Ghost Forests of Japan: Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

Before we get into Arashiyama, let`s recall some news from the past. Have you ever heard of Yamato Tanooka? In 2016, seven years old Yamato got lost during a family trip to one of the forests of Japan’s biggest, least populated and northernmost island – Hokkaido (and one of my favourite places in Japan). An extensive search operation was carried out for Yamato and he was fortunately found alive after six nights alone in the forest.

While Yamato Tanooka`s unfortunate journey had a happy ending, the Japanese forests are somehow commonly associated with darker stories themed around the concepts of “suicide” and “death”.  A famous example to this is Aokigahara – also featured in the American movie – “Sea of Trees” – known as the “suicide forest”. Even though I have luckily been to many Japanese forests including the ones in Yakushima (home to Mononoke Forest), which made me feel more alive than anywhere else in the World, I wanted to use this concept of darkness and fear for photography during one my visits to the famous Arashiyama Bamboo Forest. I tried to photograph the forest from a little bit of a darker perspective, using long exposure to make the visitors look like ghosts.

How to Get to Arashiyama?

Let`s start with the logistics. This amazing grove/forest is one of the most common day trips from Kyoto as it is only thirty minutes away by a train. While the most special part of Arashiyama is for me the bamboo forest, the region is also a home to many temples, a lake and even a monkey park.

The easiest way to reach Arashiyama is to take the JR train from Kyoto main station using the Saga-Arashiyama line – this will get you to Arashiyama center within thirty minutes. Arashiyama – thanks to its relatively unique landscape – is  also among one of the most photographed places in Japan during the famous sakura (cherry blossom) season – late March/early April.

I highly recommend that you either go early in the morning or late in the evening. The lighting will sure be nicer but it will also allow you to avoid at least part of the crowds. 

Old Capital by Kawabata and Arashiyama

While the bamboo forest feels very otherworldly and magical, the center of Arashiyama feels quite the opposite as it is occupied by cheesy looking gift shops not looking very authentic. This is very different than how the area is described in Old Capital a book by Japan`s first Nobel Lauerate Yasunari Kawabata. A highly recommended read if you happen to travel to Kyoto. I like using novels as my alternative city guides.

If you itinerary allows for it, I would recommend that you save your meal time for Kyoto and not waste a meal in Arashiyama as the dining experience in Japan is so unique that every meal time feels important for the experience it offers.

Hear the wind among the bamboo trees

There is a walking path of approximately half a kilometer in the bamboo forest. I recommend that you take off your ear plugs and absorb the amazing forest sounds which feel relaxing and otherworldly. Arashiyama has this calming effect even when it is crowded with people – and it usually is. 

You may have seen the wonderful snow photos of Kyoto taken this winter. Even though Kyoto gets quite cold in winter, heavy snow is not as common. Out of the all the snow photos, the ones taken in Arashiyama were my favourites and I really hope that I get to experience the same someday.