After Tokyo we decided to go to Kyoto, like most tourists do (or the other way round). Kyoto was high on our list, but little did we know that the area we had rented our apartment in, called Saga-Arashiyama, had lots to offer too.
Here is a list of what you can do in Saga. If you are planning to visit with kids, it’s the best place to stay in Kyoto, and you will soon understand why.
The enchanting bamboo forest
Chikako, our landlord, welcomed us with lots of recommendations on what to see and do. She particularly recommended the bamboo forest which, I realized later, is the one you find pictured in all tourist guides. It was just 5 minutes away from the house and we didn’t know!
So the morning after our arrival, I woke up really early and went to the bamboo forest. Don’t get over excited, it’s basically just a 15min walk on a forest path, and the forest happens to be a bamboo forest. But I do agree that it’s a lovely walk, especially in the morning light when the mist has lifted.
After the bamboo forest take to your left and you will end up in Saga’s public park, a hilly and flowery park with breathtaking views over the deep gorges of the … river. Stick to your right and you’ll have the best view, especially at sakura time as the opposite mountain is full of them.
Old town, old habits
If you walk down the park and stick to the riverside, you’ll end up at a bridge from which you have a great view over the mountains and the old town. Unfortunately we couldn’t do it for lack of time, but if you are looking for adventure, you can take a romantic train that takes you into the mountains and come back rafting your way through the gorges, sounds like a lot of fun!
After the bridge, you can also climb up to a monkey forest, although after having spent hours and hours at Ubud’s monkey forest in Bali, I feel like I had enough monkey forests for a life time 🙂
Instead we followed the riverbank left from the bridge and ended up in a traditional onsen recommended by our landlord (difficult to find, check it on a map not to get lost). Here’s a step-by-step guide to trying out your first onsen if it sounds like a daunting exercise to you.
The old town is also really worth your time. There are two noteworthy temples, Tenryu-ji (the head temple of the Tenryu branch of Rinzai zen buddhism) and Nisonin-ji. The whole area looks like Kyoto some 200 years ago, and is incredibly well preserved. There’s a homey feel in Saga that you can’t find in Kyoto anymore, even in the old district of Gion.
And if you feel like trying a local dish, head towards main street between 5 and 7pm (yes, Saga people have dinner awfully early, but in fact they just follow the sunlight which is a healthy lifestyle) and order some yuba, the top skin of tofu, accompanied by lots of little side dishes.
And there are still other things to see in Saga: you can visit Toei cinema studios and play a ninja or samurai, or you can visit the many traditional houses built during the Edo and Meiji eras.