Thursday, 28 June 2007

Sagano Bamboo forest, lotus ponds and Arashiyama snow monkey park

On Thursday 28 June we caught a local train from Kyoto station to Arashiyama in the Sagano area. As well as being location of the famous Tenryu-ji temple complex and its associated very beautiful gardens, Sagano has a grove of interconnected bamboo.
It was very hot and humid, threatening to rain and overcast, but we wandered to the bamboo forest dodging mosquitoes while Dad admired the passing rickshaws, in which he finally ecured a ride from the bamboo forest down to the bridge crossing the River Oi while mum and I inspected the lotus garden of Tenryu-ji. Once again the monks or other gardeners had dedicated themselves to pruning trees into miniature and tamed formations and the gardens of monk's families (they are allowed to marry) line the path in to the temple itself, each garden a beauty of moss, maples, courtyard stones, pebbles, lanterns, and colourful plants. Last time I visited the lotus garden, it was alive with the bellow of very large frogs 'roaring' but this time it was silent. I am not sure why. The flowers expose their various phases revealing the lovely holey centre of the lotus flowers after petals drop off.

We ate lunch at a traditional soba restaurant that presented everything from buckwheat porridge-like 'appetizer'/filler to noodles in broth and even dessert derived from buckwheat. Soba are traditionally handmade buckwheat noodles, often eaten with Bonito flavoured dipping sauce hot or cold. This restaurant served everything soba - strange glutinous masses, desserts, dipped, dry, hot, cold, into soup, etc. It was rather too filling but delicious and probably even nutritious, overlooking the fast-slowing river with cormorants, cranes and humans fishing expectantly in its waters above the picturesque bridge.On the approach slope to Arashiyama Snow Monkey Park, the trees were trying to survive remarkable steepness, at times almost 75 degrees with giant maples and trees defying gravity to stay there, and a snake that slithered across our path (brown and shiny, almost elegant, if surprising) and falling rocks dislodged by athletic monkeys above. Quite hazardous.

The monkeys are generically called snow monkeys or Japanese Macaques. They are properly Macaque fuscata mainly living broad-leafed forests in Honshu, excluding Hokkaido and the Ryukyu Islands. Their average weight is M 12-15kgs, F 8-13kgs they mate Oct-Dec, have babies Apr-June, bearing one baby at a time after 173 days (precisely: they're Japanese afterall), and one year apart. They live in communities/troops. They are so-called snow monkeys because they happily habit to -10 degrees C. One way they deal with the cold in more Northern parts of Japan is to sit in steaming Onsen (natural spring-fed baths) during winter. It is a steep winding track up to the monkey's feeding hut at the top of the mountain so we were drenched by the time we arrived and appreciative of the ice-cold frozen towels given out and blasting fan! After brief acclimatisation in which tourists are confined to a cage while monkeys run around its outside bantering and screeching for snack of sweet potato or peanuts passed out through the wire grid, we are then allowed out onto the viewing platform overlooking Sagano basin, arun with monkeys playfully grooming one-another, perched in trees, looking for mischief, feeding or waiting. needless to say, whether because of their furriness or their resemblance to small humans and intelligence, they are incorrigibly cute. On our return, we saw fishermen with prosaic flexible (bamboo?) rods standing thigh-deep in the river hunting the seasonal sweet fish along with the cormorants, tamed versions of which were also used to hunt fish by night, attracted by light and chased by trained and skilled birds whose gullet is then squeezed to eliminate the fish instantly ready for human consumption!