Kyoto is world famous for its cherry blossoms in the spring. Known as sakura, cherry blossoms have a special importance in Japanese culture. They herald the arrival of spring after the cold winter. And drinking parties under the cherry trees, called hanami, have been popular for centuries.
Symbolically, the cherry blossoms represent the ephemeral nature of life. We all blossom for a time, but we don’t know how long. It could for a couple of days or it could be for a couple of weeks, but at some point a breeze blows and — poof! — we are gone. Life is happening now. Pay attention to it. It doesn’t last very long.
In this blog post, I will talk about some of my favorite places for taking cherry blossom photos in Kyoto—spots I have found in my 25 years of living here. This is not an exhaustive list. The internet is full of those. These are simply places I like.
I have (mostly) arranged this in half-day routes for you to take. Feel free to mix and match them. Some of the routes are very specific and others are more general. Don’t be afraid to take taxi rides, which aren’t too expensive and can save you lots of time.
Make sure to click on the maps I have made for each route.
The sakura season is very popular with both Japanese and foreign tourists. I suggest getting an early start each day to avoid the crowds and get better photos. Also, you’ll be walking a lot, so don’t carry too much gear. Thus, I wouldn’t bother with a tripod.
Also, make some room in your camera bag to carry lunch. There aren’t so many places to eat along these routes and having a picnic under the cherry blossoms is one of the best parts of Kyoto springtime.
The days are warm, but it still gets cool at night, so bring along a jacket. And don’t forget a compact umbrella for those surprise rainstorms.
When Are the Sakura in Bloom?
It all depends upon the weather, but the cherry trees can be in bloom from the last week of March through mid-April. The peak bloom is usually around April 1st, but this varies year to year. They can be in bloom for a few days or up to two weeks.
Early season weeping cherry trees called shidarezakura bloom a week earlier than the rest of the trees, usually in the last week of March.
Route 1: Early Season Sakura Route
Here is a half-day route for the early season weeping cherry trees (shidarezakura). They are typically in bloom during the last week in March, but can bloom as early as the equinox.
Kyoto Imperial Palace Park (Gosho)
There are wonderful weeping cherry trees on the north end of the Gosho park, about halfway between Karasuma Street and Teramachi Street.
I suggest that you take the Kyoto subway Karasuma (Green) Line to Imadegawa Station. Go out Exit #3 and cross Imadegawa Street at the traffic light. Walk about 200m south and enter the Gosho park through the gate. There will be a playground on the left. The cherry trees will be just to the east of that.
While there are other blooming trees in the Gosho, they are a long walk away in this huge park. I suggest moving on to Shokokuji Temple.
When you are finished, exit the Gosho Park through the north gate (the Imperial Palace will be directly behind you). Cross the road and walk past Doshisha University into the large Shokokuji Temple complex. While there aren’t many cherry trees here, it is a very grand Zen Buddhist temple to explore. If it is open, it is well worth paying to enter this temple. The entrance is behind the giant front building.
This is an illusive hidden gem that travelers all crave. (Shhhh. Don’t tell anybody). It is a small neighborhood temple with a beautiful weeping cherry tree. I know about this place because I used to live nearby.
You’ll leave Shokokuji through the east gate, past the bell tower. Walk all of the way to the end of the street and turn right (south). Walk about 50m and then turn left into the temple through a parking lot. If you get to the 7-11 store, then you have gone too far.
When you are finished here, you can either cross the river and head to Demachiyanagi Station, which will take you downtown (and eat lunch at Sanjo), or you can explore nearby Shimogamo Shrine, although there probably won’t be any cherry blossoms in bloom there during the early part of the season.
Route 2: Philosopher’s Path to Nanzenji and Keage Incline
When the trees are in full bloom, the Philosopher’s Path (Tetsugakku-no-michi) is easily one of the best locations in Kyoto for sakura. It is a 2 km long road alongside a canal lined with cherry trees that winds through a residential neighborhood.
I suggest getting an early start—like 7am. It is much nicer with fewer people around.
You can start this route from either the north end or the south end. Personally, I recommend starting from the north because the best trees are here, and you are heading back towards downtown.
Take the Keihan train to Demachiyanagi Station and either go out Exits #6 or #7 to get a taxi, or Exit #4 to catch a bus to Ginkakuji-michi, which is the intersection of Imadegawa and Shirakawa streets. This is the start of the Philosopher’s Path.
While the famous Ginkakuji Temple (The Silver Pavilion) is nearby, I suggest you skip it since it is usually super crowded during the sakura season (but it is your call). And if you get an early start, it won’t be open yet anyway.
Just follow the canal lined with cherry trees. I suggest that you make a stop at the small Honen-in Temple along the way (if it is after 9am), even though they don’t have any cherry trees there. It is one of my favorite places in Kyoto.
When you get back on the main path, keep heading south until the Philosopher’s Path ends. Turn right (west) and head to the main road. Then turn left (south) and walk until you get to Nanzenji Temple, which is a large Zen temple complex about 500m away. There many cherry trees here, including these spectacular trees northeast corner of the temple grounds.
Continue onward toward Keage Incline, which is an old railroad bed lined with cherry trees. As you leave Nanzenji walking towards Keage Station, you’ll come to a brick-work tunnel. Don’t go through the tunnel. Walk to the left up the hill and then you’ll see the train tracks.
When you are done here, you can easily get on the subway at Keage Station. Go two stops to Sanjo Keihan Station and you’ll have a lot of choices of restaurants.
Route 3: Heian Jingu Shrine, Kurodani and Shinnyodo Temples
These are two very different locations that are relatively close to each other. One is a large popular shrine and the other are two secluded temples on a wooded hillside nearby.
Heian Jingu Shrine
Heian Jingu Shrine is a scale model of the original Imperial Palace from 1200 years ago. I suggest taking the subway to Higashiyama Station and walking the back route to the shrine, which I show on this map. You’ll follow a narrow canal through an interesting neighborhood which still has some traditional houses in it.
You’ll pop out into an area called Okazaki, which is a big public space with museums, libraries and the zoo. It also has a canal lined with cherry trees. Walk through the giant orange torii gate toward the shrine. Explore the courtyard area before entering the paid garden area in the back, which has many different kinds of cherry trees. The entrance to the garden is to the left of the praying area.
Kurodani and Shinnyodo Temples
This is a part of town very few foreign tourists know about. There are two temple complexes on a wooded hillside here. I like the vibe of this place.
After visiting Heian Jingu, I suggest taking a short taxi ride to Kurodani Temple. This will save you time. You’ll find the taxis in front of the shrine. Tell the taxi driver “Kurodani Temple.”
(Google Maps calls this temple Konkai-komyoji, which is its formal name. Everyone knows it as Kurodani, which is the place name).
When you are done exploring around the gate and the main building, head to the east where you will find a huge cemetery. Walk up the hill toward the pagoda. From there, turn left and head north through the cemetery towards Shinnyodo Temple. Feel free to explore and photograph in the cemetery, but please be respectful.
On the other side of the cemetery is a Shinnyodo Temple. You’ll be entering from the back of the temple grounds. There are some very nice cherry trees and a pagoda there.
Continue to the west though the main temple gate to exit the grounds. You might be able to find a taxi there. You can also keep walking a couple of hundred meters more until you come to a cherry tree lined stairway heading up the hill to Munetada Shrine.
From here, go back to Shinnyodo to see if you can find a taxi or walk all the way through to the other side of temple grounds, down some steps to a road that will take you to Shirakawa Street. Cross the street and catch a bus at Shinnyodo Mae bus stop towards downtown, or hail a taxi.
Route 4: Kamo-gawa and Takano-gawa Riversides
The Kamo-gawa River flows through central Kyoto and is lined with cherry trees. A couple of kilometers north of downtown is Demachiyanagi, where the Takano-gawa River meets the Kamo-gawa. This is a popular area for hanami parties and is great for photos.
For picture taking, I suggest taking the Keihan train to Demachiyanagi Station, then walking north up the Takano-gawa River for about a kilometer or so. Then I suggest you head towards the Kamo-gawa River. You can either go back the way you came to Demachiyanagi or cut across the peninsula while walking through Shimogamo Shrine (if you haven’t been there yet).
Shimogamo is an ancient shrine in a wooded area. Whilst it doesn’t have many cherry trees, it is a good example of a Shinto shrine and is great for photos. This is where my family goes for rituals and festivals. The smaller Kawai Shrine is at the south end of the woods.
The Kamo-gawa riverside is much wider than the Takano-gawa and has some wonderful spots to take a break. If you keep walking north, you can go through the paid Kyoto Botanical Gardens, which has lovely trees in it—although I think it is a better area for having a picnic than for taking photos. Good cherry blossom pictures need something more than just the flowers themselves.
Route 5 : Other Locations: Downtown, Gion, Maruayama Park and Kiyomizu Dera
Here are some other good places to take photos of cherry blossom that don’t easily fit into one route. Try to fit them in when you can.
This is the young people’s drinking area of downtown. It is usually pretty crazy on Friday and Saturday nights. A canal lined with cherry trees flows along the street. There can be some interesting night time photos in this area, especially between Sanjo and Shijo Streets. There are also lots of good places to eat and drink. Don’t miss Ponto Cho alley, which runs parallel to Kiyamachi. Just don’t take photos of scary looking gangster guys with sunglasses and tattoos.
This is another canal lined with cherry trees in the traditional entertainment district of Gion. It can get crowded, so I suggest you get there early. If you go early enough, you will see lots of wedding photographers politely sharing photo shooting locations with each other—which is very interesting.
This is a big park to the east of Gion next to Yasaka Jinja Shrine that is famous for cherry blossoms. This is a very popular place for wild hanami parties, so check it out at night. It is also a good place to explore during the daytime.
Southern Higashiyama (aka: Touristland)
The area from Maruyama Park south to Kiyomizu Dera Temple is the most popular tourist area in Kyoto. It gets VERY crowded, especially the closer you get to Kiyomizu Dera, and especially during the cherry blossom season, which is the busiest tourist time of the year. There are lots of things to see here, which is why it is popular.
Ninenzaka, Sanenzaka and Matsubara Streets leading up to Kiyomizu Dera get crazy crowded (I have marked this in red on the map). I suggest avoiding this area during the daytime. Having said that, you can give it a try—but it was my duty to warn you.
Also, don’t ride in a taxi or bus in the Southern Higashiyama area. You will be stuck in traffic while packed in an overcrowded bus. Higashioji Street between Shijo and Gojo Streets gets gridlocked. It is faster to simply walk. Also, it is best to approach this area from the west from Kiyomizu Gojo Station.
Kiyomizu Dera Temple — Get there at 6am when it opens
This is the most popular place in Kyoto and there are excellent photo opportunities here, but you really need to go early before it is invaded by the hoards.
Route 6: Just Go For a Walk
Use your inner compass
When the cherry blossoms are in bloom, you’ll notice that there are trees everywhere in the city—in school yards, in parks, in front of houses, everywhere. Carry a light kit of camera gear and go for a walk. Just pick a direction and go. In a city with over 1,400 temples and shrines, you are bound to find something.
In this modern age, with the super computers in our pockets, we have forgotten the art of getting lost. Just go. A lot of the best photos I have ever taken came from me randomly picking a location on a paper map and going there.
And don’t just focus on taking photos. There are so many things to see, smell, taste, and experience in a new city in a foreign land. Sometimes it is best just to be sitting under a tree on a beautiful sunny spring day enjoying the warm breeze while eating a bento.
There are times to take pictures and times to just be in the moment. (Ending with a bit of Zen).