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Japan: Arashiyama

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Arashiyama | Japan | Asia

[Visited: May 2015]

A light drizzle comes out of the grey sky when I open my curtains that morning, and I decide to reverse my plans for the day and start in Arashiyama. The ride from Osaka is easy enough, and quite fast too, as long as you take the express train. When I get off at the last stop of the Hankyu line, there is a crowd of uniformed kids who get off as well. I walk up to a small temple, take a ticket, and hike for some 15 minutes up to the Iwatayama Monkey Park. On the way there, I see a couple of monkeys, but it is when I arrive at the summit of the hill that I am surrounded by monkeys on all sides. They are not scared or aggressive, and mostly seem to ignore me. According to the signs, I am not supposed to look them into the eye, and I cannot touch them either. With my camera in front of my face, it feels I can freely observe them while they cannot see my eyes. The monkeys are great: the young ones play, while most of the bigger ones are engaged in picking lice from each others furry skin, relaxing, or looking in the distance. There is a cage, where humans can experience what it feels like to be encaged while monkeys come and watch you. Today, the view over the city is seriously reduced by the clouds, and when the group of Japanese kids come up the hill, no matter how orderly, I say goodbye to my monkey friends, and I walk down the hill again.

Picture of Arashiyama (Japan): Young monkeys at the Arashiyama Monkey Park

While crossing the famous Togetsukyo bridge, also known as the Moon Crossing Bridge, I enjoy the open views of the Arashiyama mountains, and the boats on the calm river. It is on the other side that I suddenly find myself in a busy, touristy area. Lots of shops, guides with flags steering their groups through the crowds - but this is Japan, and despite the people and the vendors, it is still surprisingly quiet. On the other side of the street, I enter the grounds of the Tenryu-ji, or heavenly dragon, not only a major temple of the Rinzai school, but also having a great 14th century Zen garden around the temple complex. I keep walking up and down the trails through the garden, past small streams of water with lilies on top, with tiny waterfalls, with ponds with islets, elegant stone lanterns, and plenty of well-tended trees and bushes. Amid the people I meet walking the garden are three geishas, two of which foreigners. I take the northern exit, which brings me directly at the start of the Arashiyama bamboo grove. Towering high above me are bamboo plants, growing so densely they block much of the light. It basically is an alley through a thick bamboo forest, and very popular, also with wedding couples. Anyone in the grove is dwarfed by the giant bamboo.

Picture of Arashiyama (Japan): Bamboo grove at the Adashino Nembutsu-ji cemetery

At the other side, there are plenty more things to discover, and I decide to concentrate on a few; I could easily spend the rest of the day exploring the various temples, homes, and museums here. After a pleasant walk through fields and a quiet neighbourhood, I take a left, to arrive at Takiguchi-dera, a temple with a tragic love story. Takiguchi Nyudo, a young nobleman who was refused to marry his love, Yokobue, a peasant girl, by his father, founded the temple to retreat himself into it. When Yokobue one day came to the temple and tried to convince him to see her by playing on her flute, he refused her to enter. She then cut her finger, wrote a farewell poem on a rock, and threw herself into the nearby river to drown. The crowds seem to steer clear of this tragedy, and I have the temple and its grounds to myself. In the small temple, I find statues of the couple, and the rock on which Yokobue wrote her sonnet is also on display. A text on a paper at the temple invites me to sit down and relax, and I do so on one of the pillows in the open, peaceful space. Ah, the power of love - would the father not have forbidden his son to marry his lover, there would not be a temple here, and we would have never heard of this Japanese love drama. Right next door is Gio-ji, another temple from the Heian era. Gio was a girl who turned nun after her affair with a commander ended. The temple itself holds statues of Gio and some of her relatives, as well as a delicate Buddha statue. The grounds of the temple are covered in moss, and right next to it, there is a small cemetery with delicate tombstones. A little further north, I find Adashino Nembutsu-ji, a temple with an unusual cemetery which holds some 8000 stone images of the dead buried here. There is another bamboo grove here, but the main attraction are the well-carved stones. Monkeys, temples, gardens, bamboo groves, love stories and a cemetery: it has only taken me half a day to discover all of this in Arashiyama.

Picture of Arashiyama (Japan): Section of the Adashino Nembutsu-ji cemetery with stone images and Buddha statues
Picture of Arashiyama (Japan): Statue of sitting Buddha at the Adashino Nembutsu-ji cemetery
Picture of Arashiyama (Japan): Detail of a stone carving at the top of the Adashino Nembutsu-ji cemetery
Picture of Arashiyama (Japan): Simian with baby at the Arashiyama Monkey Park
Picture of Arashiyama (Japan): Statue of Gio at the Gio-ji temple
Picture of Arashiyama (Japan): Buddha on the grounds of the Tenryu-ji temple
Picture of Arashiyama (Japan): Yokobue wrote her love poem on this rock with blood before jumping into the nearby river
Picture of Arashiyama (Japan): The garden of the Tenryu-ji temple
Picture of Arashiyama (Japan): Section of the Adashino Nembutsu-ji cemetery with old stone images
Picture of Arashiyama (Japan): Altar representing Yokobue and Takiguchi at the Takiguchi-dera temple
Picture of Arashiyama (Japan): Adashino Nembutsu-ji cemetery consists of thousands of small stone images
Picture of Arashiyama (Japan): The small Gio-ji temple if noted for the mosses covering its grounds
Picture of Arashiyama (Japan): Feeling dwarfed by bamboo in the Bamboo Grove of Arashiyama

Around the World in 80 Clicks

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