Two days is not enough time to take in the historic city of Kyoto. Between shrine visits and the many places to eat, I was also eager to visit Arashiyama. With its special history and connection with classic Japanese tales, I knew I would have to take an evening to visit this Kyoto neighborhood.

Togetsu-kyo Bridge in Arashiyama

Togetsu-kyo Bridge on an autumn day

Particularly, I was looking forward to visiting the Togetsu-kyo (渡月橋) Bridge of Arashiyama, which traverses the Katsura River. I was drawn to visiting this “moon crossing” bridge due to its connection to the fable of Princess Kaguya. In the story, Kaguya is the princess of the moon who is raised by human beings. In the end, she is parted from her earthly foster parents and taken back to the moon kingdom. This fable has been most recently told in the popular film rendition created by Studio Ghibli. Although there is no evidence of an actual association between the tale and the place, this “moon crossing” bridge reminded me of Princess Kaguya and I was excited to view it on this summer night.

Kimono forest

The trip from the heart of Kyoto to Arashiyama is about 30 minutes by train. Upon arriving at the Randen Line’s Arashiyama Station, we were excited and surprised to run across the “kimono forest”. This is a public and interactive art display showing rows of lights, each adorned with different textile designs. This display was created by interior designer, Yasumichi Morita.

The rows of textile lights form a path to a pond which reflects the lights of the display. The central piece in the pond is a large ball of granite designed to resemble a dragon. The water in the pond comes from an underground spring and is said to have purifying abilities. This water is considered to protect the station and its visitors. Dipping a hand in the water is also said to fulfill a wish.

Feeling brightened by the kimono forest, my friend and I set out for the Togetsu-kyo Bridge. It traverses the Katsura River and provides wonderful views of the Arashiyama neighborhood in Kyoto. At twilight, the view of the surrounding area from the bridge is truly magical. The sky lights up the water to brilliantly shine, and the peaceful nature of the area provides reprieve from the hot summer sun.

Cormorant fishing

On hot summer nights, the Togetsu-kyo Bridge is a popular sight for the traditional Japanese custom of cormorant fishing. This traditional Japanese form of fishing employs the spectacular fishing abilities of cormorant birds, who are known to be great swimmers. By training the birds, the fishermen could catch fish at a greater rate than they would have been able to accomplish on their own. My friend and I were fortunate enough to arrive in time for the last boat tour of the night. We bought our ticket and got ready for this unique boat excursion.

All of us on the boat excursion were taken out to the Katsura River to view the cormorant fishing. From the boat, we watched fishermen lead the boat, guided by a bright and beautiful fire. I learned that this fire is important for both guiding the boat in the night and for viewing the fish in the water. Each boat led five to six cormorants into the water on leashes. The cormorants then dove into the water, catching fish and bringing them back onto the boat.

Our group was excited by the festivities, with many calling out “ganbatte!”, which means, “do your best!” There was a round of applause whenever a fish was caught, and a lot of exclaims of wonderment at this traditional Japanese activity.

Between the beauty of the art, the bridge, and the fishing, visiting Arashiyama was definitely a highlight of my time in Japan. Like Princess Kaguya, I felt as if I would set sail on the bridge, off to join the moon kingdom. This truly is a mystical place!



A graduate student at the University of Michigan conducting research & traveling in Japan.
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