Kyoto and Osaka are ideal locations to make day trips to nearby towns. Taking advantage of my days off while working in Kyoto, I made day trips to the surrounding areas and cities to explore different temples and mountains. I know these are only brief mementos of each place, but feel free to PM me for me details if you’re keen to know more about my experiences.
Considered one of Kyoto’s top attractions, Arashiyama is a must-see for many tourists visiting Kyoto. Known for the bamboo grove and monkey mountain, most visitors flock towards these two areas. We made it to Arashiyama early in the morning to avoid the crowd. Our first stop was to the bamboo grove since it seems to be the most visited place and we certainly want to be there before the sea of people come crashing in. As we entered the bamboo forest walk, we thought to hold back on photos until we get further into the forest. Within a few minutes, we were already on the other end of the forest -that was underwhelming. The bamboo grove is much smaller than what we had anticipated. We were surprised no one had mentioned how small this was before our visit. To our disappointment, we wandered the surrounding through roads and into a neighborhood of beautifully preserved buildings with traditional Japanese architecture. It was quaint with nearly no one around. We later realized that was the Saga Toriimoto Preserved Street of historic houses. Following the road, we reached the Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Temple. The temple is a bit out of the way and is not frequented by tourist since it is not mentioned in most attraction listings for Arashiyama. I happen to hear about it after some digging online of what to see in Arashiyama. I really liked this temple mainly because no one else was there when we were touring the place. The temple is filled with little statues of the Buddha’s disciples, or rakan, with different expressions.
Eventually, we made it across the river to Iwatayama Monkey Park. There is a short climb up a series of steps before reaching the park. At the top, you also get a wonderful view of Kyoto (which I also don’t seem to hear people compliment about for some reason). The park had signs advising visitors to be respectful and not to huddle over the monkeys. I was angered by these selfish tourists that crowded over a monkey holding her baby excitedly trying to capture endless pictures of the frightened duo. You can see the eager looks on everyone’s face to capture a “cool” photo to brag about. I absolutely despise such behavior and I was surprised the staffs at the park did not do something about that. I feel that some people are too obsessed with taking photos and forget to enjoy the beauty of their surroundings.
One of the first day trips I made outside of Kyoto is to Nara. Nara is roughly 30-minutes away by train. I made the decision in the morning to visit Nara Park as recommended by my roommates. Initially, I was going to visit Nara after my commitment in Kyoto was finished, but I was advised that a few hours at Nara was good enough. One of Nara Park’s attractions are the wild deers that wander the park. You can feed them with deer food and take selfies of course. While the deers are deemed wild, they are so used to human contact that they seem domesticated. I am not in favor of when wild animals have this level of engagement with humans – it feels so unnatural. They were cute to observe from afar. Todai-ji Temple is the popularly visited UNESCO Heritage Site at Nara Park with thousands of tourists gushing to visit every year. Despite the crowds, I decided to check out the temple’s Great Buddha Hall, or Daibutsuden, which had a small entrance fee. Inside stood a giant Buddha statue and smaller statues of other deities. The size of the Buddha and the architecture of the temple complex was beautiful. Anywhere beyond the main Todai-ji area was evidently less crowded. I proceeded to visit nearby temples and shrines. I really enjoy Nigatsu-dō, or Hall of the Second Month, which is still a part of Todai-ji but it did not have an entrance fee. It is situated up several flights of stairs. From the temple, you can enjoy an elevated view of the park. There were a lot fewer visitors here so it maintained a more relaxing atmosphere. I initially wanted to walk deeper into the park until the forest since online reviews said it is much more tranquil as limited tourists wander that far. However, I decided to stop by this grassy rest area in the park to simply enjoy the sun and pond while folding origami instead. Sometimes plans are forgone when you encounter a nice spot to soak in the atmosphere. I think I could spend an entire day here if I did not have a late start and plans for the evening.
Excited about going on a real hike in Japan, I was set on hiking Mount Hiei which leads to the Enryaku-ji Temple. Somehow, my intended early morning starts never happen since the night before is always a busy night. To be honest, I was a bit worried about the hike to Enryaku-ji because the trail was rather remote and the path was not clearly marked. The descriptions online made it sound like a maze through the forest as many parts of the path were overgrown with plants. A bear bell was also recommended for the hike. I ended up taking Japan’s longest cable car at Sakamoto to the eastern pagoda area of the temple complex. There are noticeably less tourists here in comparison to the temples located in the center of Kyoto. The main temple in the east area, To-do, was under construction so there was not as much to see. There is a 20-minute walk between the east and west area. Luckily you only have to pay an entrance once to access the three areas of the temple complex. The west area, Sai-do, felt smaller. I did not stay there very long and proceeded to find the path to the last area, Yokawa. Many visitors skip the last area as it is around 1.5 hours by foot from the west area. There is a bus you can take between the different areas. I decided to hike it since I skipped out on the 4-hour trek up the mountain. There were no clear directions for the route between Sai-do and Yokawa. I got lost at some point and was tempted to hitchhike. Somewhere along the path, I encountered this sign with a scary monkey on it. Unfortunately, Google Translate’s picture feature could not translate the sign for me. Lost and desperate, I decided to continue on the trail anyway. I was hoping my loud stomping noise would scare off the monkeys if there were any. At a high point of the trail, there was a nice lookout of the Shiga area. I finally arrived at the Yokawa area some hours later. I watched as a shuttle bus departed as I proceeded to the entrance of the third area. A Japanese lady had signaled to me that Yokawa had closed for the day. It turns out, the third area closed half an hour earlier than the other two sections. What was worse was that the bus that I saw leaving was the last bus to the cable car to exit the mountain. Dumbfounded, I tried to communicate with people who were driving away hoping they would offer me a ride down the mountain. At 4:30PM, I was not planning on making my 4-hour hike down the mountain, especially since I don’t know where the start of that trail was or what it was called. I decided to walk towards one direction of the road hoping for a friendly driver to give me a lift. After finding a nice spot for cars to temporarily stop, I stuck out my thumb not knowing if hitchhiking was easy in Japan or if it was even allowed. Within two minutes, a car pulled up beside me and the driver signaled me to hop on even before asking where I was hoping to go. It was a nice old grandpa who barely knew any English. I was grateful that he knew what “station” meant in English to drop me off at one. Despite the language barrier, we were able to find out a little bit about each other before driving me to the Katata Station. Beyond grateful, I wished I had known more Japanese to express my gratitude.
Kurama to Kibune
The Kurama to Kibune hike is probably one of the most popular day trips for those visiting Kyoto. Not far from the city of Kyoto, the trail links to different temples and shrines along the way. The popular route is to go from Kurama to Kibune. I did it in reverse as some online blogs recommended since the hike is easier with less uphill walking and that there is a famous onsen at Kurama which is a perfect end to a hike. Lies. There is a steeper ascend going from Kibune to Kurama. I almost felt like petty hikers who went from Kibune to Kurama was upset with their choice and decided to advise people to do the same to go through the same pain. If I were to redo this, I would still start at Kibune since there is an onsen at Kurama. The temples and shrines along the way were nice, but none that stood out to me after seeing so many already. I did not end up going to an onsen, however. The visit was much shorter than anticipated; I decided to also fit in the Daimonji hike on my day off.
Ginkaku-ji Temple and Daimonjiyama
At the foot of the trail, I decided to visit the Ginkaku-ji temple before making my way up to the Daimonji summit for the sunset. Ginkaku-ji is also known as the Silver Pavillion which is modeled after the famous Kinkaku-ji or Gold Pavillion (which I never ended up visiting). Ginkaku-ji is also a popular starting point for the Philosopher’s Walk, which I also did not walk since it was best during the cherry blossom season. Despite the crowd at Ginkaku-ji that kept you moving with the flow, I still thoroughly enjoyed the view. Finding the path to the start of the Daimonji hike was a bit confusing since it was tucked away on this little back road. I was warned about the steep stairs before the top of the summit. Eagerly flying through, I was interrupted 10 minutes into my trek. A snake had crossed my path! I saw this long rope-like thing within one foot of me and I proceeded to step over it. It hissed at me and slithered off as I was about to step over it. I was so scared, I jumped up silently. I was so startled, it shook the energy out of me. Too afraid to backtrack at that point, I continued going upward. With growing paranoia, I kept my eyes open for any moving creature in sight and stormed through breathing heavily in fear. The climb to Daimoniji was a popular one, but no one told me there could be snakes! I finally reached the summit – I think. There was a trail beyond the summit so I followed it thinking there is a higher point, but when I noticed the path descending, I stopped following the path and walked back to the summit. I was 3 hours early for sunset. I guess I might as well wait for the golden hour to come so I decided to read my book while I waited. People came and left during my 3 hours there. It was not until the last hour did more people appear. And some ended up blocking my view of the scenery. Nonetheless, it was a beautiful view of Kyoto complimented with the colors of the sun setting in the sky.
Ohara is a rural town to the north of Kyoto. No trains go there so you have to either drive or commute by bus. I made the trip for the mossy Sanzen-in Temple. The temple is known for the moss garden. Since this temple is also out of the way, not many tourists were around to interrupt the zen. The garden was gorgeous. I sat inside enjoying the view along with many other visitors. Taking walk around, you can spot jizu statues arising from the ground. There were other temples and shrines in the area, but I did not visit them. I tried to find the waterfall nearby, I was not able to. I was not sure if it’s tucked behind another temple in Ohara so I gave up since I did not want to pay another entrance fee. While the tickets usually cost only around 400-600 yen, they rack up after multiple temple visits. I walked around the countryside instead. I passed by the rice fields and other farm grounds. The zen transcend beyond the temples. The whole area felt peaceful.