Open Google search bar and type in “Kyoto”. Choose Images. Can you see those stunning pictures of the characteristic temples with Mount Fuji in the background? Do you see the Geishas underneath the cherry blossoms and the empty pathways through the bamboo forest? Take a good look. This is the Japan you will not see.
I’m telling you this because I didn’t get that same warning. I did look at those pictures and I was looking forward to the walk in the mysterious bamboo forest of Arashiyama and the majestic beauty of the vermilion corridors of Fushimi Inari. I read about Kyoto and built up the expectation in my head, letting myself imagine taking part in the zen tea ceremony sitting on the tatami mat opposite a real geisha. What I didn’t expect was that my experience in Kyoto will be so different from what I had in mind.
We left for Arashiyama early in the morning. To get the pleasure of strolling through the bamboo alleyways, one needs to be prepared for a bit of a journey. One of Kyoto’s top attractions is actually on the outskirts of the city and requires about a 10 minute walk from the Sago- Arashiyama train station. You can get there from the Kyoto’s main station for just 240 yen (around £1.60) in approximately 15 minutes. From the station you can rent bicycle for 1000 yen, take a train to go through the scenic route or simply follow the large groups of tourists who cross this quiet suburb to reach the promised bamboo grove.
Having arrived at our destination, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit cheated. True, there were tall bamboos growing everywhere around me, but instead of the empty paths underneath the green canopy I was barely moving, slowed down by the constant stream of selfie-taking tourists. Everyone was determined to find that square meter of space where they could take that perfect picture to share on Instagram and Facebook, while perpetuating the illusion that there wasn’t another person doing exactly the same thing just an elbow’s length apart. Instead of spiritual, I got the conveyor-belt Arashiyama.
Instead of following the crowd to the next “must-see” attraction, my husband and I stepped to the side and walked into the forest. I began to ponder our experience. This is exactly what is wrong with today’s world – our experiences became a new social currency. We all want to go to the same places everyone else goes, not to risk the awkward conversation when upon our return friends ask if we had “cannot miss” spot. But at the same time, we don’t want to admit to being mainstream, we don’t want to admit that we had just experienced the exactly same thing thousands will get to experience just that same day. We want our experiences to be special, we want to feel like we are special. And in the pursuit of that uniqueness we end up following in everyone else’s footsteps.
I didn’t like Arashiyama bamboo grove. What I loved and will remember for the rest of my life was the conversation I had with my husband as we wandered aimlessly through the forest away from the main tourist paths. What I will remember is the sense of wonder when we noticed a river gleaming in between the trees and decided to follow it until we reached an area where one could rent a boat. I will remember how happy I was, just me and my loved one in the little kayak, admiring the green slopes around us and spotting the water turtles diving into the water from the river banks. Perhaps the place we found was not the top one spot for tourists, or perhaps it wasn’t so secluded that we were the only ones to ever experience it. But what made this memory so special to me, was that it was ours. It wasn’t planned, it wasn’t a box to be ticked on our traveling list. It was simply a real experience that we could share.
Having learnt our lesson from the morning in Arashiyama, when we reached the next stop on our travel agenda – Fushimi Inari, we knew that we would probably not be seeing what the pictures promised there either. When we got to the iconic flaming orange rows of the wooden torii full of tourists, we knew we would not be staying there long.
We took a quick photo when we managed to find a few second slot without tourists and decided to walk the other way.
Leaving the busy tunnel behind, we allowed ourselves to be yet again tempted by nature and followed the leafy path up the hill. We carried on through the forest for over an hour, completely mesmerised by the serene scenery. We were completely alone, surrounded only by silence and occasional local passing by. We came across small hidden shrines and discovered a cemetery with beautiful stone statues. After a while, we wandered into a bamboo grove. The view was breathtaking, the atmosphere magical. There were no tourists, no queues to take a selfie. It was just the two of us among the hundreds of stunning bamboos. By complete chance we stepped into our own private Arashiyama.
Perhaps there are many ways to travel. Perhaps there is nothing wrong in wanting to see what everyone else is talking about. But the world has got so much more to offer, there is so much for us to see if only we decide to look beyond what is in front of us. There is nothing wrong with sharing the experiences of many, as long as we leave space for things that are only ours. Because it is not the perfect photos which we remember, but the imperfect moments in between.