Kyoto: Bamboo and Samurai

Note: This is retrospective, as I’ve been back for a little while. It will flip-flop on tenses, so please be patient.

I woke with the sun full on my face – our AirBnB apartment has windows that face full east. It was a glorious, golden morning – though chilly at the end of March. My goal for this first morning was simple: to get to Arashiyama.

B. had a different first goal – to get breakfast. Maybe it’s a good thing I’m traveling with someone again. I forget the small things. Luckily there was a café on the ground floor of our building. The women inside spoke no English, but there was a menu that suggested we could have “tea and egg” for about three dollars. Toast was an extra dollar, which I ordered. As far as breakfasts go, it was surprisingly Western. The guidebooks suggested fish and noodles for breakfast, yet here I was with macha tea, a hardboiled egg, and two thick slices of white toast.

Sated, I pulled out my makeshift map (a collection of photos I took of my computer screen when it was connected to wifi), and determined that we should take the electric trolley near our apartment. According to the map, it would drop us off exactly at the Arashiyama forest. If you’re in Kyoto, I recommend this trolley – it is called the Randen Railway Arashiyama Line. It’s inexpensive (200 yen), and its final stop is in fact Arashiyama. There’s a tourist office that has great maps for free, so it’s a good first stop.

(Looking at the map, there is a second Arashiyama line that connects to the JR San-in Line, which might be easier if you are staying in central Kyoto.)


I loved Arashiyama bamboo forest. It was exactly what I was looking for in terms of serenity and gentle tourism. This would be the first place where I observed the rituals for entering temples and cleansing one’s hands and mouth, as well as how to pray at a shrine. The forests are tall and have a wonderful sense of ease about them. We paid a fee to enter Tenryuji Temple, which was lovely. I was disappointed, however, that it lets you out on the main road and not back into the forest. Be advised of this, as you will lose a good portion of the bamboo walk if you go on this particular side adventure.

Having satisfied my desire to see a towering forest of bamboo, I took B.’s lead and went to visit the “Monkey Mountain” across the river. Did I have a desire to see monkeys? Nope. I don’t like monkeys all that much. I admit I grumbled about going, but not wanting to be selfish I put on a brave face, and climbed the steep hill.

And I saw monkeys. You can feed the monkeys through a screen. You cannot touch the monkeys.

I also saw a geisha – this was after the monkeys, back down by the river. It was only for an instant. My brain didn’t have enough time to register what I was seeing before she and her handlers were out of camera range. But she left an impression, with her white face and jingling hair ornaments. I decided I would try to actually see a geisha properly before I left Kyoto.

We ate in the Arashiyama district, at one of the many noodle places lining the main street along the forest entrance. In retrospect, this was one of my favorite meals of the entire trip – tempura vegetables, noodles, tea. Simple, but delicious, and not from a convenience store.


That night, we had samurai school. I purchased a two-hour session from Samurai Kembu (purchased through TripAdvisor). Though I was tired, the actress in me delighted in learning the stances and movements of the samurai. We were the only two who opted for a second hour (we joined a larger group for the one hour lesson, which was basic cuts and stances), and so we got to learn a bit of choreography and fan movements. When it was done, I got my samurai certificate. I’m pretty sure this means I get to carry a katana with me on planes like the Bride in Kill Bill Vol. 1.

I wonder if those teachers ever get really tired of us – the tourists playing samurai. They have dedicated themselves to mastery of a proud tradition, and then they get old ladies who keep dropping their scabbards on the floor. I wonder if that fatigue translates across any reenactment of an historical art.

They let us keep our tavi socks, which was pretty cool. I recommend this company, though don’t expect a lot of love. They are very…prompt.

We slipped next door for a tea ceremony – where we were tourist swindled. There are terrible things that happen to people on a daily basis, and I won’t pretend as though this mild injustice even deserves to go on the radar. Having said that, there is nothing that gets me angrier faster than being treated like a mark, especially when I see it coming. So this café’s poster says “Order a drink, tea ceremony fee is waived.” Feeling like this is a good bargain, we go in and order our sakes. The atmosphere is friendly, and the people are conversational in English. The tea ceremony is nice – the woman has never done one before, and she is clearly nervous despite us being the only two in the place. We have two glasses of macha tea, and a cookie.

The bill includes a tea ceremony charge. When we mention the poster, it is explained that if one orders a drink, the tea ceremony fee is waived, but then a cover charge for entering the establishment is substituted in its place. In essence, we were going to pay for the tea ceremony one way or another. While Brendan was willing to write this off as bad translation, mentally I was not so forgiving. The level of English competency, and the quickness of the explanation, meant that we were not the first to point out this discrepancy.

Ultimately, I can’t be too upset – I got to see a tea ceremony, drink some sake, and generally soak up a successful first day in Japan.

That cold night, my muscles are pleasantly sore from walking, and my tatami mat and blankets are pleasantly warm. I don’t watch nonsensical commercials with B., but I hear him chuckling as I fall asleep.

I love it when an itinerary works. Tomorrow we go to Nara (the only thing that was a “must” on my list of Japanese sights to see). And I am so excited!



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