Arashiyama’s civilized monkeys01 December, 2012 by Chad
Perhaps not so subconsciously after yesterday’s events, would we actually begin to take things more slowly. Interestingly enough, Randy’s biggest request for the trip was that we see some Japanese monkeys. So it was off to Arashiyama at the western edge of Kyoto this morning to visit the Iwatayama Monkey Park.
Randy’s obsession with Japanese monkeys seems to stem from a documentary he had seen years ago by David Attenborough. On a similar note, after looking at a poster in a train station about some farmland, Randy had remembered another documentary and requested that we visit a place he referred to as “Satoyama”.
Personally, the only monkeys I have run into have been those I’ve seen in zoos and the few wild ones in catchment areas around Singapore, so up to this point I must admit that the idea of coming in close contact with any monkeys did not seem exactly enjoyable. Or safe.
Caught a train to Arashiyama from Minamikata Station which was just adjacent to the usual Nishinakajima Minamikata subway station that we frequented. The train here was operated by the private Hankyu Railway, which uses some really nice classic looking trains, that look straight out of the 40s. Inside though, the furnishings were much better maintained than Osaka’s government transport.
We were joined in the immediate vicinity of the cabin by a group of 4 young Japanese women, 5 Taiwanese ladies and one Malay wapanese in a yukata who had attempted to dye her hair pink. She was on her headphones the entire trip, so when the train finally stopped at Arashiyama, she ended up looking a little lost and approached the Taiwanese women for help in Japanese, only to learn the obvious that they weren’t Japanese.
Getting from Osaka to this extreme end of Kyoto took less than hour. Just getting here from Kyoto itself would take almost as long. While it’s often the default that tourists coming to Kansai for the first time end up staying in Kyoto, there are many more benefits to actually living in Osaka. I’d get into the details in another guide in time perhaps.
The Monkey Park was located some distance south of the station, away from what most usually visit Arashiyama for. We walked through a nice residential area and stopped outside a small carpark where we met a man whose job seemed to involve flagging down buses at a list board of timings each day. We checked with him on the location of the nearest toilet and confirmed that we were headed in the right direction.
We found the toilet, not far from the Monkey Park. It was a rickety open air hut but the taps there were worthy of interest. The buttons for the taps here were located under the tap itself. First time seeing this sort of self-cleaning taps. Certainly useful for places where you don’t have electricity to power automatic taps.
The shopping streets for Arashiyama weren’t far off, so we’d head there later if time permitted. In the meantime, it was off to the Monkey Park. There’s just a small staircase alongside the river that takes you to a shrine and on the left side, the entrance to the park. It’s sufficiently marked (with this giant signboard) so that you can’t miss it.
At the ticketing booth, we bumped into a Singaporean family who were squabbling. The wife was being sarcastic to her husband about spending money and time to try out pachinko. It was especially embarrassing and sad, because they were doing this in front of their kid. Why do we keep running into them over here?
After paying the 550 yen entry fee, it was a narrow flight of stairs, that lead up to a short mountain hike. The two old ladies in front of us didn’t even seem to be breaking a sweat. It’s a well known fact that Japanese people are really good at walking, fast even. What is less documented is their ability to climb.
Many of the attractions that old people so frequent here, like temples and nature spots, involve a lot of climbing. They’re probably used to it, since they are well trained from young. For us, it gets a little difficult to climb uphill, since it involves using all sorts of muscles that we won’t typically use in Singapore. After a few trips to Japan, one starts to appreciate the plentiful escalators and how close public transport is to everything else in Singapore, even if they don’t ever run on time.
Thankfully the weather was just right, and the environment enjoyable. The sky was cloudy up in the morning, but had cleared by the time we reached here. Didn’t see any monkeys during our climb up but after about 160 meters through the forested mountain, we finally came face to face with the first monkey of the day. It ran by quickly from above and eventually settled on a tree below us. A few quick snaps, before pressing onto the summit.
At the top, we found a clearing with an amazing view of the area. There aren’t any tall buildings in the area, so the Kyoto landscape ends up being quite unique. It’d be pretty idealistic to live in a city surrounded by such beautiful mountains, and there are a good many such places in Japan.
All of the monkeys at the Monkey Park are free roaming. The place was built around their natural habitat so that people could observe the monkeys. Apparently, there are some 160 or 170 different monkeys, though probably only a handful appreciate human contact. The monkeys here were just going about their own business, playing or grooming casually themselves in the clearing.
There’s a hut at the center of the clearing, it acts as the headquarters for the staff observing the monkeys and also a rest stop for tourists. There is a rest room, seats and refreshments on sale here.
The hut also serves as the only place where visitors are allowed to feed the monkeys in the park. For 100 yen, one can purchase a generous serving of snacks for the monkeys: chestnuts, apples or peanuts. It’s really a token sum as compared to the expensive feed you get for animals elsewhere and a nice gesture on the park’s part. You’ll definitely want to get some to experience what comes next.
What makes monkeys so terrifying is that despite them looking very much human, our own inability to communicate with them makes their behaviors unpredictable. I find it especially creepy that the Japanese macaque bear strikingly similar features to those that you would find in the older Japanese people. I guess environment does play a big part in evolution.
I’d had expected the monkeys here to be quite primal, thanks to the warnings of them being wild. But it turned out that just like old Japanese people, the monkeys here were well mannered and only somewhat irritable. They were also extremely intelligent, more so than any monkeys found elsewhere.
At the sign of visitors, the monkeys make their way to around the feeding area. The monkey we had seen scurry past earlier down the mountain was likely a scout. After we did buy some of the snacks from the counter, some of the monkeys proceeded to stick their hands into the hut as a sign that they wanted the food but were otherwise rather calm.
In fact, we were surprised to learn that many of the monkeys were really mild, waiting for us to offer the snacks to them before taking the food out of our hands very gently.
There was only one monkey that was being kind of a jerk, snatching pieces of food away from this other baby monkey. An elderly Japanese woman demonstrated that by crushing the food into smaller bits first, the older monkey would not be able to steal it.
We offered a couple of bags of food to the monkeys. Soon more visitors arrived, bringing them even more treats.
Back outside a couple of troublemakers were making their way toward the hut. One of them was just acting mischievously not quite doing anything, but the staff sensed something was amiss and chased him off. There were two staff around the hut at this time, a young girl and another guy in his 20s. Amazingly, they seemed to know all of the monkeys here by name and the monkeys responded to them accordingly.
Another larger monkey called “Kuro” was initially pacified by being given a bunch of food, but when he grew bored he began to play pranks on the other monkeys. He managed to push one monkey into the pond when it wasn’t paying attention and was promptly scolded by the staff.
Beyond the pond, there was a path up to another smaller clearing above the hut. The ground was still a carpet of grass here and most of the monkeys came here to bask in the sun. We could get really up close with the monkeys, who ignored us and continued doing their things, though the young girl staff followed us around just to make sure her little friends behaved.
Another woman who was working for the park job followed the monkeys around to video down their activities. Her face was completely expressionless, with no reaction whatsoever, despite it being what would seem an amusing job, kind of like being paid to make home videos of your kid each day. But I guess that gets boring after a while too.
After some time everyone else had left, so not wishing to impose further, we decided to head back down so that the staff could get back to the hut and do whatever they were doing before we had arrived. There were computers set up there.
Satisfied, we slowly made our way down the mountain, passing by another dilapidated hut down in the mountain that had closed up. The route looped back to the original path but it was far easier to travel downhill.
Stopped by at the entrance, where they sold handmade souvenirs related to monkeys. All of them were handmade. The ticketing person here was making some at the moment, though given the variety some were likely ordered from elsewhere.
After which, it was over to the main shopping area.
We had started a bit late today, so the afternoon sun had settled down by now. There were a ton of tourists at, going to and headed back from the shopping streets, which surprised us since there were hardly any people at the Monkey Park earlier.
To get there, we had to cross over the Togetsukyo Bridge from earlier. It’s easily Arashiyama’s most noticeable landmark. The large, old wooden bridge spans across a wide river, that flows beside the mountains. It’s a really charming sight.
It was about time to get some lunch but conveniently, the streets were lined up with options. As with most touristy shopping streets, there were a ton of omiyage snack shops, traditional craft shops and restaurants. We found one and entered purely based on those plastic foods you see outside. It just happened to serve what we were looking for. Thankfully, we made the right decision as the shop turned out to be a popular choice even among the locals.
The menus were exclusively in Japanese, so it was a good thing we decided what to eat from the displays outside first. Randy ended up getting some cold soba, while Eri had a soba and tempura rice set. I went with a full vegetarian course (since restaurants around these areas tend to specialize in such) and wasn’t disappointed.
Despite appearances, prices were affordable. With a full set meal costing just between 1,000 to 1,600 yen (SGD$15 to $24).
The entire meal turned out to be quite an experience. Rather than the vegetarian foods that attempt to emulate non-vegetarian dishes in appearance and taste, each dish here played a similar role in the meal, but were completely unique dishes in their own right.
Some thought was definitely put into providing a variety of textures and tastes, much like you would in a regular meal, such that you would get a fully satisfying dining experience, without having to go through the hypocracy of trying to directly imitate non-vegetarian dishes. All of this by just using with various types of mochi and tofu. In some ways, it’s similar to how French cuisine works, with an increase focused on preparation and sauces.
The sun was starting to go down by the time we had finished our lunch. But since we were in the area, we might had as well visited Tenryuji too, the main temple of the area. It’s just along the left side of the main shopping street.
Tenryuji occupies quite a large area of land in Arashiyama. You can view most of the surrounding structures and some zen gardens outside for free, but it’s 500 yen to enter the main temple area.
It’s nice to visit, temples are shrines in Japan, sometimes amazing even. But after 2 or 3 of each, and you’ll start to realize that all of them are pretty much the same. Still, it’s nice to see a few every visit to Japan, just not to overdo it.
Overall, I definitely prefer shrines to temples too, not only as more shrines in Japan are free but also thanks to the fair share of bad experiences with temples in Kyoto during a previous trip.
Tenryuji combines elements from some of the other temples like Ryuanji and Kinkakuji. The you’ll find all of the zen gardens and proper gardens that you’d want, here in one convenient package. Not to mention that it isn’t nearly as commercialized as the aforementioned two.
So if you must visit one temple that isn’t Kiyomizudera in Kyoto, Tenryuji comes as a good choice. But if you’re not a temple person, or have already seen enough of them, then give it a pass. There isn’t anything particularly unique to Tenryuji that makes it worth a trip here, but we had free time after the Monkey Park so it was still a welcoming side trip.
We spent some time looking at the fishes in the pond, and walking through the garden area that looped around a large hill. The place was pretty well kept, by the monks living here. Many visitors took the opportunity to chill at the benches provided next to the main hall, here in front of the pond.
Up the hill, we got to see some of the first signs of browning leaves, but a full blown autumn was still far away. Looks like we had come too early this year.
It was nice how the garden area used steps made from logs and pebbles to blend in with the surroundings. Taking a closer look, the hand railings weren’t wooden logs at all, but stone blocks that had been etched to look like logs.
After the temple, it was back to the shopping street for a look around. There were no plans for the evening, so we could take our time leisurely here. Randy spotted some black soy bean ice cream that he wanted to try but put that idea on hold when he spotted a dessert shop just beside. Attracted by the parfaits here, urging Eri and I to enter. We put up no resistance.
Randy got the parfait as per desired, while the rest of us got slightly varying versions of anmitsu. Really love these Japanese desserts since they manage to fulfill their purpose without being unnecessarily sweet. It’s probably due to most of these places being primarily frequented by the aged. Sure enough we were the only “young” people here this afternoon.
In Singapore, the closest things you’d find would be at Azabu Sabo or the MoF franchises but the desserts served at these places are ridiculously sweet, having been adapted for local tastes.
Happy with our lessons in the life of a Japanese tai tai, it was time to take the trip back to Osaka. It was starting to get dark, which really only meant that it was almost 4 PM.
We decided to drop off at Umeda, to finally do some shopping at the clothing stores inside Yodobashi Camera. Outside, we passed by a street performer.
Randy ended up walking away with quite a few bargains, including a pair of pants that was altered on the spot for him at no additional cost at a shop called Global Work. I spotted a few pieces that I would like myself, but none of them fitted as they were left with the larger sizes. After a couple of hours of shopping, we met back up with Eri too, who had gotten a couple deals herself.
Feeling slightly pressured to get some stuff too, I ended up getting a plain shirt from The Suit Company upstairs. It didn’t come cheap (about SGD$100) but had a nice touch to it and was cut real nicely. Anyways, I kind of needed the spare clothes, since I had only brought about 3 days worth of clothing over.
One regret though was getting another pair of Timberland shoes. I had spotted the same pair at Den-Den Town a couple days ago and wasn’t quite sure on it. But on impulse ended up getting it here tonight too. On hindsight, I already have a rather similar pair and a plentiful number of casual shoe so ought to have used the money toward some dressier shoes.
We visited the convenience store near our hotel first to get some cup ramen, chicken fillet and fried chicken on Randy’s recommendation. It was real good.
The rest of the evening was spent back at the hotel, settling things while Randy and Eri had their go with the washers in the car park. We still had yet to activate our mobile sim cards, so I finally decided to e-mail my director for help. We’d wait and see what happens next.
Today ended up being quite the improvement to yesterday and the highlight of our trip thus far, especially for Randy, who would be ranting about the monkeys ever since we had stepped out of the park. We were definitely liking the more leisurely pace, that allowed us to actually absorb and appreciate more.
This was our first day setting out to a place actually new to myself too and my mood had made a full reversal, since I really enjoy new experiences. Here’s to hoping that we’d be making many more new memories and experiences this trip. Tomorrow, we’d be visiting Kyoto proper for the famous Kiyomizudera temple, so look forward to that.
Planning your holiday? We recommend visiting Agoda for a full list of hotels with early bird specials.
@60fpskun I want to work there. The monkeys more likeable than people.
— Supermerlion (@supermerlion) October 30, 2012