Legends of the fall

Kyoto in autumn. The changing colors of leaves. Rest for the weary.


WORDS  CHIQUI JABSON CHUA

In the foothills of western Kyoto, towering bamboo trees sway in the mild wind, turning the sunlight into a delicate jade. Nearby, temples and villas sit amid fine gardens and, not too far uphill, a town pulsates with living traditions from ancient Japan.

These are but few of the scenic spots in Sagano and Arashiyama, two contiguous areas that have drawn countless visitors throughout the centuries, among them nobles in the former capital. People come here in droves, particularly in the autumn months for momijigari, or the viewing of autumn foliage, and in springtime for hanami, the cherry blossom festival.

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Path to the Sagano bamboo grove.

It was mid-morning in early Fall, a month shy of the peak season, when we exited the nearest train station, JR Saga-Arashiyama. We had in hand a flyer for a half-day walking tour of Sagano, our participation unplanned yet seemingly fortuitous as we peered through a dense crowd, no doubt headed the same way.

Organized by the Kyoto City Tourism Association and guided by a private company, the tour promised an unhurried stroll through spots picked by long-time Kyoto residents – one that would take us deeper into the looming Mount Atago and closer to a culture shaped by history and heritage, and even bring us “good luck.”

A brief walk from the train station led to the Nonomiya Bus Stop, so named after a nearby shrine on the fringes of the bamboo grove. It was quite easy to miss the stop, our eyes inadvertently drawn to bowls of udon (wheat noodles) and kushikatsu (deep-fried meat or vegetables on a skewer) peddled by a modest stall behind it. A throng of tourists milled about, most ambling toward a lane near the stall.

Those pressed for time tend to follow this shorter route to the Chikurin-no Komichi, or the bamboo forest path, and the neighboring Okochi Sanso Villa and Tenryuji Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Our bus ride offered relief from the traffic-choked main street, the seats plentiful and comfortable. Costing a mere ¥230, the ride cut through urban neighborhoods before climbing Mount Atago’s wooded slopes.

Known among locals as home to the fire deity, Atago-san is the highest mountain in Kyoto. It is a destination for pilgrims seeking protection from fire and misfortune, and a place of worship for mountain ascetics practicing Shintoism, Buddhism, and Animism.

We soon found ourselves on the Atago Kaido, once an ancient road now paved with concrete, by the entrance to Otagi Nenbutsu-ji, a Buddhist chanting temple. Nio statues flank the gate, their wrathful countenance in stark contrast to the playful rakan stone figures peeking out just beyond. According to our guide, Sachiko, the original temple was built in central Kyoto in the mid-8th century. Founded by an empress, the temple throughout its history has suffered from catastrophic damage wreaked by flooding, typhoon, and even a civil war. Now in its current location, it houses 1,200 figures of rakan, disciples of Buddhist founder Shaka, previously donated by worshippers from all across Japan taught to carve stone by a monk named Kocho Nishimura.

Within the temple grounds, rustling leaves and trickling water could be heard, the pervading stillness giving way to the occasional pealing of Sambo-no Kane, three immense gold-plated bells that may be rung for good luck, and hushed voices of those either exploring the main halls or marveling at the sheer number of rakan sculptures.

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A shrine in Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Buddhist Temple is surrounded by stone figures depicting followers of Shaka Buddha. The sculptures were donated in the early 1980s in honor of the temple’s refurbishment.

Indeed, the quaint, moss-covered figures are a sight to behold. No two of them are alike; some wear spectacles and several others wear robes or hats or a boxing glove, while others clutch books or scrolls, or even a tennis racket – a cheerful troop of sentinels looking quite pleased with themselves under a canopy of trees.

The serene mood in the temple filtered through its walls to the road outside. On our way south we met few other travelers, even as we neared the Torii Moto.

The vermilion gateway ranks among the famous landmarks in the historic town of Saga Toriimoto-cho, being the first gate encountered by pilgrims en route to the hilltop shrine. Thatched teahouses stand astride the torii. And though their rooftops have been reinforced by tiles and wooden latticework, the teahouses remain faithful to the traditional townscape.

Saga Toriimoto-cho is one of four areas named by the City of Kyoto as “preservation districts for groups of historic buildings,” the others being Sanneizaka, Gion-shinbashi, and Kamigano districts. These areas are renowned for buildings whose original form has been restored, such as the machiya house, a wooden structure with origins dating back to as early as the Heian period when Kyoto was the capital city.

A row of machiya houses lends charm to a stretch of the road past the Torii Moto. Among them is a house built in the 1890s, converted into a museum dedicated to conserving the town’s cultural heritage. Inside, the museum features a raised tatami floor and a spacious living area for receiving guests. According to Sachiko, guests were traditionally asked to sit facing the garden so they could enjoy the best view in the house.

The museum offers both historical and current information for tourists and pilgrims, and is an ideal pit stop for weary travelers looking for a rest area. Small trinkets and charms may also be purchased at a shop inside.

Not long after leaving the museum, we spied a rickshaw laboriously pulled by a uniformed driver. We marveled at the driver’s stamina as he trotted up the incline. The modish ride, albeit pricier than bike rentals also common in the area, was an attraction among tourists, with parts around the bamboo grove reserved only for private rides.

We caught a second rickshaw in front of a shop selling bamboo craft items. As it sailed past, its passengers thrilled and lovely in their bright kimonos, we sensed we were once again crossing into the busier parts of Sagano.

Farther down the Atago Kaido, machiya houses and private homes mingle with busier shop fronts and restaurants serving set meals, several with menus offering kaiseki, a lavish multi-course meal prepared by skilled chefs using only seasonal ingredients. Within the vicinity lay several other temples worth visiting, among them the peaceful Nison-in, one of the most ideal places for viewing koyo or the changing colors of leaves and, of course, the Tenryuji farther down.

Just off the main road we made a short detour to a charming wooden cottage that was once home to the poet Mukai Kyorai, one of the earliest disciples of haiku master Matsuo Basho. Named Rakushisha, or “hut of the fallen persimmons,” the thatched dwelling is an important cultural landmark, said to be the birthplace of Basho’s diary, Saga Nikki (1753). Past the entryway, a pointed straw hat and coat are draped on the wall, reminiscent of the old days when they used to signify the poet was at home. To this day, more than two-and-a-half centuries later, stones etched with haiku remain within the property, and persimmons still grow in abundance.

Rakushisha, it turned out, was our last leisurely stop before diving back into the fray. We’d be remiss not to say an appreciative crowd often follows the path to places of unrivaled beauty. And so there we were, after more than three hours meandering through the fairly peaceful Atago Kaido, making our first brief ascent toward the world-famous bamboo path. On the way there we passed by the UNESCO-acclaimed Tenryuji Temple, a major Rinzai Zen temple whose landscape is exquisite in the peak of autumn, this year falling between mid-November and early December. The temple was built in 1339, replacing what was formerly the villa of Emperor Go-Daigo. Its centerpiece is a sprawling garden within which a pond reflects the changing colors of the seasons, shifting from pink to verdant then crimson to silvery white, framed by the sweeping slopes of the nearby Arashiyama mountains.

Behind the Tenryuji is the Okochi Sanso Villa, another popular attraction that was former home to the late actor Denjiro Okochi, who rose to fame in the 1920s for his samurai films. The large estate includes a Japanese-style home, teahouses, and a Meiji-era shrine. The villa’s entrance is a stone’s throw from the bamboo grove.

As we entered what was perhaps the most celebrated destination in Sagano, we finally took our humble place among hundreds of fellow travelers irresistibly drawn to this natural environment.

The hardy yet pliant bamboo is an integral part of the Japanese cultural tradition, recurring in myths and legends to symbolize human strength, as well as in festivals showcasing its usage in various forms. But in Sagano one can truly appreciate the bamboo in its natural state, soaring to at least 40 meters in just six months after being cut, Sachiko pointed out.

We paused just by the mouth of the grove. Like those before us, we huddled under the lofty emerald stalks, ultimately failing to capture its ethereal beauty in a few snapshots. Though widely photographed, the bamboo forest trail without a doubt is one to be experienced firsthand. Its curving pathway, approximately 300 meters long, is spacious enough to accommodate both cyclists and travelers on foot. The path is unadorned, its railing made of dried treetops, stalks, and fallen bamboo branches.

And as we reached the last remaining stop in our tour, the Nonomiya Shrine not too far from where we began, and where imperial princesses of old, according to tradition, came to “purify” themselves before appearing in front of their court, we dropped a five-yen coin to honor the local custom and rang a temple bell to cap our journey.