“Dead bodies are buried under the sakura!” cried an author, Motojiro Kajii, in his book, “Under the Cherry Trees”.
Breathe easy, my fellow wanderlusters. There is no such thing (just keep your interactions with the world at surface level and everyone will be fine). The sentence is an expression of disbelief on the beauty of sakura trees. Like an intensifying creeping blush, sakura trees have robbed Japanese and the whole world of their breaths as many flocked down to witness this seasonal event.
If, at this point, you are already whipping out your gadgets to book the next flight out, hold on to your horses! Arm yourselves with our ultimate all-you-need-to-know guide on cherry blossoms! Then be enthralled with spring by skipping along Kyoto’s cobbled stone walkways with sakura petals raining down on you! Life has never seemed so positive!
Rain on Me Sakura!
Wondering where to head to in Kyoto to catch these blooming wonders? Here are the best spots!
1. Maruyama-koen Park
Arguably the focal point of sakura viewing, its captivating masterpiece is a giant 70-year old weeping sakura which illuminates from sundown to 1am. Complete with a pond, it is also the go-to place for hanami (custom of flower viewing and picnicking.)
The atmosphere picks up even more at night with visitors enjoying snacks from stalls around the park, under starry skies. Life is gooooodd~
Getting there: Subway – Nearest subway station is Gion-shijo.
Bus – From Kyoto Station, board bus 100 or 206 and alight at Gion bus stop (around 20 min). Walk through Yasaka Shrine to access Maruyama Park.
2. The Philosopher’s Walk (Tetsugaku-No-Michi)
It is essentially a linear canal lined with sakura trees. Stroll along the path night or day and have a feel of a typical Kyoto life with its residential areas and authentic shops/cafes around. Night stroll with a cuppa? Yes, please!
Feeling a little adventurous? Lookout for the signs pointing off the trail for quaint little shrines or temples!
Opening Hours: 24hours
Admission Fee: Free
Getting there: Take bus no. 5, 17 or 100 from Kyoto Station and alight at Ginkakuji (35 – 40 minutes). Philosopher’s Path connects Ginkakuji Temple at one end and Nanzenji Temple on the other.
3. Kiyomizu-dera Temple
How about witnessing the grandeur from atop (or at least 42ft high)? Sitting on the sacred Otowa waterfall site (a 10-minute uphill walk), towers the Kiyomizu-dera Temple (Pure Water Temple). Founded in 778 (before Kyoto even became the capital of Japan then), it is one of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites.
Credit: Digital Life Innovator
Contemplate on life as you take in the sakura filled hillside view splayed out beneath from its jutted main hall wooden veranda. (Make wise choices, waderlusters).
Many have also sworn by its life-altering night illumination effects, so don’t miss it!
Oh, and there is not a single nail used in the whole structure. Just saying.
Opening hours: Opens at 6am everyday but closing time varies according to seasons. Do check their website before visiting!
Admission Fees: 300 Yen
Getting there: Take bus 100 or 206 from Kyoto Station and alight at either Gojo-zaka or Kiyomizu-michi. Walk up from there.
4. Kyoto Imperial Palace Park
Calling all history buffs! This would be the perfect time to view sakuras and brush up on your history knowledge! Kyoto’s answer to Central Park, it is a popular leisure and picnic spot with the presence of large weeping sakuras situated north of the park. Also, check out a pond featuring a gorgeous carp, southern end of the park.
While you are there, you may also wish to check out Kyoto’s Imperial Palace –former residence of the Imperial family.
#HHWT Tip: While there are no admission charges, registration for a tour of the compound is compulsory at the Kunaicho (Imperial Household Office). Arrive at the Kunaicho early for a higher chance to visit the palace within the day.
Veer off the park to Komogawa Riverside for a different perspective of sakura viewing! Pack a picnic basket and enjoy it under the sakuras lining the riverbank. Skip across the river via the stepping stones thereafter!
Getting there: Take the Karasuma subway line to Imadegawa Station.
5. Arashiyama Area
If you are tied for time, Arashiyama would suffice for an all encompassing experience, any time of the day. Located in the outskirts of Kyoto, It is quite a distance (around 30-minutes) but it is worth the journey! Here, you will be greeted by Mount Arashiyama (Storm Mountain) housing speckles of sakura trees creating a beautiful contrast of pastel against the vast greenery. You have an option of touring the area on foot, rented bicycle or boat!
Many would be familiar with the Togetsu-kyo Bridge but you should really walk past that and look out for their other-worldly sceneries. Take a pick from soaring bamboo groves, famed Zen gardens (Tenryu-ji Temple) and luscious mountain views.
Credit: Kyoto Dream Trips
Arashiyama Daikokaji Temple was built in the 800s for the Emperor as his reprieve from main palace to enjoy the serenity. It was converted to a temple after his passing. It is now one of the highest ranked temples of Shingon Buddhism.
The most important temple in Arashiyama, Tenryuji’s garden is rated 1st of the 5 great Zen temples. It is a registered world heritage site.
Getting here: Bus – Kyoto City Bus 28 and get off at Arashiyama-Tenryuji-mae (about 30 minutes).
JR Train – Take the JR Sagano/San-in Line to Saga-Arashiyama Station. It is a 10-minutes walk away.
6. Ninna-ji Temple
Credit: the way of beauty
A little late on the sakura blooming plans? Fret not, we’ve got you covered! Ninna-ji Temple is where you should head to. Yet another UNESCO World Heritage site, the temple is also known as Omuro Imperial Palace as it used to be served by a priest from the Imperial Family. The temple houses late blooming sakuras like the omuro cherries and yae-zakura. It is also less crowded!
Getting here – Bus: Take a bus from Kyoto Station – JR Bus, Takao Keihoku Line (30 mins) OR City Bus No. 26 (40 mins)
Train – Take the Sagano Line (platforms 31/32/33) from JR Kyoto Station and:
Alight at Enmachi Station à Board Bus 26 to Omuro Ninna-ji Bus Stop OR
Alight at Hanazoo Station à 15 minutes walk
Sakura Festivals/Activities in Kyoto
Japanese holds the sakura blooming period in high regards. It is both a reminder and celebration of life – to embrace the moments and make the most of it, no matter how fleeting. It is no wonder that several festivals are held during his period:
1. Hanami (Flower Viewing)
Pay tribute to the home ground where this custom originated! Incepted in the Heian Period, this festival was originally celebrated exclusively by the elites of the Imperial Court. On top of appreciating the transient beauty of sakura, a feast fit for the emperor (literally) was prepared. Over time, this practise evolved to include the masses – retaining the same (if not more) of the merriment as celebration stretches well into the night.
Hanami is a nationwide phenomenon, with the main competition being, vying for the best party spot under the sakura trees. In the spirit of festivities (and lack of good spots, at times), some may even pull you in to join them! Others may raise the bar by dragging their karaoke sets along! Be ready to belt out a song or 2 – we won’t judge! So get ready to party like royalty and keep those hands full with good food to be shared all around!
#HHWT Tip: Best places to enjoy this? We’d say, Maruyama-koen Park for its carnival like feel and Arashiyama because *drops mic*, what more could you possibly ask for?
2. Miyako Odori (The Dance of the Capital)
This dance is also referred to as “The Cherry Blossom Dance” as it takes place annually in April. Performed by Maikos (Geisha/Geiko in training), it allows visitors a window to discover the highly closed community of the Geisha/Geiko world. Showcasing their distinct music coupled with slow and graceful moves, the dance depicts aspects of Japanese life, particularly Kyoto. Some believed it is still practised after 143 seasons in hopes that the capital will return to Kyoto.
Perhaps it is the intrigue of this exclusive strictly “Invites Only” (you’d have to be invited by someone who is a client to be included) community that attracts most but it is definitely an experience not to be missed!
3. Hanatoro – “Flower and Light Road” & Night Illumination
If you think Kyoto is spectacular in daytime, wait till you witness its nightfall charms! A festival where the streets and several temples and shrines awash the city with light displays and lanterns, it is a sight to behold. This March, visit these places with the backdrop of sakuras:
Credit: all about japan
The area will be lined with more than 2400 lanterns! Most major temples and shrines will also take part and have extended opening hours. If you’re in the area, check out the Yasaka shrine, which is a popular destination for New Year celebrations and festivals!
The temple is illuminated thrice in a year. One of which, for hanami viewing. In August, the illumination is to pay tribute to Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a 16th Century warrior. It is one of the pioneer sites to light up at night before others follow suit due to the positive reception.
So if you are still deciding where to experience sakura, try Kyoto! It allows you to tap into your inner Zen in a traditional setting. Actually, it allows you to relive your Japanese manga moments. Be it ninjas stealthily jumping from Machiya rooftops to another to faking a duel with fellow samurais on the cobbled laneways in your kamishimo while you unsheathe your (equally fake) samurai sword. Complete with sakura petals raining down on both of you. Very John Woo with an Asian twist.