Day 12 marked our last full day in Japan. While we reconciled the fact that we’d be departing soon, we biked from monkeys to bamboo, from a castle to Japanese music videos.
I had one final must on my list that had not yet been reached: the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. Aaron was also excited about the associated monkeys, though I didn’t remember that in the brochure. We hopped our (t)rusty bikes and pedaled across Kyoto to Arashiyama. Though we were out by 8am, I still felt it was terribly late; I was desperate to beat crowds to something I knew would be quite populated.
We reached the gate of the Monkey Park Iwatayama, discovering they didn’t open until 9am. We only had about ten minutes to wait, and I was happy to find we weren’t as late as I had feared.
We were the first up the path, so I had no trouble securing people-free shots. The short hike up the hill was pleasant, and we espied flits of movement on the far banks of the valley. We were in for a real treat when we reached the summit, however: monkeys, everywhere!
We watched them play and chase each other for a while, and I had a blast sneaking shots of them. We weren’t allowed to get too close, and I didn’t want to intimidate them with my large lens, so I kept the snaps quick and subtle.
We could then go inside the building to feed them. Peanuts and apple slices are sold there (you’re not allowed to feed them any of your own food), and all of the windows are covered with an open wire grating. The monkeys all have names, and they are well-accustomed to sticking their furry arms in through the grid at the windows and being rewarded with a peanut.
Adorable baby monkeys fought each other for the morsels, and the visitors got too much enjoyment laughing at them and capturing selfies with the primates.
The peak has a beautiful view of the city below, and it was fun chilling with the chimps.
But I still hadn’t seen the bamboo. It turns out the attractions were not one and the same.
Consulting maps, we found what we were looking for, across the river and past a shrine (to Grandma’s house we go…). By this point, the main drag of Arashiyama was crowded with people strolling in kimono and browsing shops. It was difficult to remain mounted on our bikes; it was slow-going.
We ultimately made it to the east side of the famous path. We walked our bikes into the towering grove, and it was magnificent. So serene and beautiful in their stark verticals.
We came across a gentleman painting the bamboo, and he had attracted quite a crowd of spectators. He must be out there every day. After we returned to the US, I wandered the path on Google Maps to find he was captured in the street-view images, immortalized with his brush in-hand.
We were a bit surprised to see the occasional car on the path; they must have some special permission to drive there. Rickshaws were aplenty, and once more, I wished to be one of the ever-present couples taking in the peaceful sights, wrapped in kimono.
It was midday, so the lighting of the sky was atrocious for photography. Fortunately, the bamboo blocked most of the harsh light, so I minimized the blaring sky as much as I could (difficult when the point of interest is a hundred feet over our heads).
I lamented that we couldn’t also be there at night to see the nocturnal illumination (the grove is open all hours); I was spoiled by Fushimi. I was also upset we were there so late. In hindsight, we should have gotten out to the grove early – still dark – and caught the sunrise. It would have been far less crowded and the lighting would be much more forgiving. This would have allowed both nighttime and daytime shots of the grove. We could have then gone to see the monkeys afterwards when the park opened at 9am.
Continuing through the grove, we popped out at the southwest end, at the river. The waterfront was a pleasant place to be, watching the jikkobune boats float by. I even came across another photo-sniping opportunity. This couple was just so cute, and the jikkobune in the background was all-too-kind to float into my frame at just the right time.
We hadn’t had much in the way of food thus far (we had foolishly thought we’d grab breakfast out on our way to the monkeys, but no one gets up that early!), so we wound back along the water to find lunch on the main strip. All of the restaurants in plain view appeared a bit expensive and horribly crowded. We ventured down an alley between some buildings, and we were rewarded with a pocket of small, cafe-like shops serving items like ramen and crepes.
I saw one touting negiyaki, so we took a seat at the bar of this nearly empty restaurant. Like everything else we had had in Japan, it was delectable. However, I’m glad our introduction to okonomiyaki was in the famed Osaka; this experience paled in comparison. We also gave into the temptation of crepes of which the Japanese are so fond, both of us having the same mochi-and-anko-filled green-tea crepes. These were more adventurous than the ones we had eaten in Tokyo. Yummy!
We unanimously decided to take the rest of the day easy. After browsing a few shops and enjoying the Arashiyama atmosphere, we biked out to Nijo Castle. On our way, we passed a school that was just letting out, departing students heralded by the first of the Westminster Quarters. I forever associate this in my mind with countless anime, so it tickled me to feel I was that much closer to living in one.
We also saw a street vendor selling tantalizing dango, and we thought this would be a convenient breakfast. I was feeling brave, so I ordered in Japanese: “Futsutsu, onegaishimasu,” and she understood, boxing up two of each flavor. Small as it was, I was proud of my accomplishment, and it impressed Aaron. Little victories.
We should have learned from Fushimi that places close early. We only had an hour to explore the Nijo Castle grounds before closing time, and we had to race to the central palace before it stopped admitting new visitors in fifteen minutes.
Once inside, we could follow the predetermined course through the building at our own pace. It was intriguing to see the many rooms for receiving shogun and housing lords. The artwork – both painted and carved – was intricately stunning, and it was educational reading about the functions of every partitioned corner. Sadly, photos weren’t allowed inside.
We didn’t have a lot of time outside, but I felt it was adequate. We walked the gardens and looked out over the moat from a lookout corner. I took pictures.
It began to rain, and the closing announcement urged us toward the gate. There was some sake and rice wine (apparently these are not the same thing) tasting on the way out. We quickly sampled at one booth, and we ended up taking some home with us.
We were curious of the line of people awaiting admittance to the “art aquarium,” but it didn’t sound like something we were interested in at the time. Looking at it now, it looks like it would have been an interesting sight, but I’m ok having spared that expense. Besides, it had begun to rain, so we were anxious to get back to the townhome.
Once back, we walked a few blocks away to a gyoza restaurant for our last Japanese meal. It was really low-key, but after everything else, we were ok with that.
Wanting to get to bed early that night in preparation for a long day of travel, we spent the night in with a little bit of sake and a channel dedicated to Japanese music videos. This proved far more entertaining than it should have been – their videos are as wild and creative as their commercials (how do we get JMTV in the US?) – and it was a perfect ending to an amazing trip.
- The thermostat-looking thing actually controls the hot water – how efficient! You won’t have any hot water unless you activate this first.
- The multiple hot-water controls are connected; turning off one will turn off all.
- Go across the bridge to hit the bamboo walk early (perhaps 7:30am), before the crowds. Then go back across the river for the monkeys, that opens at 9am.
- Explore off the beaten path to find less populated (and less expensive) restaurants.
- Hit the things you most want to see first. That way, if you run out of time or need to cut something out, you don’t miss out.
- Don’t be afraid to try out your meager Japanese. They’ll appreciate that you’re trying, and you might actually get it right every once in a while.
- Everything opens late and closes early. Figure out which activities rely on places being open and plan accordingly. Have a few non-business-hours-reliant activities tucked in your back pocket in case you’re too early or too late for something else on your agenda.
- There are systems of bike parking lots in Kyoto. You can pay once, bike all over town, and park at any one of them with a single daily pass. Research this ahead of time and make use of it.
- When you want to pay at a restaurant, don’t be afraid to get your server’s attention by saying sumimasen.
- Quiet nights on vacation are so underrated. Work in some time to relax and recoup.
Baka gaijin moment of the day: Aaron had a running problem of having too many coins. Therefore, he used every opportunity to use them up.. even if it meant ¥1500 entirely in coins (and no, not ¥500 coins). Try to plan your coin usage wisely. Otherwise, you might have the clerk laugh at you.