Araishiyama and the Sagano Romantic Train

One of the more well trodden places in Kyoto is the Araishiyama Bamboo Forest. This is located on the western outskirts of Kyoto and is easily reached by train from Kyoto Station in around 15 minutes.

During my last visit to Kyoto I did not visit Araishiyama, so on a recent trip I made it a point to come here. A lot of people only come here for the bamboo forest which IMHO is kinda over-rated. Besides the famous bamboo forest, Araishiyama has several other attractions that makes it worth a full day’s outing.

Here are some of the attractions that I did managed to squeeze in while I was there. Also, this was the day that I forgot to charge my DSLR batteries and I brought along a backpack filled with a camera and lenses that didn’t work… bummer! So all photos and videos in this blog post were taken with my Galaxy S8 smartphone and Gopro. As they say, the best camera is the one that you have in hand.

Getting There

To get to Araishiyama is relatively easy. From Kyoto Station you need to take the JR Sagano Line to Saga-Araishiyama Station. The ride is around 15 minutes and you can use your Japan Rail Pass if you have one.

From Saga-Araishiyama Station, it’s a 10~15 minutes walk to most of the attractions around here.

From Saga-Araishiyama Station, it’s a short walk to most of the attractions. Signs along the way help to guide you.

Araishiyama Bamboo Grove

This is the namesake place that is probably on everyone’s Instagram feed. You will also see it being featured on every travel blog or website. That dreamy and serene bamboo forest that seems so primordial and zen like is but an illusion! In reality, it’s packed to the gills with tourists. This is especially so during the peak seasons of spring and fall which coincides with cherry blossom and autumn foliage viewing.

This is the peaceful image of Araishiyama that we always see online. But the reality is quite different as you will see from the video below…
The pathways are mostly filled with visitors and it can be really hard to find a quiet spot. The bamboo forest is actually quite small and you can walk around it in less than 30 minutes. The small size probably explains why the it gets so crowded in here.

Well, don’t let the crowds deter you from visiting. I visited in April during the peak season and this is what you get. I’ve heard that if you come here early in the morning (as in sunrise) or later in the evening, or off peak seasons like during winter, you can have the whole place to yourself.

Tenryu-ji Temple

This is the largest temple in the Araishiyama area and is also an UNESCO World Heritage site. The temple was built in 1339 by the ruling shogun then. It’s buildings have been destroyed and rebuilt several times, the latest being during the Meiji period (1868-1912).

There is a beautiful garden within the temple grounds, which you will need to pay an admission fee of ¥500 to enter the temple. I decided not to do this but chose to enjoy the view from the outside.

Tourists walking towards the main entrance of Tenryu-ji Temple. It gets crowded during the peak seasons.
Cherry blossom season was ending and the grounds were covered with pink petals of the cherry flowers.

Saga Torroko Station

Another main attraction at Araishiyama is the Sagano Romantic Train ride. This is a retro train that runs along the sides of the Hozukyo ravine. We will get to the train in a while but first lets see the station.

The Sagano Romantic Train starts from Saga Torroko Station which is located just beside JR Saga-Araishiyama Station.

Besides being the starting and terminal station for the Sagano Romantic Train, the station itself has a small railway museum and diorama with model trains for visitors to amuse themselves while waiting.

There is a vintage train engine on display outside the station.

If you are looking for something fun and entertaining for the kids, you can visit the diorama Kyoto Japan exhibit inside the station. It’s the largest model railroad I’ve ever seen and if you enjoyed playing with model trains in your childhood, this will blow your mind away.

The main attraction inside the station is this huge diorama of Kyoto. Miniature trains and buses run round the life like cities complete with replicas of the main tourist attractions in Kyoto. Day changes into night, city lights come on, and the stars and constellations appear overhead.
You can control the model trains using the realistic train controls. I didn’t try it, but it does look fun and should please those who enjoy playing with model trains.
The controls are located inside these former train engines and you will feel like a real train pilot sitting in there.

I guess photos can’t really convey what you see inside the exhibit, so here is a short video.

The entrance fee to see the diorama is ¥500 for adults and ¥300 for kids. But if you have bought a train ticket to the Sagano Romantic Train, you can show it to get a ¥100 discount off the entry fee.

Sagano Romantic Train

This is a popular activity to do besides just walking into the Bamboo Forest. If you enjoy nature then this is a must do train ride. From the Saga Torroko Station, this train leaves for a 25 minutes ride to Kameoka Station, going through the Hozukyo Ravine. Along the way, I could see the cherry trees lining the sides of the ravine with their light pink crowns.

Spring and autumn are popular times to take this train as you get to see cherry blossoms or fall foliage and it gets pretty crowded. If you come during this times, it’s best to book your tickets in advance or come to Saga Torroko station early in the morning to reserve your tickets.

The train service and the stations do not operate from 30th December to 28/29 February and both the stations and train are closed for winter maintenance. Additionally, they are closed on Wednesdays except during holidays. So if you come during those dates you are out of luck.

The train leaves every hour and tickets are ¥620 for adults and ¥310 for kids one way. If you want to take the train back, you have to buy a return ticket. But there are other ways to get back besides taking the same train again.
We chose to sit in the open air carriage. Tickets for this carriage are only available on the same day. You’d have to go to the station and check if seats are available and book them. This is probably the best way to enjoy the ride.
The train runs along the side of the ravine and you can see the Hozugawa river below. One of the ways to get back to Araishiyama is by river boat. It takes 2 hours for these boats to make their way back.
The tranquil scene at Kameoka Station. This is the last stop for the Sagano Romantic Train.
I was greeted by this cute display at Kameoka Station.

From the video above, you can see 2 ways to return to Araishiyama. First is to take the Sagano Romantic Train back and requires that you buy a return ticket. Second, you can walk to JR Kameoka Station (around 15 minutes) and take the JR train. If you don’t want to hang around Araishiyama anymore, you can continue on towards Kyoto Station. If you have the JR Pass, then the JR train ride is free.

The third way is to take the river boat back to Araishiyama. This is the most expensive and slowest way but if you like adventure then this is probably the best choice for you. It costs ¥4,100 per person and takes around 2 hours. I have not tried the boat ride but it looks fun with some Class 1 rapids along the way. The boat ride may be affected by weather and river conditions so do check before booking.

More information about the Sagano Romantic Train can be found at their website here.

Getting a Meal

There are a number of good restaurants in Araishiyama, but they tend to be crowded with long queues during peak season and meal times. One of the more popular restaurants here is the Michelin star Unagiya Hirokawa. We forgot to make a reservation and were told to wait more than 3 hours for lunch.

We decided to settle for the next best alternative which is Taishou Hanana, where we still had to wait for about an hour.

The ridiculously long queue outside Hanana just before lunch. This is what you get when you come during peak season, so if you want to avoid being a hangry person, do plan to come early.
Finally, after about an hour of waiting we got to eat. Hanana,’s speciality is their raw sea bream which is served with a tasty sesame sauce. Mix the sea bream and sesame sauce with the rice. Pour in some green tea to the mix and it becomes Chazuke (porridge?). Sounds a bit weird but tastes heavenly.

There are a number of restaurants in Araishiyama ranging from western to Japanese food, so you can still choose a less popular place where you don’t have to queue for hours, or you can just buy snacks/fast food from the smaller kiosks and eat on the go.

So there you have it, several activities that can fill up your day at Araishiyama. There were a couple of other areas which I didn’t visit like the Monkey Park, Togetsukyo Bridge or the Nenbutsuji Temple with it’s thousands of stone statues. I guess if I wanted to cover all these, I would have to spend another day here.

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