When one visits Kyoto, Japan, one expects to spend the bulk of the time there visiting a long parade of temples. And that’s exactly what we did, and for the most part, it was time well spent. However, there comes a time in every unwashed heathen’s life when he simply needs a break from serene Buddhas and hordes of schoolkids, and in those times, a man is well served by hopping the train to the small town of Arashiyama in order to hike Mt. Arashiyama and, if all goes well, see one of his friends attacked by an irritable monkey.
After downing our traditional early morning Lawson breakfast, we hopped on the Japan Rail San-in/Sagano line bound for the outskirts of town. It looked like a lengthy train ride on the map, but it blew by quickly. Near our stop, gazing out of the window at the bundles of stores and close-quarter houses, I could have swore I caught a glimpse of a huge, hideous demon’s head rising up from behind a thick row of trees. The hell? Best to let it slide, I figured, as wild stories about giant devils jumping out at us would hardly instill confidence in those who were depending on me to formulate the daily itineraries.
Before too long we found ourselves stepping off at the Saga-Arashiyama station. It was a thoroughly pleasing environment, very much what one might expect a small Japanese town to look like. Kyoto was still mere miles away, but you could hardly tell. The streets were narrow and sleepy, empty of any motor traffic beyond the occasional car. Instead, old folks and blue collar Joe’s walked and biked to and fro, lugging around crates of goods, fish, or what have you.
The way to the monkey sanctuary lead us down the quaint roads of Arashiyama, out onto a main highway running along the banks of the wide, grassy Katsura River. The sloped banks on either side were lined with procrastinators, walkers, and the occasional artist doing his or her best to capture the beautiful mountainous scene while wearing the prerequisite fisherman’s cap all Japanese artists seem to favor. Sure beats the beret. The river itself was shallow on one end because of a small dam, and fishermen with massive, long poles waded out into the waters in search of a day’s meal or a morning’s sport.
We crossed the long Togetsyu-kyo bridge alongside pedestrians, cyclists, and rickshaws being pulled by handsome, fit young men and women with lean athletic builds. Pretty much every rickshaw man or woman we saw possessed a rugged attractiveness, not unlike a surfer or a mountain climber. The build was an obvious necessity conditioned by days spend pulling tourists to and from various attractions, and the tan was a result of spending all your time outside.
On the right side of the bride, the other side of the dam, the water was much deeper, and small boats of various types replaced the fishermen. There were pontoons, two-person paddle boats, small rowboats, sight-seeing boats piloted by guys with long bamboo poles, and of course a few gaudy motorized tourist boats. The town on the other side of the river was not so different from a riverfront fishing town in the United States. Buildings in stilts cropped up along the plant-covered banks of the river that wandered lazily around the structures. Here and there were tourist shops selling trinkets of all varieties. After a bit of poking around, we found the narrow dirt path meandering up the side of one of the thickly forested mountains. Standing in downtown Kyoto, it was easy to forget you were surrounded on all sides by ancient mountains and forests, but out here in the smaller towns there was no way around it.
The path lead up a short distance, past a small temple, to the front gate of the Iwatayama Monkey Park. There were no other tourists in sight as it was still quite early in the morning, which was fine with me. As nice as the temples and shrines had been the day before, I was happy to be in an environment that was not only more natural, but also a lot less packed with masses of humanity. Admission to the park itself was ¥600, which was collected by a chipper old woman who couldn’t stop talking to us with a great smile on her face despite the fact that we understood not a word coming out of her mouth. We simply went into the trusty “smile and nod” mode.
It was a beautiful, sunny day with a rich blue sky dotted by pure, snowy white clouds. These are the sort of days that are absolutely lovely up until the point you start hiking up a steep, narrow mountain path with the sun gleefully bathing you in all its glory. Amazing how quickly a warm and pleasant day becomes a sweat-drenched oven of a time. It wasn’t too bad, really. At least they’d been kind enough to make a switchback trail that wound its way up the mountain slowly rather than shooting straight up. Still, every step was a reminder of just how quickly my body forgot everything it had learned from a previous season’s backpacking.
We got a very quick pay-off however, as we were scarcely halfway up the trail to the top of the mountain before we ran into a couple macaques lounging about lazily in the shade, grooming one another, yawning, stretching, and generally behaving like your average primate. I am convinced that it is simply lower primate nature to put on a show whenever their hairless human cousins happen by, and these monkeys were no different. As we filed by, they decided to get especially amorous with one another, which is one of those things that simply never gets unfunny. Despite years of refinement and sophistication, literary and philosophical training, I’ll laugh just as much today at a couple monkeys getting it on as I did the first time I saw it in a zoo as a wee one.
Well, you can only watch two monkeys fooling around for so long, especially when they get fed up with all the picture taking and wander back into the cover of the lush undergrowth. As we continued, with the occasional sound of monkey shouting erupting from the canopy of trees, I couldn’t help but feel hundreds of eyes staring at me. When we finally broke through the trees at the top of the forest, it was evident why. In this dirt, grass, and hay covered area were dozens upon dozens of monkeys of all ages busily capering about, begging for peanuts, and of course, showing off their disturbing red asses.
A small tin roofed hut sat in the middle of the grounds, with monkeys climbing around and clinging to every surface. From inside the hut, caged humans could shuffle peanuts through the chicken wire out to the greedy monkeys free to run amok on the outside. It was, needless to say, amusingly ironic. There were a few humans up here, but that was small potatoes compared to the volume of monkeys scampering to and fro. Some drank water, others simply reclined on top of crates and mopeds. A few wrestled with one another, and one diligently gathered up little piles of gravel and rubbed the rocks furiously against his crotch. I was curious, but not curious enough to try it myself.
The area also provided a spectacular mountaintop view of the surrounding peaks, the river far below, and the mass of buildings off in the distance. It was fabulous, and you get used to all the monkeys running around very quickly. After taking it all in for a spell, we wandered back down the trail on the other side of the mountain, stumbling upon quite a few groups of monkeys resting in the bushes. One rather large and lazy looking monkey was sitting quietly along the side of the path, or at least he was sitting quietly up until the point one of us got a little too close, at which time the monkey lunged viciously at him, hissing and baring huge white fangs as it swatted at him and did the monkey equivalent of “made ya flinch!”
It was going to be difficult to top the monkey attack during the rest of the day, but we figured it was worth a shot. Back down by the river, we decided to shell out the yen for a leisurely boat ride in a rickety wooden affair pushed along by a guy who looked like a Shaolin monk with a long, bamboo pole. We headed up the river in the opposite direction of Kyoto, disappearing quickly into the maze of green hills and mountains that erupted on either side of the river. As civilization dropped away, it was easy to lie back and simply be overwhelmed and overjoyed by the quiet majesty of nature. Rich green dotted by pink, white, and purple flowers. A rare old thatched-roof hut here and there. Nothing but the smell of forest and the bubbling of the river.
At least until the goody boat came bussing up beside us. There are guys who make a living pulling up next to other boats on the river and asking them if they want any snacks. Drinks, beer, crackers and chips, that sort of thing. They even offer hot food like grilled squid they cook right there for you on an open flame, which might not be the best thing to do on a small wooden boat, but what the hell? They’re professionals. Their arrival in the motorized boat is a slight intrusion, but they go away quickly if you don’t want anything, and the whole thing is simply so “river town” and reminiscent of growing up along the banks of the Ohio River that I couldn’t help but appreciate their efforts.
After pushing our way up the river until nothing remained but twisted old trees, mountains, and a large pool of placid water broken only by scattered boulders and lily pads, our boatman turned around and we headed back to the docks, very happy with our choice of boat tours.