Arashiyama, a town on the outskirts of Kyoto, is famous for its bamboo forests, temples and summer cormorant fishing. It is easily accessible from Kyoto by train, JR train or bus.
We took the bus because we found ourselves nearer the bus stop at the end of the morning's activities and the trip took about 50 minutes. The grimy buildings of the suburbs gave way to gorgeous green hills and cute little shops and cafes lining the streets. We walked into the grounds of the Tenyru-ji temple, admired the grounds and gardens and walked back down to try and find the bamboo forest. You can access a short cut to the forest from the temple but it costs Yen 500 per person. We got a little lost but eventually found the main path and it was certainly impressive amongst the towering green growth. Green and serene.
We walked back to the main street and stopped to look at the tourist map where I noticed that there was a hot spring sign where the train station was, marked 'foot bath'. That sounded promising. We went to the information desk and between the lady's broken English and my very broken Japanese we worked out there was indeed a mineral foot spring in a little open air cabana at the end of the rail tracks. For the equivalent of $2 we were able to purchase tickets which included a souvenir foot towel to keep. Oh my goodness - what a find! A litlte hot spring for the legs only about 5m x 2m with two tables in the middle with a book where you could record your thoughts and write where you were from. It was 41 degrees C, and when the train driver pulled in he would hop out and check the temperature on the thermometer, adjust the water balance if necessary and then hop back in the train and drive off! It was absolutely surreal.
We only had an hour before we had to go down to the river to see the cormorants, so we nipped next door to the station and upstairs to a cafe with the usual plastic food display outside. It didn't look all that flash and was pretty cheap, but we only had time to go there. As it turned out it was absolutely delicious and we tried a mountain potato dish as well as rice with salmon and salmon eggs while the boys tried the chicken version. Most restaurants have non smoking sections, but it's still a bit smoky. If you go early enough though, there are not many people around and therefore no smoke.
After our early dinner we wandered down the street to the river where we found the ticket office to go on a boat and watch the cormorants catch 'ayu' - the sweet river fish. You can just watch from the river bank for free, but the boat experience up close was definitely worthwhile. I haggled with the ticket seller trying to explain that he should reduce the price as there were five of us and when he finally caught on he laughed and agreed to my price reduction. This activity has been entertaining the aristocracy since the 1100s. The cormorants are trained from very young. The 'Usho' or cormorant master ties a rope around the cormorant's neck and leashes the birds so that they catch the fish, are dragged in to the boat and the fish taken from them as they cannot swallow them. The rope has to be not so tight that it distresses the bird, but not too loose so that they can swallow the fish themselves. It takes 20 years to train to be an Usho master. There is a pine wood brazier on the boat to attract the fish and they bang the sides of the boat to drive the fish ahead for the birds. It was very surreal. We were so lucky that the sky was clear, it was warm and there was an almost full moon. We were fascinated, but one of the boys thought it was a bit cruel. The birds are used to it and they rest them in between, and even stroke and pet them!
Be aware that if you stay for the cormorant fishing you may miss the last train back to Kyoto. Buses run fairly late, but you may have to change buses as the timetable changes in the evening.
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