Japan: A beautiful garden in Kyoto’s Arashiyama district   

The streets of Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka
Tenryu-ji temple gardens
Tenryu-ji temple gardens

Could we ever escape the overwhelming crowds of Kyoto by visiting the attractions on the edge of the city, in Arashiyama? 

Not really as it turned out. But at least we found a fabulous garden during our day of sightseeing out to the west.

It began with a tasty breakfast at the Hyatt, a hotel that’s all clean lines, elegance, minimalist decor and long, long corridors – especially to our room. Indoors, the air-con was welcome. Outdoors it was incredibly sultry.

We caught the bus from the centre of town. And that meant a tedious journey, sitting in traffic jams in the busy shopping district, driving through unremarkable suburbs and hitting some very bumpy roads while hunched pensioners in various states of disrepair clambered on an off. It was just like a bus trip in central London, apart from the fact in Kyoto our driver was terribly polite to one and all and terribly grateful for our patronage. Try getting that on London Buses.

The bamboo grove
The bamboo grove

Arashiyama was busy, busy, busy with the usual herds of schoolkids and tourists. An old wooden bridge spanned the wide, slow-flowing river, and beyond were the city’s lush western mountains. It looked promising.

In the heat, we padded around the Tenryu-ji temple and its grounds, another of the city’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It was OK but the Zen garden for which it’s famous is probably best viewed at cherry blossom time or in the autumn. Still, a little stream dodged its way through the landscape and drained into the large pond at the garden’s heart, and I could’ve sat and watched its shallow water for hours.

We ploughed through the crowds to the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, which runs behind the temple. It’s an extraordinary place, a visually epic forest that played with the sun’s rays and provided some much-needed shade. Walking through it was like walking through the nave of a gigantic Norman cathedral back in an old English city.

Okochi Sanso
Okochi Sanso

There were, of course, too many people around to try my patience but my faith in Kyoto was restored just a few steps beyond the grove. There, on the hillside, we found the beautiful Japanese garden, Okochi Sanso, created many decades ago by a famous star of samurai films. Thanks to the pricey admission fee, there were few people around, and that suited us just fine. We could explore in peace the maze of little footpaths through the dense planting, which occasionally revealed shrines, a tea house and views across the city.

At one point we emerged to glorious views of the western mountains and I marvelled at our luck in finding this stunning place. It made me want to rush home and create a Japanese garden of our own.

Shoren-in temple gardens
Shoren-in temple gardens

We emerged from this haven of peace and beauty into the tourist chaos of Arashiyama and got the train back into the city for a quick walk around the northern end of Higashiyama. We found a small but colourful temple, the Shoren-in, which boasted another charming garden and giant camphor trees. The screens in the temple buildings were outstanding, with painted flowers and 16th century decorations. As we sat in the peace and contemplated the garden, a newly married couple were having their photos taken.

We passed the monumental entrance to the Chion-in temple nearby, strolled through the Maruyama park and discovered the historic if restored streets of Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka. We couldn’t miss a giant pagoda as we strolled the narrow alleys lined with traditional wooden buildings and touristy shops. It was so picturesque that we decided to stop for a beer and chat to a local, who was heading off to London on holiday and hoping for work.

The streets of Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka
The streets of Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka

It had been a good afternoon.

In the evening we tried the Gion district for food but it didn’t offer what I was looking for and I got cheesed off with traipsing around looking for something. My feet were suffering enough with all the day’s walking.

So we headed back to Pontocho and found an OK place called East, sitting out in the fresh night air over the canal and enjoying a sort of Japanese tapas.

Perhaps against our better judgement, we returned to the ever so quiet Hello Dolly bar for beer. And a seat.