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Kyoto Otokuni Bamboo Grove

Temples, shrines and abundant natural beauty: Six of the most photogenic spots in Otokuni

2021.09.14

Kyoto is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful cities in Japan, if not the world. From the endless tunnels of red torii gates at Fushimi Inari Taisha to the gilded splendour of Kinkaku-ji Temple and the stunning pagoda of Kiyomizu-dera Temple, there are Instagram-worthy sights around every corner. It’s not only the big name attractions either. If you head off the beaten tourist path, you can discover a whole wealth of lesser-known spots which are just as photogenic, with the added benefit of attracting much smaller crowds. This makes them relaxing and pleasant places to explore, plus means it’s easier for you to snap those perfect photographs! And one of the top regions waiting to be discovered is Kyoto Otokuni Bamboo Grove.

Getting to know Kyoto Otokuni Bamboo Grove

Tucked away to the southwest of Kyoto city, Kyoto Otokuni Bamboo Grove is a peaceful region with a long and fascinating history. It’s the site of the ruins of Nagaoka-kyo, one of Japan’s former capitals, as well as ancient kofun burial mounds, picturesque temples, and idyllic shrines. Then there are the serene bamboo paths themselves, which are just as beautiful as those in Arashiyama, but you’ll have fewer people to share them with. The best part is that each season brings something new to discover, as the weather changes and different species of flowers come into bloom. Here are six of the most unmissable photogenic spots to visit during your trip to Otokuni.

Mukojinja Shrine

Mukojinja, or Muko Shrine, is located in the historic Muko City. Founded all the way back in 718, it’s dedicated to several different Japanese deities. People come here to pray for everything from a good harvest to safety on the road and academic achievement. The main shrine building was constructed in 1422 in the sangensha nagare-zukuri style, with an ornate tiled roof and wooden facade that perfectly evokes the image of ancient Japan. When you visit, you’ll easily understand why it has been designated as an Important Cultural Property.

Some of the most attractive parts of Mukojinja are actually not the shrine itself, but the surrounding grounds. A long, gently sloping paved path leads up from the majestic stone torii gate at its entrance, lined with overhanging trees. During the spring cherry blossom season, this route is transformed into an ethereal tunnel of gorgeous pale pink flowers. Contrasted with the dark wood of the branches and the green leaves in the background, the scene is unbelievably photogenic.

Meanwhile in the fall, the foliage changes to stunning shades of blazing orange and fiery red, making it one of Kyoto’s quieter spots to enjoy the beauty of kouyou (autumn leaves).

Access: 10-minute walk from Nishi-muko Station on the Hankyu Kyoto Line.

Mukojinja Shrine

Mukojinja Shrine

Located in Muko City in the Otokuni Bamboo Grove area of Kyoto Prefecture, Muko shrine is an ancient shrine founded in 718 and is said to be a shrine for good harvest, academic achievement, and traffic safety.
Originally, there were two shrines on Muko Mountain、and they were later combined into one shrine and given the name “Muko shrine” that it goes by today. The main shrine, built in 1422 (Oei 29), was built in the “Sangensha Nagare-zukuri” style (three-bay wide structure with a gable roof) and has been designated as a national important cultural property.
A gentle cobblestone slope extends from the entrance gate to the main shrine. In spring, cherry blossoms are in full bloom on both sides of the over 200m path and in fall the changing autumn leaves turn the path into a colorful tunnel of red and orange.
What’s more, in April every year the “Sakura Festival” is held with events such as flower arrangement exhibitions, koto and drum performances, and bonfires are lit at night to create a different way to experience the cherry blossom from the daytime. In addition, the “Fire Festival” is held in October where Gomagi wood is burned to pray for a disease-free life and happiness.

Yanagidani Kannon Yokoku-ji Temple

Yokoku-ji Temple was founded in 806, and sits nestled on a mountainside in Nagaokakyo City. It enshrines an eleven-faced, thousand-armed statue of the Kannon Boddhisatva, which is only open for public viewing on the 17th of every month. The temple is popular with people praying for eye health, thanks to the reputed healing properties of the water found here. There are many buildings to explore within the complex, linked by covered walkways, with traditional tatami flooring and shoji screens that open onto the picturesque gardens. Snapping a photograph from the inside looking out is a fantastic way to capture a classic image of a Japanese temple.

Be sure to take your time exploring the scenic grounds, too. The gardens are famous for their thousands of colourful hydrangeas, which bloom in June. One of the most iconic images is of the temple’s purification fountain – where worshippers wash their hands before entering – filled with their pastel pink, blue and yellow flowers.

Autumn is another photogenic time of year to visit, when the intricate wooden buildings and stone lanterns are surrounded by the captivating beauty of red and gold leaves.

Access: Take the train to Hankyu Nishiyama Tennozan Station or Hankyu Nagaoka Tenjin Station, then the Hankyu Bus to Okukaiin-ji. From there, walk for 40 minutes or take a taxi for 10 minutes. Alternatively, take the train to JR Nagaokakyo Station, then a taxi for 15 minutes.

Yanagidani Kannon (Yokoku-ji Temple)

Yanagidani Kannon (Yokoku-ji Temple)

Yanagidani Kannon (Yokokuji Temple) is located in Nagaokakyo City, not far from Kyoto City and close to the famous Otokuni Bamboo Grove, where the main attraction is the eleven-faced, thousand-armed statue of the bodhisattva Kannon statue. The temple is built on the side of a mountain, and the inner temple building and main hall are connected by a long corridor surrounded by a Kyoto-designated scenic garden, Jodo-en. On the second floor is the Kamishoin Study, which was once a designated study room for elites during the Meiji era (1868-1912). These days, the study room and its beautiful view of the gardens is open to the public. The Yokokuji Hydrangea Path is a famous place to enjoy hydrangeas and inludes over 4,500 hydrangea plants that bloom in June and in the summer months. In autumn, the deep red carpet of the Kamishoin Study and bright red autumn foliage creates an impressive sight, open for viewing only on the 17th of each month. It’s also widely believed that there is holy water (“oko-zui”) at Yokoku-ji Temple connected to the famous Buddhist monk Kukai, and that this water is thought to heal diseases of the eye.

Otokuni-dera Temple

Otokuni-dera, also known as the Temple of Peonies, is the oldest temple in Nagaokakyo City. It is believed to have been established by Shotoku Taishi, who was a famous political figure in the 6th and 7th centuries. The temple also has links to the renowned monk Kukai, also known as Kobo Daishi, who founded the Shingon school of Buddhism in Japan.

April is the best time of year to see Otokuni-dera at its most photogenic, when the approximately 2,000 peony flowers planted in its garden blossom. Elegant white parasols made from wood and paper stand dotted amongst them to protect the petals from direct sunlight, creating a wonderfully whimsical scene that you’ll find impossible not to put on Instagram.

Access: 20-minute walk from Nagaoka Tenjin Station on the Hankyu Kyoto Line, or 40-minute walk from Nagaokakyo Station on the JR Kyoto Line. Alternatively, take the Hankyu bus from either station and get off at Yakushido, then walk for 5 minutes.

Otokuni-dera Temple

Otokuni-dera Temple

Otokunidera is said to have been built by Prince Shotoku and is the oldest temple in Nagaokakyo City. Kukai and Saicho are also said to have met for the first time at this temple and exchanged ideas about Esoteric Buddhism. It is also famous as “Peony Temple”. Every year around late April, about 2000 peony flowers from 30 different species are in full bloom and you can enjoy the elegant scenery of white Japanese umbrellas and colorful peony flowers.

Komyo-ji Temple

Founded in the 12th century, Komyo-ji is the main temple of the Seizan sect of Pure Land Buddhism. The mountainside grounds are quite extensive, with many unique buildings and features to explore. These include the striking Mie-do Hall with its historic Buddhist artwork, the classic temple bell, and several statues.

Komyo-ji Temple is most famous as one of the best places in Kyoto to view the autumn leaves. Hundreds of maple trees line one of the paved paths from the So-mon Gate at the entrance into the grounds, forming a mesmerizing tunnel of gold, red and orange about 200 metres long. About halfway there is another gate, Yakui-mon, which makes an especially stunning photograph as the white decoration and dark wood of the gate contrasts with the vermillion foliage all around it. As the leaves fall, they carpet the path in red for an even more magical appearance.

Even if you can’t visit in autumn, Komyo-ji looks beautiful all year round. In summer, the maple tree lane is a sun-dappled tunnel of green that provides welcome shade from the heat, while during winter snowfalls, the entire temple complex transforms into a tranquil wonderland.

Access: Take the train to Nagaokakyo Station on the JR Kyoto Line, or Nagaoka Tenjin Station on the Hankyu Kyoto Line. Board the Hankyu Bus, and get off at Asahigaoka Home Mae.

Komyo-ji Temple

Komyo-ji Temple

Komyo-ji Temple was first built in 1198 by the soldier Kumagai Naozane in an area favored by his master Honen. Today, it the head temple of the Seizan sect of Pure Land Buddhism. Visitors can tour the temple itself and see the beautiful sights inside, as well as those of the garden. The temple has an excellent collection of Buddhist artwork and statues, which are on display to visitors. Inside the Mie Hall, the principal statue is papier-mâché, and it is said that Honen made it himself by dipping a letter from his mother in water.
When you enter the temple main gate, the road is divided into two. The gentle slope leading to the main hall on your right is called “Omotesando.” This approach is designed so that both women and the elderly can easily climb it and is known as the “women’s slope.” The road from “Chokushimon Gate” to “Somon Gate” on the left is commonly known as the “Maple Path,” and in the fall the autumn leaves on both sides of the approach, which stretches for about 200 meters, make a brightly colored tunnel of fall colors. The path is one of the most famous spots for autumn leaves in Kyoto.

Nagaoka Tenmangu Shrine

Located in Nagaokakyo City, this shrine is dedicated to the Japanese poet, politician and scholar Sugawara no Michizane. Nagaoka Tenmangu is a popular place for people to come and pray when they are hoping for academic success or luck in their career. If you wish to increase your wisdom during your visit, look for the stone statue of a bull and pet its head!

The grounds of the shrine are quite expansive, and there are a lot of photogenic spots to discover here. One of the most famous is the 200-metre long entrance path lined with kirishima azalea trees, which are over 150 years old. They come into bloom in late April, flowering a vibrant red that matches the red and white lanterns dotted along the walkway.

The shrine also has a traditional Japanese garden called Kinkei-en, where you can admire cherry blossoms in the spring and autumn foliage towards the end of the year. The stone bridge over the small pond in the centre is another perfectly framed place for photographs.

Access: 20-minute walk from the west exit of Nagaokakyo Station on the JR Tokaido Line, or 10-minute walk from the west exit of Nagaoka Tenjin Station on the Hankyu Kyoto Line.

Nagaoka Tenmangu Shrine

Nagaoka Tenmangu Shrine

Nagaoka Tenmangu is a shrine in Nagaokakyo City, Kyoto Prefecture, not far from Kyoto City and close to Uji—the region of Kyoto famous for matcha green tea—and the famous Otokuni Bamboo grove. Nagaoka-Tenmangu is also known as “Mikaeri-tenjin” (a shrine that’s “hard-to-leave”), and was dedicated to Sugawara-no Michizane, a Japanese scholar, poet, and politician of the Heian era (794–1185). It is said that Michizane was posted to Dazaifu City (the military and administrative centre of Kyushu at the time), on his way to which he visited the location where the shrine currently stands, and was reluctant to leave. The entrance path to the main hall is lined with hedges of approximately 150-year-old Kirishima azalea trees, which bear distinctive dark red flowers which will be in full bloom beginning in late April, when they create an azalea tunnel. The Kirishima azaleas are also designated by Nagaokakyo City as a protected species. At Nagaoka Tenmangu Shrine there is beautiful scenery to be enjoyed all year round, from cherry blossoms in the spring, lotus flowers in the summer, and Autumn foliage light-up events illuminating Nagaoka Tenmangu Shrine’s Japanese garden, Kinkei-en. Next to the Hachijoga-ike Pond there is also a restaurant, Kinsuitei, where you can enjoy the beautiful scenery together with cuisine made using freshly picked young bamboo shoots in the springtime, or other traditional Kyoto cuisine during other times of the year

Take-no-michi Bamboo Path

One of the specialty products from the Otokuni region is bamboo, which is cultivated both for use in traditional handicrafts and also as a key ingredient in Japanese cuisine. There are several bamboo groves in the area, and the take-no-michi path is among the best places to admire the ethereal beauty of these trees. The road runs for about 1.8 kilometres through a grove in the Muko hills, and is lined with eight different kinds of intricately created bamboo hedges.

Take-no-michi is the perfect place to enjoy a tranquil walk through the tall, deep green stems of bamboo. The sunlight filtering through the leaves takes on an otherworldly green hue which, coupled with the soothing sound of the plants swaying in the breeze, is sure to leave you feeling serene. The spot is also much quieter than the bamboo groves in Arashiyama, making it the ideal location to snap that iconic photograph of an empty path framed by soaring bamboo stalks.

Access: Take the train to Katsuragawa Station on the JR Kyoto Line or Rakusaiguchi Station on the Hankyu Kyoto Line. From there, take a bus and get off at Muko Kaisei Hospital, then walk for 10 minutes. Alternatively, take the train to Mukomachi Station on the JR Kyoto Line or Higashimuko Station on the Hankyu Kyoto Line. From there, take a bus and get off at Higashiyama, then walk for 10 minutes.

Take-no-Michi (The Bamboo Path)

Take-no-Michi (The Bamboo Path)

Bamboo shoots are one of Kyoto’s specialty products, but the “Otokuni” area around Muko City and Nagaokakyo City is known for producing some of the highest quality bamboo shoots in Kyoto. Take-no-Michi (the Bamboo Path) is located in the Muko hills in the northwestern part of Muko city and has a total length of about 1.8 km. The area has been improved since 2000 to preserve the scenery and promote tourism. Both sides of the road are lined by eight different kinds of bamboo hedge, including original creations such as “Takehogaki,” a hedge made of bamboo branches tied in bundles, “Kofungaki,” a hedge that looks like a rounded ancient burial mound, and “Kaguyagaki,” a hedge patterned after the neck of a 12-layered ceremonial kimono worn by Princess Kaguya, the protagonist of the folk story “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.”

As a result, in recent years the path is has won numerous awards. In addition to receiving the “Handmade Hometown Award” from the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, it has been certified by the Japan Walking Association as one of the “500 Most Beautiful Japanese Walking Paths” and “Best 100 National Walking Paths.” Further, the path is designated as a “Kyoto Scenic Asset” and a “Kyoto Cultural Landscape.”

Despite all the above, it is still a little-known tourist spot. You can enjoy a relaxing stroll through the bamboo forest away from the hustle and bustle while listening to the sound of the bamboo grass swaying in the wind and the chirping of small birds.
Every autumn, a light-up event called “Bamboo Path / Kaguya-no-yube (Kaguya’s Evening)” is held. More than 4,500 bamboo lanterns made of candles floating in bamboo tubes filled with water are lit all over the bamboo grove. Combined with the colors of the setting sun the sight is spectacular.

Exploring Otokuni

These six spots are just a small selection of the photogenic locations waiting to be discovered in Otokuni. Budding photographers should definitely consider a trip to this quieter region of Kyoto to explore more of the region’s history, culture, and unforgettable natural beauty. You never know what you’ll find around the next corner!