Perhaps the name Arashiyama (嵐山) doesn’t ring any immediate bells but most visitors to Japan have been told by their guide books about the bamboo forest to the west of Kyoto. This is Arashiyama’s famous bamboo grove, and it’s one of the top sightseeing hotspots in Japan.
After a couple of days in Kyoto it’s natural for most people to get temple fatigue and feel like doing something different, so a trip to the more rural west side of Kyoto can prove a satisfying change of scenery. Popular as a getaway for over 1000 years, here there are good opportunities for cherry blossom, autumn leaves, some nice old buildings, shopping streets, temples (of course) and a monkey park.
There is also a nice, wide river called Katsura (桂川) which is popular for slow-paced rowing boat trips. The river here is shallow-ish and has nice little grassy banks with trees.
If you go up river a bit, it becomes much more interesting for potential swims. The water creeps up the valley as it narrows, with the water becoming a magical, mineral-rich blue-green colour, deep in places, dotted with silvery volcanic rocks for jumping from, sitting on and taking in the beautiful, remote surroundings.
Disclaimer: It may be forbidden to swim in this part of the river, so do so at your own risk. As usual in Japan, it could be more just the case that it is not done so assumed forbidden. Do watch out for the (definitely not forbidden but definitely less exciting) cruise boats that may pass you by.
Where is Katsura?
One of the best access points is directly under Torokko Hodukyo Station, and across a footbridge. This location is a beautiful gorge surrounded by natural woodland, and overlooked by mountains and the trains of the Sagano Scenic Railway (嵯峨野観光鉄道). It’s quiet, with only the occasional slow-moving train and virtually no cars on the small road nearby.
How do I get to Katsura?
From Arashiyama it’s an easy walk to Torokko Saga station (directly next to Saga Arashiyama Station), this is the starting point for the Sagano Scenic Railway (also known as the Sagano Torokko or Romance Train.
To get upstream take the Scenic Railway for a slower-paced and fun ride on a sightseeing train. They are all old, decked out with wooden benches and help you to take in the valley from a birds-eye observation point through the trees. It’s 620 JPY for a single journey from start to finish, no matter where you jump off and trains depart by the hour. Get off at Torokko Hodukyo station and you’re there.
If you want to save money you can simply take the more regular, faster and cheaper JR San-In Line, which leaves from Arashiyama Saga Station, it’s about every 20 minutes and only 190 JPY. This journey takes you to JR Hozukyo Station, which is intriguing and maybe just as interesting as anything on the Romance Car trip. The station is positioned right in the middle of a high bridge with an excellent valley view. From here you can walk along a quiet road (about 1km) to the other side of the footbridge at Torokko Hodukyo station.
If you keep following that small road, it will take you on a scenic route all the way back to Arashiyama’s attractions. It’s very narrow and winding in places so in the height of summer carry refreshments.