Thursday, January 25, 2018

Kyoto other than shrines and temples? Hozugawa River Boat Ride!

       When it came to my 5th day in Kyoto, I was done with shrines and temples. Then I heard about Hozugawa Kudari (a riverboat ride) in the west end of town... Who knew Kyoto can also be a premier spot to enjoy nature? Since Arashiyama (the landing dock) is on my bucket list, I decided that I could add that to my itinerary.

Booking the tour

       I decided to go with KKday on a unique half-day tour. I’ve heard reviews that the crews at Hozugawa boat ride only speak Japanese so I would love some guidance. Other than that, as a bonus, the tour includes a ride on a horse carriage and a guided walk through the bamboo path and Tenryuji temple! Now that the tours were booked, I just can’t wait to explore more wonders of Kyoto.
       The tour I experienced was a seasonal activity (Autumn), so to book a similar experience, check this out (winter tour)!

What to expect?

       The Hozugawa River Whitewater Boat Ride is a 16km sightseeing journey from Kameoka-shi to Arashiyama, leisurely passing through a canyon. Looking at the photos online, I was instantly fascinated by the beauty of these traditional flat-bottomed boats. It bears some similarity with a “sampan" back home, but the way it is piloted by boatmen with long bamboo poles reminded me of a “punt”.

       These boats date back to 1600 when they were used to transport logs (that built many famous castle and shrines in Kyoto and Osaka!) and grains down the river. Throughout the 2-hour course, visitors will be given an opportunity to marvel at the untouched nature of Mt. Ushimatsu, Mt. Ataga, and the Hozu valley while riding the dynamic stream.

The Experience

       We first arrived at Umahori Station on the JR Sagano Line (7 minutes from Arashiyama, 200 yen or 28 minutes from Kyoto, 320 Yen). For those who are interested in the Sagano Romantic Train ride, you could also combine these two activities. In this case, you’ll take the 30 minutes slow scenic train (600 Yen) from Arashiyama to Kameoka first, then the 2 hours boat ride back to Arashiyama. However, we visited a week after the peak of autumn in the valley so we agreed that it wasn’t worth it.

       We met our guide right in front of the JR-Umahori station. He is a Chinese/Cantonese bilingual guide from HongKong who is very friendly and gives good information about our trip. He led us down the country road passing beautiful paddy fields and we reached the Sagano Romantic Train Station 5 minutes after.

       We were allowed some free time before boarding the horse carriage (Kyobasha). The horses are very photogenic, we enjoyed petting them while taking some photos. The kids can purchase carrots to feed the horses, so this is something the whole family can enjoy!

       Now, before anyone wants to lecture me about riding in a horse carriage, I can definitely tell that the horses are treated with respect and kindness. The horses pulling the carriages are the species raised to transport cargos since hundred years ago. They are much larger than a normal horse and wear hooves 3 times bigger. These horses are allowed bathroom break whenever they want, so it is not unusual for the carriage to stop several times when nature calls. The ride brought us through the wide farmland and then followed the river until it reached the pier. We also stop for a photograph half-way through the course. Total time needed for this activity: 25 minutes.

       It could be a little chilly by the river, so make sure you wear something warm. At the port, please use the bathroom and buy some snacks for later. Remember, the ride is going to be 2 hours long!

       Our guide exchange our tickets for us so we didn’t have to join the queue. We were free to wander around the port, took some photos wearing traditional boatman clothes and got a souvenir file for liking the Facebook page of Hozugawa River Boat Ride.

       Soon enough, we heard “KKday“ being called out and we made our way to the boarding pier. There are about 20 people riding the boat with 3 boatmen onboard. Interestingly, most of them are Japanese tourists, showing the fact of this part of Kyoto is yet to overrun by foreign tourists. We were given the middle seats. Our boat is open-air (the type I’ve seen online), but the guide told us they’ll use the heated ones with a roof covered in a plastic tent during winter.

       The ride was a relaxing one, yet not boring. Much of it was slow and calm, giving visitors to take in the view, do some bird-watching and munch on some snacks. There were 2 boatmen at the front and a more experienced one at the back steering the craft. The front guys cleverly used rods and oars to guide and push the boat through bends and rocky rapids. As our boat glided through strong currents, we were reminded to hold up the vinyl shades to avoid water splashing into the boat. However, I personally enjoyed the little splashes every once in a while! Such a great mix of relaxation and adrenaline!

       Our boatmen were very enthusiastic and have some wicked senses of humor. One of them did some stunts during the ride and that really added to the fun of being onboard! Once, he threw himself over the boat, which made my heart skipped a bit... thinking oh no who’s gonna take us back to the port right now? Luckily it was just for show. Although it fooled me for a second, it was very entertaining. Our boat was constantly filled with laughter as the boatmen just won’t stop telling jokes. Although all conversations were in Japanese, our guide made sure that we did not feel left out by translating all the jokes.

       As we made our way through the canyon, the ever-changing spectacular scenery kept us entertained. We cruised past a waterfall, the Lord’s fishing pond (said to be the favorite leisure activity of the ruler TanbaKameyama) and a discrete temple by the canal... The valley is absolutely lovely in the falls, I am sure it will be even prettier during the peak of autumn. Our guide pointed out a segment of the river lined with Cherry Blossom trees… we even saw some in full bloom! We almost couldn’t believe our eyes! He explained that some mountain species can bloom all year round. We were enchanted by the beauty of the valley, we wished to return someday during spring. Along the course, we saw some massive boulders and rock formations that resemble animals such as puppy, lions, frogs etc... our guide did a very good job making sure we noticed all of them and top it up with a legend or two behind the rocks.

       When we passed by a high cliff, we were made aware that this site is the go-to place for drama producers to film that fighting scene… or the scene when the hero got chased into the dead end and he jumped down the cliff with the girl in his arms… well, you get the picture!

       Along the river, we say a lot of marks on the rocks and cliffs around us. Some are left by boatmen from 400 years ago and so nowadays poking their bamboo poles into the old marks become a tradition for boatmen. The marks of ropes (Tsuna no Ato) are 350 years old historical trail marks left when workers pulled the boats upstream after each cargo transportation.

       We were lucky to see the Sagano Romantic train passing by the bridge above us. The train was delayed by a few minutes this morning. Or else, we wouldn’t be in time for this sight. As the river snakes into Arashiyama, we caught sight of a large group of wild monkeys hanging out at the riverbank.

       Towards the end of the boat ride, a houseboat selling food and drinks approached our boat... we drooled at the sight of all those snacks! Since it was quite chilly that day, oden (hot stewed dishes) was very popular. We ordered a grilled squid and a plate of dango (3 sticks). Before we got to finish our food, we’ve reached the end of the trip. We arrived at the dock a few hundred meters upstream from the Togetsukyo Bridge.

       The tour didn’t end just like that! We then had a walk through the Arashiyama Park the famous bamboo forest (Chikurin no Michi) and arrived at the UNESCO World Cultural Sight Tenryuji Temple. We were given a quick tour of the temple ground before bidding everyone farewell.

The verdict

       I was completely in love with Kyoto after my visit to Kameoka and Arashiyama. They completed what I felt lacking throughout the trip, so I definitely, absolutely recommend booking this half-day tour. It is one of the best ways to escape the crowd and take a break from all the shrine visits.
       However, note that the boat ride service might be canceled in case of heavy rain (or even after it because it changes the water level). If this occurs, you’ll get a reschedule or a refund. Also, in case the horse carriage is not available during your date, a bus will take you to the boarding pier instead and KKday will refund you the difference.
       You might be asking about the best season to experience the boat ride, my answer is anytime! Fresh foliage in May, frosty white winter wonderland, cherry blossoms in the spring and red blanketing the ravine in Autumn… there is just something to appreciate all year round!
Friendly note:
The ride is particularly popular during the Hanami week (cherry blossom) and momijigari season (the peak of falls) so make sure to book your tours earlier!

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Thank You for Reading! 
This post is made possible by KKday Malaysia
As always, it is based solely on my honest opinion or personal experience.

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