It started off as a day with no plans or expectations and turned into one of my most memorable days in Japan
I have one full day in Kyoto and I want to make the best of it! That's what I woke up thinking.
I didn't plan anything ahead of time for my one full day in Kyoto. Though, there was one thing that had stuck in my mind for months: a YouTube video I saw of a group of people in a tiny boat crashing through the rapids down a river. I didn't even know if that boat was open to the public or what part of Kyoto it was located in, but I knew I had to experience it!
I woke up early and tracked down that YouTube video; according to the description, it was a riverboat on the Hozugawa River. And after some brief researching, I found that the Hozugawa river boat ride was about $40 USD, didn't require reservations, and was only about three train stops away from me! It was meant to be.
I hopped out of bed, showered, got dressed, threw my bag over my shoulder and was on my way by 9am. Even though I never eat fast food, I knew I was going to have an eventful day so I stopped in McDonald's for a breakfast sandwich and a coffee to hold me over until lunch.
I took the train to Kameoka Station and from there it was only a 10 minute walk to the boat departure office. When I got there, I bought a ticket at the booth and they told me it would be about a 15-minute wait and to listen for my number.
After only about 5 minutes they called my number and I headed to the river. The riverboat was small, it probably only fit 20 people, up to 4 per bench. Each of us was given a flotation belt and I was seated at the end of the bench; the boat was so small that I could reach down and touch the water.
The captain gave an enthusiastic speech that I assume was comical because everybody was laughing, but unfortunately I couldn't appreciate it because it was all in Japanese. And with that...we were off!
The river started off calm and relaxing...until we hit the rapids. The man at the front of the boat was standing and steering it with a 10-foot long bamboo stick. We crashed through the water, some of us getting splashed despite the tarp we were given to protect ourselves. The ride was thrilling; my heart was racing with adrenaline and I realized that I was smiling.
At this moment, I forgot that I was traveling solo, I forgot all self-consciousness and awkwardness about being alone amongst a group of couples and families. Us passengers became one; screaming, laughing, and gasping in awe as a whole, sharing this amazing experience as a group of strangers.
The narrow boat squeezed between rocks and just when it looked like we would crash, the captain pushed us away with that bamboo stick and laughed at our petrified faces. When he got us through particularly dangerous areas, he spun the stick around theatrically and bowed, resulting in an applause and laughter. It was clear he'd done this more than once and his enthusiasm for his job was refreshing and contagious.
Between the thrill of the rapids, there were moments of transcendence. The world stood still around us as we silently glided through the mountains and the forests, occasionally passing monkeys along the way. In those brief moments, we were nobody, just part of the vast nature that surrounded us.
The boat ride lasted about an hour and a half and took us to a shore just outside the Arashayama Bamboo Forest. Needless to say...that was probably the best $40 I've ever spent.
Since I was dropped off outside Arashayama, I decided to take advantage of the opportunity and walked about 15 minutes until I reached the iconic forest.
To be honest, the famed bamboo forest was a let down. Yes, the bamboo itself was majestic and beautiful. However, the hoards of tourists bumping into you and fighting to get that perfect selfie detracted from the nature.
Additionally, I expected the walk through the forest to be longer but after fighting my way through crowds for about 10 minutes, I already reached the end; It was more of a path than a long trail.
After coming out of the bamboo forest, I found myself in the traditional, Geisha district of Gion. Gion, unlike the bamboo forest, was not a let down.
The buildings in Gion were traditional and wooden, making it feel like I was transported back in time. The Geisha and tourists alike were dressed in kimono and there were an abundance of street food stalls, restaurants, souvenir shops, and bars. It isn't called the entertainment district of Kyoto for nothing.
I grabbed myself a coconut tapioca drink, which was refreshing in the afternoon heat, and explored the shops.
I weaved in and out of the shops until I reached the wooden Tatsumi Bridge at the end. However, instead of stopping at the bridge, I decided to cross it and see where it would take me.
On the other side of Tatsumi Bridge, I turned right and saw signs for Iwatayama Monkey Park and followed them.
The path took me to a toll booth at the bottom of a mountain and I paid under $5 USD to go through. From there, it was about a 20-30 minute hike up the mountain (the hike was moderate difficulty, it got very steep at points and there were a lot of stairs, so bring water and be prepared).
I was lucky enough to stumble upon the Monkey Park during birthing season and was rewarded with being surrounded by baby monkeys!
The monkeys at Iwatayama Monkey Park are allowed to roam free and the experience is immersive. There are signs around the area that warn you of specific behaviors to avoid and you're not allowed to go too close to them or touch them.
That being said, sometimes the monkeys will walk past you within inches of your legs as if they're domesticated dogs. There was also a hut at the top where you can purchase food to feed the monkeys from through a fence. I definitely recommend visiting the monkey park if you're in Kyoto because you can't get an immersive experience like this in many places. Also, I love that I got to experience wild animals in their natural habitat rather than in a cage at the zoo!
After spending about an hour on top of the mountain, I hiked back down and headed to the nearest Arashayama train station. On my way, I stopped at a convenience store and grabbed some hard-boiled eggs, veggies and water to take back to my hostel.
After getting back to my room and taking a breather, I reflected on the day I'd had. I experienced so many new things and I felt satisfied and fulfilled. I woke up that morning with no plans and no expectations and ended up having one of my most memorable days in Japan. Sure some of the things I did were tourist attractions and not "real Japan," but I found them to be thrilling all the same.
Days like these are the reason why I don't like to have a strict itinerary when I travel; sometimes it's more fun to wake up and see where the day takes you!
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