When you are travelling with a toddler who still has a regular midday nap, you have to weigh up whether your time is better spent travelling on trains, or whether you are better off sticking to the local attractions. We faced this dilemma a couple of times during our stay in Kyoto – Nara (we didn’t go because it was too far), and Arashiyama.
We debated for a while, but in the end, the lure of the attractions on offer in Arashiyama was too strong. After all, it is the place for the much-photographed Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, and (more importantly) the best place in Kyoto to see wild monkeys!
There are several different ways to travel to Arashiyama from the heart of Kyoto. That makes it somewhat confusing for tourists, but we eventually settled on our preferred route – a direct train from Kyoto Station to Saga Arashiyama. This involved a little walk at the end to reach the main part of Arashiyama, but the walk was pleasant and it made for less overall train travel.
We weren’t the only ones who travelled to Arashiyama that way. The train was packed with tourists (there were quite a few Australians). Even though Kyoto was at the start of the line, we still were only able to find standing space. That didn’t bother Hannah. She was comfortable tucked into her stroller. As is her way, she quickly set about making friends with the people around her.
One of those people was an older Japanese woman. They quickly formed a bond with each other and played all kinds of games together as we travelled towards our destination. From our perspective, that was fantastic! Hannah was fully entertained and not at all worried about being strapped into her stroller for an extended period of time.
By the end of the journey, Hannah and the Japanese lady were giggling together as if they were old friends. We arrived at Saga Arashiyama and all alighted. Hannah enthusiastically waved goodbye to her new friend.
Taxi and tourists in Bamboo Grove
We found a quiet place to have a snack, then we set about finding the path to our first place of interest – the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove.
I have to admit that I was a little sceptical at first. Bamboo is bamboo. Could it really be that interesting to walk down a small pathway that is surrounded by the stuff? And at first, I felt that I had good reason to be sceptical.
The start of the bamboo grove is underwhelming. It is, essentially, a narrow path with bamboo growing on both sides. It is also packed full of tourists (like me), who are hell-bent on getting the perfect photo of themselves in the famous location.
However, as we walked on through the crowds, the attraction of the Bamboo Grove became apparent. There is something magical about being surrounded by tall, thin bamboo shoots. It’s hard to describe, but soon I was glad that we had made the effort.
Of course, there was still the challenge of negotiating the other tourists, and trying to find ways to photograph the bamboo that didn’t come out looking like crowds of people standing between a few sticks. Some tourists found their own novel ways of enjoying the forest. The rickshaws were a favourite for some and they rolled past at regular intervals. They are so common that they even have their own special path through part of the bamboo grove.
The less orthodox way of seeing the bamboo grove is to convince a taxi driver to drive down the “road”. By “road”, I actually mean “small path barely wide enough to fit a car, and definitely not wide enough to accommodate a car and large numbers of tourists”.
Yet there it was, a taxi crawling its way through the throng, down a footpath that I’m pretty sure wasn’t ever meant to accommodate vehicular traffic (…any slower and it could have passed for a Sydney taxi).
I was actually pleased about the unexpected presence of the taxi. It temporarily cleared the path and it gave me an interesting photo to capture!
“I’m sure they shouldn’t be doing that”
Tourists are funny creatures (I should know, I am one). If we are lucky, we manage to visit a foreign country, quietly and respectfully observe its culture and different practises, generally try not make a fool or nuisance of ourselves and then head home with a memory card (or three) of 4000 photos, most of which we will never look at again.
However, every now and then you come across one who hasn’t quite figured that out. These are the people who struggle (and fail) to reconcile their lived experience with the different cultural practices that they are observing. They cannot comprehend differences and instead of trying to do so, they usually offer loud, unsolicited commentary with an air of authority and superiority that they believe demonstrates to those around them their higher level of intelligence, but in reality exposes them as an ignorant buffoon.
We met one of those people in the Bamboo Grove.
He was American (I’m not saying they all are…) and he happened to be near me as we approached an interesting scene. A group of young teenagers were very enthusiastically (and noisily) climbing up ladders on the fence. Others were hurrying along the path, carrying bundles of sticks. They looked like they were having a great time, but even a casual glance told me that they were also hard at work repairing the fence. The ones at the top of the ladder were enthusiastically shoving the new sticks into the fence.
It was at that point that the American leaned towards us and said (loudly enough for all around to hear) “I’m sure they shouldn’t be doing that.”
He then proceeded to take out his camera and snap away at the kids as they went about their business, as if he was recording some great act of mischievousness. The concept of teenagers voluntarily giving up part of their weekend to participate in an activity that was beneficial to the greater community seemed so far removed from this bloke’s world that he couldn’t actually comprehend what he was seeing. From his perspective, they were naughty kids who were mucking up, and he would be damned if he missed the opportunity to snap a few pictures to show his mates when he got home. I know whose behaviour made me feel more embarrassed…
Green Tea Ice Cream
Green Tea ice cream is delicious. I can’t explain the flavour (other than to say that it’s Matcha, in ice cream form), all I can suggest is that if you ever get the opportunity, eat it. The one regret I have about our time in Japan is that I didn’t eat enough green tea ice cream (… and I ate a lot of green tea ice cream).
The most delicious form of green tea ice cream is the soft serve. It can be found at any good tourist spot. As Arashiyama is a good tourist spot, green tea ice cream is plentiful! Sometimes it is served with other fancy crap (we saw one with gold leaf on top). Forget about it, just get the pure goodness. Beware, prices are directly correlated to the popularity of the tourist destination. If you have a hankering for some, try to find a place slightly off the most beaten of paths.
I have no more to say about green tea ice cream, just enjoy the picture below.
If you have never tasted it, you probably think it looks a little… green. If you have tasted it, go get a towel and wipe the saliva off your keyboard.
Arashiyama gains its reputation (and vast numbers of tourists) from the spectacular and well known Bamboo Grove and Monkey Park. Rightly so too, they are amazing and well worth the visit. I wouldn’t recommend going to Arashiyama and not seeing those things.
However, as with all tourist destinations, there are other things to see as well. All you need is a little willingness to wander and explore such a place, and you’ll find a gem or two.
That was exactly what took us to the brilliant lookout over the mountains and river. It was at the end of a path that we happened to walk up (maybe in part due to a sign that warned about wild monkeys… I wanted to see a monkey…). I was blown away by the view that we found. There were other people up there, but there wasn’t the manic crush of time-poor tourists madly pushing to get a glimpse.
We stayed up at the lookout for a while and soaked in the peaceful scene. It was energising after having just battled the crowds of the Bamboo Forest.
Down By the river
Our vantage point at the lookout made us realise that we were in a special spot. We wanted to explore and we had spied just the place – a small path alongside the river. We decided that after a quick lunch of Udon, we would go for a wander.
It’s not as if the path was hidden or secret, it’s just that not many people bothered to walk along it. Their loss, our gain! The path offered a beautiful walk alongside a pretty (and remarkably pristine) river. At the end of the path was a set of steps leading up to a temple. We were curious, but we didn’t go any further as Hannah was attempting to drift off to sleep in her stroller. I say attempting, because she was also simultaneously over-stimulated by the stunning location.
Eventually she drifted off, and Emma and I sat for a while and enjoyed a few minutes in heaven.
Every now and then, small boats would potter up and down the river. They were interesting to watch, but what was really fascinating was the ingenious catering industry that had developed to feed the hungry tourists on board. As the tourist boats returned down the river, they were met by a second boat, loaded with tasty cooked treats. What a fantastic idea! Talk about a captive audience!
Arashiyama Monkey Park
Time was getting on and Hannah was still asleep. We had come to see monkeys, but the shadows were growing long and dinner and a bath beckoned. Monkeys are great, but we didn’t want to wake Hannah now that she had finally found sleep.
We set a time. If Hannah was still asleep, we would head back to the train without even so much as a glimpse of a bright-red monkey arse. If, however, she was awake… monkeys!
Thankfully Hannah had read the script, so she woke up at the perfect time. We made a beeline for the monkey park! The monkeys are half-way up the side of a mountain (plenty of steps), so the stroller had to go. There was a handy spot to leave the wheels, just inside the entrance. The rest of the journey up the mountain was done on foot. Hannah climbed a few steps, then decided a ride in dad’s arms was the better option.
We emerged at the top of the path to find a pretty great scene. Monkeys! Monkeys everywhere! There were large adult males sauntering about, females keeping a watchful eye on things, and my favourite of all – the baby monkeys. They were an absolute delight to watch.
The monkeys of Arashiyama are technically wild. They do not belong to the monkey park, they just happen to like visiting (probably something to do with an easy meal). Because of this, there is a small army of people employed to make sure that the monkeys don’t get too close to the tourists, and that the tourists don’t get too close to the monkeys. The rules are clearly signposted, and anyone who disobeys them is met with a stern talking to.
We spent quite a while up the monkey mountain. Hannah enjoyed every moment with the monkeys. She was fascinated by the funny creatures. So was I. I contemplated smuggling a baby one home with us, but thought better of it. I think Border Force would be pretty good at sniffing out a smuggled monkey.
The Kindness of Strangers
Finally it was time for us to head home. We walked back down the steps to the bottom of the mountain and searched for the nearest tap to clean Hannah’s hands. She hadn’t touched a monkey, but she had gotten plenty close enough to monkey poo.
The tap that we found had a man crouched down beside it. A quick glance revealed that he was in the midst of painting a rather impressive scene. Strangely, it wasn’t anything to do with the amazing landscape before him, it was more like something from Venice.
The man looked up from his work as we turned on the tap to wash Hannah’s hands. He was a young guy with a kind and gentle face. He saw Hannah and smiled. The man turned away briefly and rummaged through his belongings. Moments later he turned back to Hannah with a blue balloon, fashioned into a sword.
Hannah’s face lit up. Balloons have long been a great source of joy for the child. The man gestured to Hannah that the balloon was for her. She was in heaven!
If that wasn’t enough, the kind young man then produced a bag of plastic finger puppets. He held it out for Hannah to choose one. Naturally, Hannah made the wise choice of attempting to choose the entire bag. The young man was momentarily embarrassed as a tiny toddler tried to wrestle his entire collection from his grasp, but I quickly stepped in and explained to Hannah that she had to reach in and just choose one.
We thanked the young artist profusely for his kindness and generosity to our daughter. He seemed genuinely happy with the whole interaction. This is something that I have noticed on more than one occasion in Japan – people seem to find great satisfaction from being kind to perfect strangers, especially young children.
The Untimely Demise of The New Favourite Toy
Hannah held and admired her new toys as we walked back to the train. She held them tightly on the train. She examined them carefully and felt their textures. Any attempt to remove the toys from Hannah’s grasp was met with a cry, the meaning of which was obvious.
And so it was that Hannah still had her precious balloon in her grasp as we wheeled her down the road in her stroller, back in the centre of Kyoto. Hannah held her balloon sword tightly and she refused to let go.
That was, until she let go.
At an intersection.
While cars were driving through.
The scream from Hannah was blood-curdling. In the blink of an eye, her precious toy had escaped her grasp and flown straight out onto the busy intersection. Emma’s first reaction was to try and grab it, but fortunately common sense quickly kicked in and she remained on the footpath. The balloon was precious, but not worth getting run over for.
The three of us watched. As did half of Kyoto’s native population, who also happened to be crossing at that moment. Hannah’s scream had drawn everyone’s attention to the situation and it seemed as if a collective breath was drawn and held as every set of eyes lasered in on the toy.
I could feel the crowd willing the balloon to survive. As it somehow reached halfway across the busy intersection, a tiny spark of hope entered my mind. Maybe the balloon would miraculously survive…
The balloon disappeared behind a bus. Hannah let out another desperate cry, but a loud BANG told the awful story. The new favourite toy was gone.
The lights changed and we began to cross the road. Hannah desperately looked around for her lost balloon – she didn’t understand what had happened. Meanwhile, I held a quick debate in my head about whether I should try and retrieve the pieces of the shattered balloon. I decided against it. I didn’t want to cause the already confused toddler any more distress, and they were now well beyond the safety of the pedestrian crossing. The last thing I wanted to do was try to explain to a Japanese police officer why I was in the middle of a busy intersection.
Hannah was sad, but her finger puppet quickly helped her to move on from the balloon. For the rest of the trip, we made sure that we didn’t lose it.