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April 3, 2016

Best Cherry Blossom Spots in Kyoto

Where can you find the best hanami spots in Kyoto?

Here are my five favorite cherry blossom locations:

[The canal in Okazaki Park]

1. Okazaki Park, Keage Incline and Tetsugaku no Michi
This is my favorite walk because of the great variety of scenery, the many, different cherry blossoms, and the combination of "industrial archaeology" with ancient temples. For starters, in Okazaki Park (which is easily reached from Jingumichi St on the Tozai subway line) you have a nice scene of cherry trees along the canal which runs next to Niomondori, south of the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art. (In April, boat rides on the canal are available).

[The Keage Incline]

Follow Niomondori east; just before the crossing with Shirakawadori you will see the Lake Biwa Canal Museum and in this area you'll also find a staircase where you can go down to the starting point of the Incline (see my article about the Incline and Lake Biwa Canal Museum, a hydro-electric engineering project from the Meiji-period that was to bring water from Lake Biwa to Kyoto for irrigation and electricity generation). Follow the Incline all the way up, past the boats, and you will walk between the cherry trees that have been planted on both sides of the Incline (see here for another post with more photos). At the very end, above Keage Station, is a park with a statue of the young engineer Tanabe Sakuro, who was in charge of this project; here you can also have a picnic if you have brought a bento. This finishes the first leg of the walk and you can return by going down to Keage Station (Tozai line); when you still have stamina left and want to continue, pass through the tunnel below the Incline and enter the grounds of Nanzenji.

[The Philosopher's Path, Tetsugaku no Michi]

There are occasional cherry trees here, but the nice part of the walk is Tetsugaku no Michi (the Philosopher's Path, named after Kyoto University professor Nishida Kitaro who liked to stroll here), starting past Eikando temple, where in 1922 cherry trees were planted along the stream by painter Hashimoto Kansetsu who lived here in the neighborhood. The path is a bit narrow, so avoid the weekends. Near the northern end of the path, you will find a few interesting temples. Reikanji (a nunnery with an excellent collection of dolls) and Anrakuji (a temple with an interesting legend about two disciples of Honen and the palace ladies they converted) have special openings (Reikanji the first week of April, Anrakuji on Saturdays during the first ten days of April) and Honenin, which always has part of its garden open, in addition opens its Main Hall and Abbot's garden to visitors during the first week of April. A nice bonus to the sakura along the Philosopher's Path.

[Cherry blossoms and pagoda in Ninnaji Temple]

2. Ninnaji Temple and Hirano Shrine
Ninnaji is famous for its late blossoming yaezakura, so plan this as your late-in-season hanami. Called "Omuro-zakura," the trees do not grow taller than just two meters and the branches hang low, so it feels as if you are wading through low hanging blossom clouds! It is also interesting to see the pagoda of Ninnaji temple rise up from these blossom clouds. Here is another post on Ninnaji's cherry blossoms. (If you like Buddhist art, also have a look at the wonderful sculptures in the Ninnaji Museum).

[Blossoms and stone statues in Rengeji Temple]

Don't forget to drop by at Rengeji, a small temple to the east of Ninnaji, which has some interesting stone statues sitting amid the blossoms.

An easy way to get to Ninnaji is to take the Keifuku Electric Railroad to Omura Ninnaji Station.

[Heian court ladies during the Cherry Blossom Festival of the Hirano Shrine]

If you can plan your visit to Ninnaji on April 10, you can take the Keifuku Line to its terminus, Kitano Hakubaicho, and then walk north along Nishiojidori until you reach the Hirano Shrine (on the east side of Nishiojidori after passing the crossing with Kamitachiuridori). The Hirano Shrine is famous for its yozakura, which are lighted up in the evening, but the best event to see here is the Cherry Blossom Festival (Okasai) on April 10, which features a mikoshi procession of people dressed in Heian court dress - the colorful costumes make a nice contrast with the blossoms. It starts at 10:00; the mikoshi return in the early afternoon, so you can also first go to Ninnaji.

[Cherry blossoms and tulips in Kyoto Botanical Garden]

3. Kyoto Botanical Park and Nakaragi no Michi, on the bank of the Kamo River
The 24,000 sq.m. large Kyoto Botanical Park stands in northern Kyoto, along the banks of the Kamo River, and incorporates an original piece of woodland. There are 500 cherry trees, of the varieties Somei, Yoshino and Shidarezakura. They stand along the paths and in grassy areas and you are allowed to picnic under the trees, although alcohol is forbidden. But as this is a botanical garden, you have other flowers as well. I particularly like the combination of the red tulips at the entrance to the gardens with the backdrop of pink cherries.

[Nakaragi no Michi alongside the Kamo River]

The best way to enter the botanical gardens is the north exit, as this is immediately next to Kitayama Station on the subway line. See my post about these gardens with more pictures here. Again, there is an interesting bonus: next to the north gate stands the Kyoto Garden of Fine Arts, a plaza with walls of cascading water, designed by Ando Tadao in his familiar style of smooth concrete, where eight famous paintings of world art have been copied on large ceramic tiles (see my post about this museum).

And finally, take a stroll along the path running between the botanical gardens and the Kamo River, called "Nakaragi no Michi" - here, too, are some beautiful cherry blossoms. There are benches here, so you can sit down and enjoy the river scenery (and finally break open your cup sake).

[Cherry blossoms and boats in Arashiyama]

4. Arashiyama (and Seiryoji)
Arashiyama (or Ranzan in Chinese-style reading, as found in the names of hotels and restaurants) means "Storm Mountain" so at first sight it would not seem one of the most scenic spots in Kyoto, but that is only the name of the 381 m. tall mountain that rises up steeply on the right bank of the Hozu River here. Arashiyama is a popular cherry blossom spot, and the old-fashioned Togetsukyo Bridge spanning the river here can get crowded, but as it happens the nicest blossom viewing spot is from the extensive (and not crowded) Kameyama Park (on the east bank). From the hill at the back of the park, you have a great view over the steep gorge of the Hozu River, where the sakura hang as pink clouds on the mountain slope. The trees were planted here at the order of the 9th c. Emperor Saga, who had them brought from the sacred groves in Yoshino.

[Gorge of the Hozu River]

The beauty is in the valley with its steep wooded cliffs, the river with the flat-bottomed boats that carry tourists via the gorge from Kameoka, the old-fashioned Togetsukyo bridge that spans it, the temples and their gardens, and the quiet countryside behind it all. Read more in my previous article on sakura in Arashiyama.

[Kyogen performance in Seiryoji]

And again we have a bonus: Seiryoji Temple, where on April 3, 9 and 10 the Saga Dainenbutsu Kyogen is held, a unique ancient religious theater performance, started by the Buddhist monk Enkaku in the hope of seeing his deceased mother again. The performances which begin at 13:30, 14:30 and 15:30 are free. In the same period, the birth of the Buddha (which took place on April 8) is celebrated at Seiryoji. In addition, the treasure hall with great statues is also open. Don't forget to see the Chinese-style Shaka statue in the main hall.

Seiryoji is 15 minutes by foot from JR Sanin Main Line Saga-Arashiyama Station; Arashiyama can be reached from the same station, or from the Arashiyama Hankyu and Keifuku stations.

[Weeping cherry tree in Shojiji]

5. Oharano with Shojiji and Shoboji temples
Finally, a "hidden spot," that is to say, a hanami spot where you will find very few other visitors and almost certainly no tourists. In Oharano, in Kyoto's Western Hills, you will find a cluster of temples: Shojiji, Hobodaiin, Shoboji and the Oharano Shrine. Shojiji is nicknamed "hana no tera," "Blossom Temple," and features a cherry tree presumable planted by the poet Saigyo when he was head of the temple (in reality, it is a descendant of that tree). Saigyo is known for the many poems he wrote about cherry blossoms, and also for his wish to die under a cherry tree in the blossom season - a wish that seems to have been fulfilled to the letter. Shojiji also has some good weeping cherry trees, and an interesting array of Buddhist statues in its small museum. Even more interesting statues - a very sensual Boddhisattva statue - can be found in neighboring Hobodaiin.

[Single blossoming tree with borrowed scenery in the modern garden of Shoboji]

But for more blossom beauty, you'll have to walk to another temple in this area, Shoboji. Sit down on the veranda and observe the garden, which incorporates the Eastern Hills lying on the horizon as borrowed scenery (shakkei). It was a masterful stroke of the garden designer to plant just one slender cherry tree right in the middle of this scenery, as a foreground to the borrowed landscape. The rocks in the (modern) garden form a sort of intermediaries that lift the eyes above the low garden wall and then on towards the distant mountain scenery.

The temples in this area, far from the path trodden by tourists, are very quiet, making this the ideal place to enjoy cherry blossoms.

You can reach these temples by first taking the JR to JR Mukomachi Station or the Hankyu line to Hankyu Higashi-Muko Station, and then either a bus to Minami-Kasugamachi (after which it is a 15-min walk) or a bus to Rakusaikokomae (20-min walk). There is about one bus per hour.