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Published: February 26th 2020
You can’t arrive at the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove too early. Set your alarm and get there at sunrise and not a moment later; it’s totally worth it. The light is magical and you’ll have the grove almost to yourself for a few moments, before tourists join you to visit what is one of Kyoto’s top sights. You’ll take lots of pictures but it’s difficult, if not impossible, to capture on film the surreal atmosphere on standing beneath the swaying stalks of bamboo. Try not to be too disappointed. There’s one path through the grove, which leads slowly uphill from outside the north gate of Tenryū-ji to just below Ōkōchi Sansō.
After this you’ll definitely want to make a visit to Tenry-ji Temple, right next to the grove, and ideally have lunch at Shigetsu. Note that you should visit the temple complex first before the gardens – which are outstanding – as you will need to pay again to enter for lunch. As the gardens are nicest earliest in the day, however, it might be better to pay twice just to have them almost to yourself for a short while when they first open.
Tenry-ji Temple is one of Kyoto’s
great Zen temples, and the largest and most impressive temple in Arashiyama. Originally built in 1339 on the old site of Go-Daigo’s villa after a priest had a dream of a dragon rising from the nearby river – hence the name tenryū (heavenly dragon) - the present buildings date from 1900. Tenryū-ji also has one of the most attractive gardens in all of Kyoto, with its backdrop of the Arashiyama mountains, particularly during the spring cherry-blossom and autumn-foliage seasons. The Sōgen Pond is one of the highlights of the entire temple complex.
Lunch at Shigetsu was one of the culinary highlights of our trip. Located inside the grounds of Tenryu-ji Temple, it is a great place to try traditional Japanese Buddhist (vegan) cuisine, known as shojin-ryori. You can enjoy the beautiful garden views of the temple grounds while you eat. Sake is also available.
Another special sight, for which you will need to prepare in advance, is Saihō-ji Temple, which contains one of Kyoto's best-known moss gardens, hence the temple's nickname of Koke-dera (Moss Temple). This Zen Buddhist temple was originally the site of Prince Shotoku's villa before becoming a temple in 1339. The heart-shaped garden, laid out
by Musō Kokushi, surrounds a tranquil pond and is simply stunning. Over 120 types of moss are present in the two-tiered garden, resembling a beautiful green carpet with many subtle shades. This moss was not part of Musō's original design. According to French historian François Berthier, the garden's "islands" were carpeted with white sand in the fourteenth century. The moss came much later, when the monastery lacked sufficient funds for upkeep and moss started growing after the flooding of the temple grounds. The garden also contains three tea houses and a three-storied pagoda.
You need to be seriously interested in temple gardens to make the effort to visit Saihō-ji. In order to limit the number of visitors, you must apply to visit by mail at least three weeks in advance, although I recommend that you reserve as soon as you have your plans firmly decided. Please note that the fee to visit the temple is the highest in Kyoto. When you arrive at Saihō-ji, you are required to copy a sutra with an ink brush before being allowed into the garden. Once in the garden, however, you are free to explore on your own and at your own pace.
It’s a bit of work, but if you enjoy moss gardens or just magical surroundings in general, you will not regret visiting Saihō-ji.
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