are beautiful, the real gem of this place is its gardens. There is a central pond, offering great reflections of the hills surrounding the temple complex. There are well-maintained paths that take you through the garden and up above it to get a great view of the temple and the city around it.
Depending on the time, you can either enter into Tenryu-Ji Temple complex at the north side entrance right at the start of the bamboo grove an hour after the gardens open or at the main entrance anytime. We visited both the gardens and the temple, but frankly, the temple was rather disappointing, especially in comparison to the gardens around it. You can see the main sections of the garden from the temple and most of our focus went out to the beautiful blooming cherry blossoms and the gorgeous central pond. We arrived at the temple shortly after it opened and the crowd levels were minimal, but it does it get busier later in the day.
Cost: 800 yen for both the gardens and temple, 500 yen for just the gardens
Time Spent: 45 Minutes
Okochi Sanso Garden
Back past the bamboo grove is the Okochi Sanso Garden, a privately owned peaceful garden and a refuge away from the craziness that is Arashiyama at mid-day. The entry price is a bit steep at 1000 yen, but it includes green tea and a sweet. There is a set route to follow through these traditional Japanese gardens. We arrived at 11 am and counted only 3 or 4 other groups wandering the garden at the same time as us. Without the crowds of people, it is hard not to take things a bit slow and look around at everything. There are a few benches around the garden for a rest or to enjoy the view.
At the end of the walk, we enjoyed the macha tea in a cute tea room. While we are not big tea drinkers, it was surprisingly delicious and the sweet wasn’t too bad either.
Cost: 1000 yen, includes green tea and sweet
Time Spent: 30 Minutes
Head straight out the exit of Okochi Sanso Garden, passing the bamboo grove on your left, and within a minute or two you will be in Kameyama-Koen. This park offers spectacular views of the Katsura river below. Once you are in the park, it is a bit of an uphill walk to get to the view, but it is worth it. You may even spot some monkeys too.
Next to the observation area is a sign with the times of the Sagano Scenic Train – if you arrive at the right time, you can see the train make a step and then carry on down along the river.
Time Spent: 20 minutes
It’s likely time for lunch now – head down from Kameyama-Koen to the river bank. There are several great restaurants along the river or find a spot further in town. After lunch, walk across the bridge of Katsura River and locate the signs for the Arashiyama Monkey Park.
Monkey Park Iwatayama
It is always a bit worrisome to go to a commercialized area to view wild animals in their natural habitat, especially in foreign countries. Luckily, this place does it right. The wild macaques are quite a long walk up the hill (20 minutes) away from the city. They are free roaming and not behind bars, which sadly is a common way to see any interesting primates like these.
There are plenty of workers around ensuring that the humans follow the rules – staying a few feet away from the monkeys, only feeding them in a secure area, and not looking at the monkeys in their eyes. Instead of the monkeys being caged, the humans get caged to allow you to feed the macaques safely. You can buy fruit or nuts for 100 yen to feed to the monkeys that want it. Only one bag of food is allowed per person to avoid the monkeys being overfed.
Instead of the owl or other animal cafes that are widespread in Japan, this is a much more ethical way to interact with Japan’s animal populations. The monkeys know that they only get feed near the hut, so they do not interact with humans that are not in the caged hut. We saw a couple of small baby monkeys play fighting a bit away from us, but they were never aggressive to humans.
It is quite the steep hill to get up and down from, which might be a challenge for those with small kids or mobility problems. If you are in fair shape, then you will be fine, just might need a rest every now and then. It is well worth it, not only for the monkeys at the top but the great view of Kyoto.
Cost: 550 yen
Time Spent: 1 hour
From the Monkey Park, head back across the bridge over Katsura River and find your train back to Kyoto. You will likely have a few good hours left in the day to explore some of Kyoto proper. After Arashiyama, we headed straight to Ueno Castle and then to dinner before ending our day.