Question: What demon-fighting forest is so serene that the mere sound of wind through the trees was declared a national treasure?
Answer: Sagano Bamboo Forest, Arashiyama district, Kyoto, Japan
What makes a simple forest so memorable that media outlets from CNN to Condé Nast Traveler have included it on bucket lists of “most beautiful places to see before you die”? At Sagano Bamboo Forest (sometimes called Arashiyama Forest), the answer is that simplicity can also equal magical.
Planted by a Zen monk in the 14th century, the forest is composed of giant mosa bamboo trees rising 90-feet high. Because the canes are roughly the height of six-story buildings on either side of a narrow uphill path, the treetops seem to almost meet above you, and with nothing but bamboo for six square miles, it is truly like being enveloped in jade.
The grove was planted to ward off evil spirits and thus protect the nearby Tenryuji Temple—and it seems to be doing its job. The setting is so placid that when the Japanese government released an official list of 100 Best Soundscapes, to encourage people to slow down and find calm in the world around them, the roster included wind through the Sagano bamboo branches.
It didn’t require a government-issued list to make the grove a favorite with locals. Its timeless appeal inspires young women and couples to swap out their daily attire to stroll the path in traditional kimonos, taking full advantage of the serenity. No one hurries, as the path only takes 20 minutes to traverse each way. Like the best travel, it’s not about getting to a destination—here, the magic is simply all around you.More Gems of Arashiyama Togetsukyo Bridge
- The “Moon Crossing” (Togetsukyo) Bridge is the most iconic visual of Arashiyama. Built more than a thousand years ago and refurbished in the 1930s, the low wooden bridge spanning the Katsura River was placed for maximum beauty: cherry trees blossom in a park at one end, and it crosses in front of a dense forest that turns vivid colors in the autumn.
- Local children undergo a Buddhist religious initiation rite that includes dressing in traditional attire, going to a local temple to be blessed, and then crossing Togetsukyo Bridge without looking back once; if they look back, bad luck will follow them into adulthood.
- Tenryuji Temple was built in 1339, the largest in Arashiyama and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The shogun of that time, Ashikaga Takauji, had been locked in an epic power struggle with Emperor Go-Daigo when the Emperor suddenly died. Takauji, not so much remorseful as nervous about bad luck, built the temple in Go-Daigo’s honor, in hopes of appeasing the potentially angry spirit of the dead emperor.
- The temple burned down again and again over the centuries, finally restored in the form we see now during the Meiji era. But the gardens remain as they were designed more than 700 years ago by master gardener Museo Soseki, whose work so impressed the shogun that he was made head priest of the temple.
- One of the most famous actors in Japanese history, Okochi Denjiro built a five-acre sanso (mountain villa) in Arashiyama. Denjiro came to Arashiyama for the tranquility, and established four gardens around the property to highlight the gifts of the four seasons. One of the gardens overlooks the city of Kyoto, enabling Denjiro to enjoy the view without any of the urban noise and crowds.
- Denjiro made his fame in silent movies first and then later in action films by directors such as Kurosawa. He spent much of his movie earnings on the villa and its grounds, eventually building a home, tea houses, a traditional gate, and a Buddhist shrine amid the multiple gardens. When he died, the villa paid for by movie tickets was willed back to the people who made him a star.
Embrace the beauty and harmony of Japan when you explore South Korea & Japan: Temples, Shrines, and Seaside Treasures.