Arashiyama is a scenic region in the western part of Kyoto. We set out nice and early on a Sunday morning, from the taxi we could see apartment blocks and commercial buildings giving way to a more rural scenery, and families enjoying the outdoors on their bikes or playing baseball in full kit.
The taxi dropped us off near the front gate of the Tenryu-Ji temple. The Zen temple sets a contemplative mood, in the main hall visitors sit on tatami mats and look out onto the rigorously planned gardens. We walked through the splendid gardens all the way to the rear exit, which turns left to bring us to the first in a series of bamboo groves. The bamboo grows tall and thick, their leaves provide a canopy of coolness overhead, reminded me of wushu movies setting.
Our walk led us to Okochi Sanso. A famous silent samurai-movie star Okochi Sanso built it as his private villa, the gardens took over 30 years to contruct and mature. The entrance fee is 1000 yen per adult, relatively expensive even for Japan, so not many people visit and the gardens felt quite private and tranquil. We walked through the set paths, observing the changing scenery, pausing here and there to take in the mountainside view or listen to the birdsong or cicadas buzzing. To complete the visit, visitors are served a bowl of tea and a sweet bean cake in a teahouse overlooking lush bamboo fields. This villa is well worth the trip to Arashiyama.
Holistically charged, we headed north past a railway station and a small village towards Saga Toriimoto. The walk took about a leisurely hour, a nice exercise for city folks.
There are two famous temples along this beautiful street of preserved old houses. Most were closed or turned into galleries and restaurants. The atmosphere is peaceful and calm, almost spiritual. The heat made our progress slow, but that was a good thing, we could take in the little details and appreciate the subtle sounds of nature around us.
Just at the corner before the Otagi Netsubutsuji temple, we came across Tsutaya, a charming restaurant with a thatched roof and two tables laid with red cloth in the front porch. We went in on impulse and decided to have an early lunch, curious about a kaiseki menu of 4800 yen (most kaiseki lunch are at least double that).
The chef-owner greeted us warmly and showed us- two hot and sweaty tourists who could only communicate with sign language- to a beautiful and very powerfully air-conditioned tatami dining room. Hot towels and tea, coupled with warm service soon put us at ease. We enjoyed a delicious light lunch starting with cool sesame tofu followed by dobinmushi, a soup of seafood and seasonal mushrooms served in a teapot. The soup, accentuated with a squeeze of fresh lime, was exceptionally light yet intensely flavourful. Note the presentation of the lime, so prettily carved. At this point we were still under the impression that we were eating a vegetarian menu, because the only word that husband could read was "tofu", and I had even blithely informed him that the seafood served only to enhance the mushrooms which counted as vegetables.
The chef served the third course personally, and we were blown away. It was ayu, a sweet river fish braised in a rich dark broth. Not in the least vegetarian, the fish is their local delicacy, caught in the wilds, and the house specialty. The fish was swollen with roe, and in the presentation the chef had cut away a section of skin to highlight this marvel. Every component of the dish was exquisite in appearance and taste- the pumpkin melting and honeyed, the mountain yam gratifyingly fluffy; still, it was the fish that took centre-stage, the flesh finely textured and the roe melting in cascades of utter deliciousness. To complement this sensational dish, a small bowl of rice cooked with local mushrooms, also presented with quiet pride by the chef himself.
Dessert was calming and refreshing. A little coupe of yuzy jelly, studded with choice bits of seasonal fruits, especially of grapes, anchored by a small piece of pear, amazingly sweet and crystalline. We thanked the chef and his staff gratefully, and only later, when we were back in town and googled the restaurant, did we realise that we had unknowingly come across a famous restaurant. Happy serendipity indeed!
After lunch, we made our way back to the town centre. The Togetsu-kyo bridge, which spans the Katsura river below the mountain, doesn't look like much when we visited, but at night and seen from far, I can imagine it would be a magnificient sight especially in autumn. The area was crowded with Japanese tourists, some just taking it easy watching the passing river scenes from stone benches placed along the river banks, and some exploring the dozens of gift shops and eateries offering everything from buffet meals to the local sweets.
We couldn't resist joining the line at a restaurant specialising in tofu dishes. I don't know the name, but it is directly in front of the Tenryu-Ji temple main gate and the line was very long. Not knowing what to choose, we ordered one each of the most expensive set and the cheapest set which effectively covered all the items in their repertoire. Everything was delicious, especially the yuba, which is the skin that forms on top of the soya milk. Yuba is eaten on its own or dipped in a sauce made of soy and dashi. The restaurant was also doing brisk business out front with its takeaway soya milk ice cream. It was creamy and not too sweet, but melted very fast in the sweltering heat, by the time I finished my cone, my feet had taken me to another souvenir shop where more handkerchiefs beckoned at me. I bought some for my mother and myself, and poked around a few more stalls selling silk accessories and fans.
In the late afternoon, we took the train back to Kyoto city centre, tired but happy, and full of wonderful memories of our day trip. Thank you Arashiyama!