It is considered de-rigueur when travelling these days to rely on a copy of the esteemed Lonely Planet series of travel guides to better inform one’s journey. These guides are supremely helpful, nay indispensible. They include itineraries, suggested walking tour routes, a vast wealth of carefully distilled local knowledge, and many, many beautiful photographs.
I tell you this because on the front of Lonely Planet’s Japan guidebook is a beautiful picture of a beautiful bamboo forest, which is found just outside Kyoto. Lonely Planet clearly considered this photograph so beautiful, so perfect, so quintessentially Japanese, that it was worth emblazoning the cover of their guidebook for the entire country. Thus, today, we went to see it for ourselves.
The bamboo forest of Arashiyama has indeed become something of a remarkable draw for tourists. Considering it is little more than a very well maintained 500 metre path among a small forest bamboo trees, the square kilometer around the forest bears all the hallmarks of a genuine tourist trap: shops flogging brazenly glib souveniry stuff, overpriced inauthentic restaurants, and locals pulling white people along in rickshaws. All this fuss for a mere 500 metre stretch of path between a load of bamboo.
Admittedly there is also a large handful of very beautiful small temples and shrines clustered around the forest, and spending some time exploring these is an utterly rewarding experience which you really should do. Indeed, it is these temples and shrines that turn a visit to Arashiyama from a mere few hours excursion into a full day trip.
The forest itself is indeed very beautiful, an outstanding photo-op if ever there was one. The bamboo trees shoot up around you from every direction, their emerald greens lightening towards a spectacular canopy, shafts of sunlight puncturing the shade between the leaves overhead. The creaking, rattling sounds of the trees clattering together when the wind blows lend the whole scene an other-worldly feel. It really does feel an entire world away from the Kyotoan metropolis a mere half dozen metro stops away.
There’s just one problem: tourists.
Trang and I are both increasingly keen photographers. We enjoy seeking out and then exploiting any opportunity for an arty snap. I’d even venture so far as to say that we’re getting quite good at it. However, we have one rule to which we both endeavor to adhere: any photograph that features other tourists does not count. A scene cannot possibly be beautiful if it is blemished by a camera-totin’, sightseein’, coach tourin’ tourist. If any picture betrays any sense that anyone else was also there to see what we were seeing, then we’re little more than mere mortal tourists ourselves.
The bamboo forest should have been an opportunity to put our photography skills fully to the test. And yet it was impossible, absolutely impossible, to find even a short section of the short path that wasn’t already occupied by another smelly tourist. No matter how long we waited nor how carefully we framed our photographs, not a single moment presented itself where we had the time and space to really find something to capture the moment before another bloody tourist jauntily bounced up the path and into our shot.
Now, I know the rank irony of me, a tourist, going to a tourist place and then complaining about all the other tourists. Being a bloody tourist and then complaining about all the other bloody tourists makes me nothing less than a rank hypocrite, surely? This is a charge I will both fully accept and then shamelessly ignore, since it is clear all of the other tourists should have seen me coming, said ‘Oh, here comes Adam the traveller. We’d better be off, its clear we can’t appreciate this beautiful place quite as profoundly as he can, and he’ll also need some good photos for the next edition of Adam’s Grand Tour, which I’m looking forward to reading. Lets go and get an ice cream and give him an hour or two, yeah?’
I jest, obviously. The bamboo forest is of course a supremely beautiful place, even with all the bloody tourists, and you should come and see if you’re ever in Japan. We were blessed with a beautiful, warm day when we visited, but I can imagine this place would be spectacular whatever the weather. To reach it, head for Sagaarashiyama station, five stops from Kyoto station, for a mere 240 Yen, and then upon alighting follow the very clear signs to the forest.
If you can’t see the signs, just follow all the other bloody tourists.