An old Japanese caretaker was sweeping crisp brown leaves off the stones of the staircase. To his left was a row of small granite statuettes and gravestones in a manicured garden. On his right, a plush carpet of fluffy, wet moss hosted a grove of thin, bare trees, scratching at an overcast sky. We climbed the steep stairs, up the mossy hill, watching one of the lovely old pagodas reveal itself from behind the branches.
There were few visitors here to admire the temples, and it was nice to explore all by ourselves. The whole complex of the Jojakko-ji temple was hidden amongst skeletal trees and lawns of spongy moss, surrounded by taller forest, and overlooking distant Kyoto. A still pool of water collected sodden leaves, and shimmering reflections of the temples and trees above it. A small statue of Buddha had overgrown with plants and lichen, but coins still shone in his outstretched hand. Stone lanterns with little tiled roofs and glass windows were posted along the steps, each one like a pagoda-style letterbox. A huge bell with a wooden ringer hung under a cover, which might once have resounded an almighty clangor across the city far below. Now it was dormant, the bronze tarnished and green.
Kyoto’s famous bamboo forest is named Arashiyama. The forest is so dense and tall, that one feels completely enveloped in the beauty of these hollow giants. The effect is a striking natural pattern of straight lines, and a beautiful medley of different shades of green, from rich forest greens, pale and almost yellow. The forest seemed to absorb the outside sounds, blocking out the whole world, invoking a sense of mystery and calm. The walking path is quite short, so taking time to linger is the best way to enjoy the forest. There were certainly small clusters of tourists wandering along the path between the bamboo stalks, but under the shade of the rustling leaves, even the most obtrusive tour groups seemed insignificant.
Not very far from Arashiyama is a hike to reach Iwatayama monkey park. It is not a long climb, but very steep, and by the time we emerged from the treeline at the top, we were exhausted. At the top of the hill, the trees disappeared and a wide clearing of packed orange earth opened up, overlooking the tiny city below. There were monkeys all over the place. The snow monkeys (Japanese macaques) had bright red faces, and overgrown, fluffy jackets of fur. Some were lying around in lazy social groups, grooming each other in comically relaxed poses, whilst others jumped and crashed and screeched at each other.
There was the reception, a squat square building with a wide brown roof. Inside was a feeding room, where the humans were the ones in the cage, with a chance to offer peanuts or slices of apples to the monkeys gripping the mesh, separating them from the people. Well accustomed to human interaction, the monkeys snatched the food greedily. I noticed a sign at the entrance asking people not to make eye contact with the monkeys. I was extra aware to try not to. But I did, I looked one right in the eyes. It stared straight back at me. Then it furrowed its eyebrows, dropped its shoulders, bared its teeth and screeched.
Ok. Don’t look the monkeys in the eyes.