Kyoto is the former Imperial capital of Japan for over a thousand years. Like its old name “Heian-Kyo” (literally means “tranquility and peace”), the city peacefully remained the center of culture, history, religion, and tourism in Japan. Exploring the streets and alleys is a sweet and fulfilling experience, and it’s a good way to understand Japanese culture for many first-timers. More, the seasons in Kyoto offer different sceneries, only you need to know to be at the right place at the right time.
In the fall, I rented a bike and explored some beautiful places in Kyoto for foilage in a day. Now, spring is around the corner and so, grab your planner and start plotting some of the best city’s classics for cherry blossoms!
What is the best time to see cherry blossoms in Kyoto?
While it is not exactly advanced science, “what is the best time to see the cherry blossoms?” is a question that is frequently asked among travelers. Yes, the time that cherry blossom bloom varies every year, mainly depending on the weather, temperature, and a few other factors. There are some websites forecasting the blooming period across Japan annually, and they announce their predictions as early as 6 months before the season. Some of them have live feeds and on-site photos, to keep viewers updated when the time is getting closer.
While when and how cherry blossoms will bloom can be still quite unpredictable, it usually falls into a three-to-four-week window between March and April, with a few days of full bloom that you will be overwhelmed by the beauty of the blossoming trees.
It could be difficult for many travelers to just wait around and catch the “perfect” moment, then book their flights and plan at the last minute (I wish I can) – the truth is, Kyoto is a popular destination and the best hotels and restaurants could be fully booked weeks (or even months in advance) – so don’t let it ruin your trip. My advice: Do your research, select the best time that works for you, and leave the rest to fate. Trust me, Kyoto has so many different cherry blossoms viewing spots and the cherry trees were mindfully planted. Different species bloom at different times. You may be pleasantly surprised that some places are yet to bloom, but some places are already blooming. Besides, there are so many ways to view the flowers and celebrate the season. No matter whether you see the buds, the full boom, or them falling, there are different kinds of beauty with the beautiful architecture and sceneries in the background for you to capture a wonderful moment.
What does “Hanami” means in Japanese?
In Japan, “flower viewing” is called “Hanami” – “Hana” means flower, usually cherry or plum in spring, “Mi” means “to view” or “to see”. It is one of the Japanese traditional customs. To me, an instant image that pop up in mind is from Manga, where folks sat on a huge mat on the ground in a park eating, drinking, and singing Karaoke under the blossoms…
To this day, the festival is still an imporant social gathering among the locals, and foreigners are also welcome to experience the season, some dressed up in kimono, some take pictures under the blossoms, and some simply sit in the crowd and admire the beautiful scene.
I have been visiting Japan for cherry blossoms in different places, like Matsuyama, Osaka to Himeji, Okayama to Hiroshima, and Iwakuni to Miyajima… each experience was so wonderful and the list goes on. However, the most popular destinations among worldwide travelers, especially first-timers, would no doubt be Kyoto.
A one-day cherry blossom viewing route in Kyoto
The one-day itinerary covers some of the best viewing spots in Kyoto, and they could easily get to by public bus. Having said that, there are so many places to visit and you are recommended to deepen your research and stay in Kyoto for at least three to four days. You can also customize and design your own route to enjoy cherry blossom at whatever pace you are comfortable with.
One-day Route in Kyoto: Philosopher’s Path — Ginkaku-Ji — Honen-in — Gojo-zaka — Kiyomizu Temple (Sanneizaka and Nineizaka) — Gion — Yasaka Shrine — Shirokawa Area — Maruyama Park — Hanami Koji Street
Getting around the city with the Kyoto City bus all-day pass is a great option because driving in Kyoto could be difficult. The travel jam, the difficulties of navigating in narrow streets and alleys (with pedestrians), and the high costs of parking. Bus service in Kyoto is generally punctual, safe, and reliable.
The alternative to getting around Kyoto is by bike. If you are staying in a homestay (or Ryokan), they usually have bikes available for you to borrow. However, some of the locations listed here are on hills and the pedestrian can get pretty crowded for bikers to pass.
Kyoto City bus all-day pass
Price in 2023: Adult JPY700, Child JPY350
Coverage: Zones include Arashiyama, Sagano, Takao, Shugakuin, etc. – it would be enough for my plan 🙂
For updated info, check the site here.
Philosopher’s path 哲学の道 and Ginkaku-Ji 銀閣寺
That time, I stayed in Kyoto Plaza Hotel (京都プラザホテル) which is a budget hotel, and as always, I like accommodations that are close to the JR train station. I hopped on bus #100 @ the bus stop in front of the JR train station and for about 12 bus stops (28 mins), hop off the Ginkaku-Ji Mae station and cross the road to arrive at the Philosopher’s path – a pleasant pedestrian stone path along a stream with hundreds of cherry trees planted.
The Philosopher’s walk is one of the best areas to shoot cherry blossom in a close distance. That’s why it is on the first of my list for cherry blossom viewing. The path can be very crowded during the peak season and so go there earlier in the morning (9 am) to beat the crowd. The path has enough space and angles to make sure you get stunning photos with the amazing scenery – up close and personal 🙂
Have fun posing in front of your favorite trees and photo-taking, go back to the main road once you arrive at Ginkaku-Ji, drop by the small gift shops, and send a postcard home at the post office.
Hop on bus #100 again, and you should reach Gojo-zaka Mae, walk along Shimizu New Way Chawan-zaka that heading towards the iconic (and possibly most recognizable?) temple in Kyoto – Kiyomizu Dera.
Out of all temples, pagodas, palaces, and historic sites in the ancient city of Kyoto, Kiyomizu-Dera is probably the most famous and recognized attraction.
There are a lot of things to see and do in the temple: Admire the magnificent architecture in the main hall, and the Jishu Shrine, and enjoy an unobstructed view of Kyoto city on the balcony. Taste the water that flows from three separate streams at the Otowa Waterfall using cups attached to long poles, purchase lucky charms at the temple shop or find true love at the Okuninushi. Legend has it, if you could walk from one love stone in the shrine to the other one (18 meters apart) with your eyes closed, you will find true love.
The temple also celebrates the seasons and it is one of the best viewing spots for cherry blossoms in spring.
Kimono, a Japanese cultural experience: You may also see some girls (or boys) dressed up in traditional kimonos, wandering down the streets, as part of the kimono experience. Honestly, if you want to get dressed in this beautiful traditional Japanese wear, Kyoto is probably the best place to do so, just because there are so many shops offering the experience and there are so many types and colors to choose from.
Note that these people are also here to have a great time, they are also customers, they are not a mascot and so, try not to disturb them while they are shooting (maybe just quietly take some candid shot in a distance).
The best place to just take a moment and enjoy the view: I highly recommend sitting down at the Rokkatei and enjoy a bowl of udon and red bean soup as an early lunch (just to avoid the crowd at lunchtime). Sitting in the pavilion, a comforting breeze blows down the sakura drops like confetti, landing on your head, and landing on your bowl …. right there, a poetic movie scene right in front of your eyes.
Matsubara Dori 二年坂、三年坂、松原通
The temple is connected to three busy shopping streets (or “zakas” in Japanese) – Gojo-zaka, chawan-zaka, and Shimizu New Way, the three paths are filled with gift shops, cafes, and restaurants, and the scenery changes through the seasons. Another recommendation is the Okuten tofu place along the Matsubara Dori – a warming bun and tofu soup will warm you up and give you the energy for the walk before dinner 😛 yum yum.
The rickshaw: To top up the whole experience (and if you still have some time to spare), try on the rickshaw and end the day with an unforgettable experience. There are few places in Kyoto where you can hop on a rickshaw, Matsubara Dori is a classic route that covers the main historic sites. For a natural scenery, head to Arashiyama. Where you can traveling through the bamboo grove. Another city in Japan that you can do so, is in Kurashiki – nicknamed “the Mini Kyoto”. Check out here for what to see and do in yet another historic place in Japan!
Maruyama Park 円山公園
Maruyama Park is one of the most notable cherry blossom viewing places in the city. The park connects Yasaka Shrine, the east end of Shiji Street in the Gion District. The highlight of the park is a hundred-year-old weeping cherry tree. If you visit the tree at night, the tree is lit up for an alternative viewing experience.
If you visit during the day, have a taste of local snacks in the food stalls, and check out the souvenirs and festivities. I had so much fun being a local and sat under the cherry blossom in the open area.
Gion Shirakawa 祇園白川 and Hanami Koji Dori 花見小路
You will have an exciting time shopping Omiyage in hundreds of souvenir shops and gift shops in the Gion area – prepare giant bags so you don’t have to carry them around ~ if you want some snacks, or if you are a sweet tooth, dessert places, and cake shops are all around. I was overwhelmed by each shop and it makes every trip to Kyoto brand new and exciting.
Right before dinner, take some photos at the Shirakawa area – ever since I saw a picture (maybe from the “Memoir of a Geisha”) of weeping cherry and willow suspension over the serene stream, I have put it on my bucket list of things-to-do in Kyoto.
Gion, in fact, is the most famous Geisha district in Kyoto. After dinner, have a walk along the Hanami Koji Dori, you may (and probably) run into a working Geisha on the road !!
Shopping and the night Sakura:
Many people visit Shirokawa at night for Night Sakura, and there is a chance to run into a working Geisha, too!
If you are staying in Kyoto for more than one day, or even longer, spare a day and head to Arashiyama. The “Storm Mountain” is a scenic district on the western outskirt of Kyoto, and it’s packed with tourists in the peak seasons, during cherry blossom and foliage. Head there a little earlier to beat the crowd, and there are a number of tourist sites that celebrate the cherry blossoms in different ways. Take a walk, or hop on a rickshaw and pass through the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove.
One of the most photographed spots in Arashiyama is the famous Togetsukyo (Moon Crossing Bridge), but note that the bridge can get extremely crowded. Arashiyama is also packed with temples and attractions, like Matsunoo-taisha, Tenryu-ji, and Kameyama koen.
Having a stroll in Arashiyama is a wonderful experience as the area is filled with cafes, souvenir shops, exclusive luxurious resorts, hot spring hotels, and restaurants that offer delicious traditional Japanese cuisines.
The Sagano Scenic Railway is a 25-minute scenic train ride from Saga Torokko to Kameoka Torokko. Along the way, you will get to see the scenic beauty of the Kozukyo Ravine on its route. Note that the tickets can be sold out fast in peak seasons and it is important to purchase the tickets in advance. Kameoka is a rural area yet you will find a canola flower field nearby the station that you could take pictures of before hopping on the train and returning to Arashiyama.