Tourists in colourful floral-motif rented kimonos were patiently queuing in front of a street-food shop selling grilled rice dumplings on skewers. Smokes from charcoal grills filled up the air. As I walked past the queue, I thought it must have been one of those famous Kyoto street foods reviewed by social media influencers, and YouTubers on their tips for Japan trips or their ultimate travel tips on best places to go in Japan.
The last cherry blossoms were dancing in the air, caught by street lights. In the distance, right at the end of Gion-Shijo where I was standing, the main gate of Yasaka shrine looked grand under the spotlights. Its roof emerged from the dark, and red-painted wooden frames are against the white gate wall. They looked gold from afar. So it says, the shrine has been the Gion’s guardian for 1,350 years. Gion and Yasaka Shrine are beautiful, but it is overwhelmingly touristy. Did I miss anything?
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove! I can’t miss it. No, I can’t miss it. So the YouTubers say it loud. So there I was, getting off Arashiyama station with dozens of tourists. It was indeed a convenient stroll to the grove. After walking past strings of souvenir shops, cafes, and restaurants, I was standing under the towering bamboos. They looked rustic green with accented yellow. Tourists with selfie sticks were trying to get any snapshots they could here and there. Have they ever seen bamboo trees in their lifetimes? Not! I got shooed away by two man-powered rickshaws, leaning against the tree-branch fences. I’ve done it all, following ‘the best travelling tips, the ultimate places when travelling to Kyoto.
But what is it up there on the top of the hill? It is not on the best travel tips by any social media influencers. Should I walk up there? But why am I not seeing any tourists there? Probably they are all like me. We always want to be at the top of the game. Whatever social media influencers say, their words are our trust.
But I walk there anyway. At the end of the bamboo forest walk, I stumbled upon a slopy, concrete footpath. Under the tree canopy, I walked up the path. On the hilltop of the track, a lady in uniform didn’t speak a word as she handed out the ticket. It says welcome to Okochi -Sanso garden.
Away from the bamboo-grove tourist circus, I was sitting on the square bench wrapped on a red table cloth. I looked up at an elevated wooden villa, sipping a bowl matcha tea under the gentle sun. The villa, built initially by Okochi Denjiro, a famous silent film actor, was surrounded by a breath-taking garden. The villa overlooking Arashiyama is one of a kind in Kyoto. Footpaths leading to the unknown were inviting you to another world.
Delicate, green mosses carpeted the soil among the trees with layers of multicoloured leaves. Each footpath was a short journey to the hidden shrines and rustic tea houses, and at the endpoint, on the hilltop overlooking Arashiyama town. It is the garden where quietness is a gift from nature — the garden where beauty is a sanctuary for a soul from the troubled world. But again, there are only a few tourists in this gorgeous peacefulness. I wonder why.
I left Okochi Sanso garden and thanked Denjiro-san for opening the door to his ‘secret’ garden that only a few came to have a visit.
And so they say again, Ginkaku-Ji temple is worth a visit! But the hilly road to get there is packed with tourists, and more tourists queueing at the restaurant doors and shops for almost anything from craft beer, Japanese sweets, and grilled dumplings. How can I possibly crawl up to the hill before queuing for the ticket?
But alas! From the locality map right by the bridge, it shows that there is a footpath known as the path of philosophy that leads to Nanzen-Ji temple. I turned around and decided to commit to this two kilometres walk from Ginkaku-Ji temple to Nanzen-Ji temple, away from the tourist trap.
My thirty-minute stroll was, in fact, the best travelling experience I’ve ever had. Cherry blossoms fell on the dark water along the canal. There were many tiny shops and restaurants along. I could only imagine when Nishida Kitaro, a well-known Japanese philosopher, was walking the path and meditating on his daily commute to Kyoto University.
There is something about the path of philosophy that makes you not to rush but saunter and breathe, and give your time to think of nothing. In a way, it is a meditation. What a joy! There are only a few tourists who chose to walk and occasionally cyclists the path of philosophy.
The 30-minute walk ended with me looking up at the majestic San-Mon gate. Tall, slim trees branched out, canopying the courtyard with multiple shades of green. I wish I were here in Autumn. I could only imagine how Autumn looks like here. From the top of the gate, Nanzen-Ji temple was standing tall and dark. Lines of trees in the front were standing tall as if they were guardian soldiers to the temple.
Only a dozen of tourists were queuing orderly in front of the entrance, storing their shoes in shelves. The dark wooden floor squeaked as a Japanese tour guide was describing to a group of tourists in Spanish. I assumed she explained the name of the room and its function during the Nanzen period. I walked past different tea room through the hallway finally led to the garden. There was a spacious terrace overlooking the garden with Karesansui, the dry gravel Zen. Nanzen-Ji temple garden is the place where you can rest your troubled heart and leaves it to the moment.
I was sitting on the wooden step overlooking the white gravelled yard. The ultimate travelling experience was the one that I found myself. Walking through the Japanese garden of Kyoto is an in-depth experience to get an up-close and personal with Japan.