Arashiyama, Kyoto: Romantic Train, Bamboo Forest & Tenryu-ji

Arashiyama, Kyoto: Romantic Train, Bamboo Forest & Tenryu-ji

One of the joys of riding a train is you could witness a dramatic change of landscape as quick within an hour.

We were on the JR Sanin Line from Kyoto Station heading towards the city’s northwest where we traded blocks of grey buildings with lush greening forests. 

The train took us through a couple of tunnels as we caught glimpses of Hozugawa River before entering the town of Kameoka. It was our third day in Kyoto and this excursion was wholly dedicated to be a day out with nature.

Sagano Romantic Train

We alighted the JR train at Umahori and were greeted with empty fields of harvested crops and the looming river gorge at the yonder. The plan was to take the Sagano Romantic Train, an old-fashioned diesel train that runs across the Hozukyo Ravine between the towns of Kameoka and Arashiyama.

The train stop is just a 10-minute walk from the JR station and the train takes about 25 minutes to complete its 7.3 km route along a dedicated line. We missed the 9:29 a.m. train by a whisker but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise for we got first dibs on the coveted “Car No. 5” on the following train, which is an open-air wagon.

The train sped up with its metal wheels loudly clanging against the railway tracks and once it reached its optimum speed, we were well on our way into the gorge. The ride felt more dramatic than romantic as the locomotive navigated alongside cliffs, rushed into tunnels and confidently sauntered across bridges.

The scenery was just as breathtaking as the ride. The trees were showing off their viridescent leaves after April’s blossom came to an end while the gushing sounds of Hozugawa River was a welcome accompaniment to the cool spring air sweeping our faces. 

Travel Tips:

  • A one-way ride costs ¥620 for adults and ¥310 for children. The first train out of Saga starts around 9:00 a.m. while the last train from Kameoka departs around 5:40 p.m.
  • If you want to save time and money like we did, take the JR Sanin Line from Kyoto Station and get down at Umahori station. Sagano’s Kameoka Torokko station is just a 10-minute walk away.
  • The train can carry more than 300 passengers with the open-air “Rich Car No. 5” only fitting 60 people so be at your station early to get your seats. Information about Sagano Romantic Train can be found here.

Arashiyama Bamboo Forest

Our journey ended at Arashiyama Torokko station and we continued on foot to witness one of Kyoto’s most iconic images – Arashiyama Bamboo Forest. It took us a solid 10 minute walk up a hill (compounded by me carrying the little one who slept throughout the whole ride) and we arrived at a junction that marks the entrance of the grove.

Of all the superlatives I could think of, “spell-binding” was the most apt word to describe these towering giants.

The sprawling bamboos created a thick canopy of leaves at the top, leaving the pathway as the main passage for sunlight to illuminate the forest. The ray of lights would then sway, created by the dancing stems as they get swept by the occasional breeze. 

The throng of tourists did not deter us from appreciating the beauty of this man-made plantation. We took our time strolling down the 500 meter walkway, stopping to take photos and family selfies (kiddo had already woken up, although a bit woozy). The only thing that surprised me was the dirt road was also utilized by rickshaws and cars!

Travel Tips:

  • Arashiyama Bamboo Forest is highly accessible by train. The nearest stations are Arashiyama Torokko (Sagano Romantic Train), Saga Arashiyama (JR Sanin Line) and Arashiyama (Keifuku Tram Line). 
  • Like many of the attractions in Kyoto, the bamboo forest is open free to the public 24 hours all-year round. However, the nearest public facilities can only be found at Arashiyama town.
  • The best time to take photographs is early in the morning or late in the evening to avoid the crowd but do take precautionary measures since the area can be quite isolated at those times.

Tenryu-ji

The pathway along Arashiyama Bamboo Forest leads downhill to the north entrance of Tenryu-ji, the head temple of the Tenryu-ji branch of Rinzai Zen Buddhism. Also known as “Temple of the Heavenly Dragon,” this 700-year old abode was designated as one of the 17 historic monuments of ancient Kyoto by UNESCO.

We had already visited two Shinto shrines in Kyoto and it was timely to explore a Buddhist temple.

After paying our tickets, we sauntered past Hyakka’en, Garden of A Hundred Flowers, with its assortment of beautifully manicured shrubs and blossoms. At the end of the garden lies Tahoden, a worship hall and a statue of Emperor Go-Daigo, raised and educated under his grandfather Emperor Kameyama in the mid to late 1200’s.

A short walk along the gravel track led us to the main hall and abbot’s quarters called Hojo fronting the Sogenchi Teien, an ever serene pond garden back-dropped by the mountains of Arashiyama . This landscape garden is the only part of the temple in its original form as Tenryu-ji has been ravaged by fire eight times before.

Travel Tips:

  • Tenryu-ji (official website here) is open from 8:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. during summer and 8:30 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. during winter, with the north entrance closing 30 minutes earlier. 
  • Visitors will have to pay an admission fee of ¥500 for the gardens and an additional ¥300 to enter the buildings. All payments are to be made at the respective entrances.
  • Since this temple is still in use, there are no snack stalls in Tenryu-ji while public toilets are found towards the main entrance of the complex.

Bonus: Kimono Forest!

Who says Kyoto can’t be hip?

A mere 500 meters away from Tenryu-ji, tucked behind Randen Arashiyama Station, is one of Arashiyama’s best kept secret – a kimono forest! 

Inspired by the bamboo forest, this trail is lined with more than 600 pillars wrapped with bright and colorful kimono fabric dyed using the traditional Yuzen technique. It was quite refreshing to see a modern take on Kyoto’s time-honored traditions translated into a creative piece of art.

We really had an enjoyable time traversing the “countryside,” although Arashiyama was only a 20-minute train ride from the city center. All the jaw-dropping panoramas excited our senses in many different ways and this trip perfectly sets us up for our last day in Kyoto – an overnight stay at a ryokan.

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