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 as 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 the 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.
So, grab your mouse and start planning and visit some of the city’s classic historic places and see cherry blossoms!
The best time to see cherry blossom in Kyoto
While it is not exactly advanced science, I think you would know by now that the best time to see cherry blossoms varies every year, depending on the weather, temperature, and some other factors. That’s why the forecasting websites will announce next year’s blossoming predictions as early as 6 months before the viewing seasons. While when and how cherry blossoms will bloom are 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.
I know it could be difficult for many travelers to wait around and just to make sure they catch the “perfect” moment, booking their tickets 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 for days (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 Japanese had cleverly planted a number of species that can bloom at different times. You may be surprised that when the website says some places are still branches, some places are already blooming. Besides, there are so many ways to view the flowers and celebrate the season. No matter you see the buds, the full boom, or them falling, there are different kinds of beauty with the historic sites in the background and for you to capture a wonderful moment.
Something about… “Hanami”
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 and an instant image pop up in mind from Manga which folks sat on a huge mat on the ground in the park and happily eating, and drinking, and singing Karaoke…
I have been visiting Japan for cherry blossoms in different places for a few years now, and I think I will share them one by one. However, the most iconic Hanami destinations would no doubt be in Kyoto.
So here it is, some popular places in Kyoto where you could spot lovely cherry blossom: Wake up in the morning and enjoy a little breakfast, and then wherever you are, you will need a Kyoto City bus all-day pass that allows you to travel around the city the whole day!
A one-day cherry blossom viewing route in Kyoto
One-day Route: Philosopher’s Path > Ginkaku-Ji > Honen-in > Gojo-zaka > Kiyomizu Temple > Gion > Yasaka Shrine > Shirokawa Area > Maruyama Park > Hanami Koji Street
Daily Budget: JPY5000-8000 (exclude shopping)
I use the bus pass because driving in Kyoto could be inconvenient. The travel jam, the difficulties of navigating in the narrow streets and alleys (with pedestrians), and the costs of parking. Public transportation is probably the better option as the service is usually punctual, safe, and reliable. Another great way to travel around Kyoto is by bike. If you are staying in a homestay (or Ryokan), they usually have bikes available for you to borrow – I did so while I was in Kyoto in the fall, check out Kyoto’s Biking Route in the Fall for more about the experience and the different places that I visited at that time.
Kyoto City bus all-day pass
Price: Adult JPY500, Child JPY250
Coverage: Zones include Arashiyama, Sagano, Takao, Shugakuin, etc. – it would be enough for my plan 🙂
Philosopher’s path 哲学の道 and Ginkaku-Ji 銀閣寺
I stayed in Kyoto Plaza Hotel (京都プラザホテル) which is a budget hotel, and as always, I like it close to the JR train station. Hop 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, and 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, the Jishu Shrine, and enjoy an unobstructed view of the 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-meter 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 of cherry blossoms in spring.
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 they 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.
Rokkatei – www.rokkatei.co.jp
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 祇園 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: Some of the famous old shops include Shoyeido, Iwai, Baizando, Nishiri, 8284, kasagiya, and Giontsujiri. Many people visit Shirokawa at night for Night Sakura, and there is a chance to run into a working Geisha, too!