嵐山 Monkey Mountain

Arashiyama 嵐山 is one of the top tourist spots in Kyoto, featuring world heritage temples, a magnificent bamboo grove, great food and, nestled on the top of the mountain, a monkey paradise! I did the whole day trip with my sister and cousin, but today I want to take you to the top of monkey mountain.

The Arashiyama Monkey Park Iwatayama is located across the river and up the mountain, there are many signs on the way so it’s pretty easy to find. You pay your 550円 per adult (around £3) and set off up the mountain. It is a considerable walk up the steep mountain to get to the monkey house, taking around 30 – 40 minutes. I would not have enjoyed climbing in the boiling summer heat, so I’m very glad I went when it was cooler.

We finally reached the top and were rewarded for our climb. The monkeys are free roaming in the park but prefer to congregate by the hut at the top because this is where they are fed. As such we were in the same place as the monkeys with no barriers between us and them. There were several rules in place to avoid upsetting the monkeys, such as not looking them in the eyes (as they do this to display dominance) and not getting too close. There were many watchful attendants making sure visitors kept to the rules.

Inside the hut were plenty of seats for resting after the climb and a stand selling food for the monkeys. For 100円 (60p) you get a small bag of feed (assorted nuts and fruit) to feed the monkeys. The monkey cling to the wire bars on the windows and you pass them the food.

The monkeys at the monkey park are Japanese Macaques. They are the most northern-living non-human primate, and average a lifespan of 6.3 years, though some have lived as old as 30. They are an intelligent species capable of learning from each other, such as how to wash food. They sometimes bathe in hot springs and have been known to make snowballs for fun. There are around 114,000 Japanese Macaques in Japan and there are around 170 in the troop at Arashiyama. When a Japanese person thinks of a monkey, they definitely think of the Japanese Macaque – in Japanese it is known as ニホンザル (nihonzaru), meaning ‘Japanese monkey’.

I would strongly recommend visiting the monkey park if you go to Arashiyama. It’s quite the climb but it is such an amazing experience to be so close to the monkeys. If you love animals you simply have to go.

大原 Pure Voices in the Mist

Today I would like to talk about the other three temples I visited with my parents when we went to Ohara, a town just North of Kyoto. These three temples are united in their purpose, as all three are Tendai sect temples dedicated to the practice of Shomyo, a type of Buddhist chant that has existed in Japan since the 9th century.

The first temple I would like to talk about is also the oldest of the group. Raigo-in 来迎院, was founded by the great teacher En-nin in the 850s especially for monks to practise the new art of Shomyo 声明 (meaning ‘pure voice’). Shomyo is a Buddhist chant practised by both Tendai and Shingon sects. The chants follow a pentatonic scale, also known as the Yo scale, which follows the pattern D E G A B in Western musical notation. This means there are no semitone gaps (such as a black and white key next to each other on a piano), instead there are gaps of two or three semitones. This makes the scale sound ‘happy’ and prevents any clashing chords. Shomyo is said to have influenced a lot of Japanese folk music and vocal style.

While Raigo-in itself was not particularly spectacular, featuring a simple garden and hall with statues of worship, the path behind the temple leads to a beautiful waterfall known as 音無の滝 – “waterfall without sound”. It was given this name when Ryonin, another great teacher, came to visit Raigo-in. He went to meditate by the falls and declared in a magic spell that the falls must not drown out the sounds of the Buddhist chants. The falls are said to have fallen silent. I can tell you that the falls are definitely not silent, and make the normal amount of noise for a waterfall, so perhaps the spell has worn off. Nevertheless, they are very pretty.

The next temple on our musical pilgrimage is Jikko-in 実光院, my favourite temple of the three. This temple was founded in 1013 and was also intended for Shomyo practice. As we entered we were instructed to ring a gong, presumably as part of the tradition of this particular temple. We bought tea tickets (temple entrance fee + tea fee) and sat in the temple building looking out into the gardens. The gardens feature cherry blossoms that bloom all year round, with a spectacular weeping cherry right in the centre.

The pond at Jikko-in was designed so that the nearer side of the pond represents everyday life and the further side represents paradise. The pond is also said to be in the shape of the tradditional Chinese character for heart 心, though I couldn’t really tell. Really beautiful gardens and definitely worth visiting – it is very close to Sanzen-in, the main attraction of the area, so it could be a good secondary stop.

Finally we visited Shorin-in 勝林院, very close to Jikko-in. This temple was founded in 1013 by En-nin’s disciple. It was also intended to allow monks to practice Shomyo and the temple featured a Shomyo audio display (you press a button and shomyo chants play in the temple hall). This temple is famous for the Ohara Mondo, or Discussion at Ohara, in which Kenshin of the Tendai sect invited a teacher of Pure Land Buddhism (a rival sect) to discuss faith. It is said that during their discussion the principle Buddha statue of the temple dispersed light from his hand and enlightened the listening masses.

This temple is also not as spectacular as those surrounding it but the hall itself was beautifully carved with images of dragons and flowers. The sound display inside also gave us an idea of what all these temples are dedicated to.

After we had visited the 5 temples I have covered so far in today’s and yesterday’s blogs, we set off for a walk through the mountains to Kurama (which I have covered here and here). We followed the Tokai Nature Trail, a trail that spans over 1,000 miles of Japan. We got a little lost initially and ended up walking along the road for a good portion, but we eventually found the path.

It was a rather rainy and misty day, and we got a little damp, but I really liked the effect of the mist on the mountains. We saw some parts of the mountains in Kyoto that most people don’t visit and got a good amount of exercise (those hills are steep!). We were a little nervous about the signs that warned about bear sightings in the area, though I understand that they are very rare and the Japanese subspecies is much smaller than those in the rest of Asia, weighing 60 – 120kg. I still wouldn’t want to run into one, but they seem less scary than a grizzly bear.

We also met a very pretty cat that was hiding from the rain in a bush by the path.

There were a number of small travellers’ shrines on the path through the mountains, including one shrine that told the tale of a monk walking through the mountains who had seen a vision of the Buddha. A convenient story as no one else was around, but he got his little plaque on a mountain road nonetheless. We were hoping for a view of the town from the top but the trees were so tall and thick we couldn’t see anything.

We eventually arrived in Kurama after around two and a half hours of walking and got the train back down to Demachiyanagi station. It was a really good day out despite the weather.

Apologies if this blog took longer to load; I’ve had to switch image hosting from WordPress to Dropbox due to running out of space. I will be compressing my images in future so as to save space and hopefully improve loading times.