Kyoto's Magical Arashiyama Hanatouro Night Illumination Event
Kyoto hosts two free Hanatouro (literally "flower and light road") events every year, one during March in the Higashiyama District and the other during December in the Arashiyama district. I have been to both, and between the two I definitely thought Arashiyama had the better sights. The Arashiyama Hanatouro is held annually during the chilly evenings of mid-December. It's best to check the event website for exact dates and times, as they may vary slightly from year to year.
One of the star attractions of the Arashiyama Hanatouro is the Togetsu Bridge. The entire bridge is bathed in golden light for the event, which casts glowing reflections on the surface of the Katsura River below. Huge spotlights flood the foothills of Mount Arashi with swathes of blue, broken only in places by the occasional red or yellow of late autumn foliage. Food vendors and shops extend their hours to accommodate the crowds, many of whom are couples taking advantage of the romantic atmosphere.
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
Leading north from the bridge, 2,500 lanterns illuminate roughly 3 miles (5 km) of pathways between Saga-Arashiyama Station and the Bamboo Grove, with several beautiful flower arrangements on display along the pathways. If you want to avoid some crowds, lanterns also light the riverfront west of the bridge, as well as a pathway heading north alongside Kameyama Park which will meet up with the west entrance to the Bamboo Grove.
Some of the temples and cultural sites in the area are also illuminated (entry fees still apply) and feature extended hours for the event, such as Oukouchi Sansou Garden, Hougon-in Temple, and even south of the bridge at Hourin-ji. The real superstar, however, is the famous Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. Lanterns line the pathway and floodlights illuminate the green canopy of bamboo towering overhead like the nave of a forest cathedral. It's incredibly beautiful and surreal.
The Bamboo Grove is so popular during the Hanatouro event that it becomes difficult just to move along the pathway as hundreds of people converge on the area at once. However, there seems to be a herd mentality in effect, because much of the crowd follows the same route through the area, unaware that there is an additional forest of bamboo only slightly north of the Nonomiya Shrine.
Tenryuu-ji Bamboo Grove
While admittedly not quite as grand or photogenic as the main grove, the Tenryuu-ji Bamboo Grove is definitely not to be missed, especially since it's literally only two minutes away. The short circular path through the area barely takes a minute to walk, but it has its own unique feel. At the time of my visit, there was a display of several large spherical lanterns glowing like fairy eggs in a magical forest.
But where are all the people?
Now you might rightfully be wondering, where are all these crowds of people I keep mentioning? It's not thanks to Photoshop, although I did still edit a few people out. I was living in Kyoto at the time, and not more than a couple minutes away from the Bamboo Grove. In fact, I walked or rode my bicycle through it almost every day, so I was keeping an eye on things well before the event preparations got under way. What most people are probably unaware of is that the lighting for the Arashiyama Hanatouro is being installed and tested for several nights leading up to the event, and the lights remain on for hours during that time. On the last night before the official start of the Hanatouro, all the lights are fully in position and lit. Aside from a few local photographers, the place was almost empty!
For people-free photos in the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, just check the event dates for the current year and aim to arrive one night early. At least until everyone else learns to do the same...
While in the area, I highly recommend visiting the Randen Arashiyama Station (not to be confused with Saga-Arashiyama Station). Many people visit Arashiyama to see the bamboo forest, but there's another less-visited "forest" behind this station, known as the Kimono Forest. It's not part of the Hanatouro, but every night it hosts its own little light show until 9 PM with 600 illuminated pillars winding around the backside of the station, each featuring a different kimono fabric painted with the traditional Kyou-Yuuzen dyeing process. It creates a wonderfully quaint atmosphere, which made it one of my favorite places to sit whenever I would pass the area in the evening.
The Kimono Forest also features an installment known as Pond of Dragon (sic), which is a small fountain of water that contains a sphere bearing an image of the Atago Pond Dragon. A sign next to the pond says that wishes are granted if the dragon is prayed to, and immersing your hands in the water will fill your heart with peace and lead you to happiness. I prayed that all the money in the pond would jump into my pockets, but it didn't come true. Oh well, the sign was still half truthful, because I did feel peaceful and soothed after touching the water. H2O tends to have that effect.