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Kyoto’s Finest: Cherry Blossom Season

Kyoto's Finest: Cherry Blossom Season - EYExplore

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.

Kyoto's Finest: Cherry Blossom Season - EYExplore - Cherry blossoms in late afternoon light.
Cherry blossoms in late afternoon light

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.

Kyoto's Finest: Cherry Blossom Season - EYExplore - Cherry blossoms in a traditional water basin
Cherry blossoms in a traditional water basin

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.

General Suggestions

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.

Kyoto's Finest: Cherry Blossom Season - EYExplore - Cherry blossoms at Nanzenji Temple
Cherry blossoms at Nanzenji Temple

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.

Kyoto's Finest: Cherry Blossom Season - EYExplore - The famous weeping cherry tree at Maruyama Park.
The famous weeping cherry tree at Maruyama Park

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.

Kyoto's Finest: Cherry Blossom Season - EYExplore - Weeping Cherry Blossoms on the north side of the Kyoto Imperial Palace Park.
Weeping Cherry Blossoms on the north side of the Kyoto Imperial Palace Park

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.

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.

Kyoto's Finest: Cherry Blossom Season - EYExplore - The hondo (statuary hall) of Shokokuji Temple.
The hondo (statuary hall) of Shokokuji Temple

Honmanji Temple

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.

Kyoto's Finest: Cherry Blossom Season - EYExplore - he weeping cherry tree at Honmonji Temple.
The weeping cherry tree at Honmonji Temple

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.

Kyoto's Finest: Cherry Blossom Season - EYExplore - A torii gate at Shimogamo Shrine.
A torii gate at Shimogamo Shrine

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.

Kyoto's Finest: Cherry Blossom Season - EYExplore - Cherry trees along the Philosopher's Path at 8am.
Cherry trees along the Philosopher’s Path at 8am

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.

Kyoto's Finest: Cherry Blossom Season - EYExplore - The main gate of Honen-in Temple.
The main gate of Honen-in Temple

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.

Kyoto's Finest: Cherry Blossom Season - EYExplore - Cherry blossoms in full bloom at Nanzenji Temple.
Cherry blossoms in full bloom at Nanzenji Temple

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.

Kyoto's Finest: Cherry Blossom Season - EYExplore - Taking selfies along the tracks at Keage Incline.
Taking selfies along the tracks at Keage Incline

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.

Kyoto's Finest: Cherry Blossom Season - EYExplore - Cherry blossoms along the canal at Okazaki.
Cherry blossoms along the canal at Okazaki

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.

Kyoto's Finest: Cherry Blossom Season - EYExplore - The garden at Heian Jingu Shrine has my kinds of cherry trees.
The garden at Heian Jingu Shrine has my kinds of cherry trees

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).

Kyoto's Finest: Cherry Blossom Season - EYExplore - Cherry trees next to a memorial stone at Kurodani. The film samurai dramas long that weather, brown wall in the background.
Cherry trees next to a memorial stone at Kurodani — Samurai dramas are filmed along that weathered, brown wall in the background.

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.

Kyoto's Finest: Cherry Blossom Season - EYExplore - The cemetary between Kurodani and Shinnyodo. Remember to be respectful here.
The cemetery between Kurodani and Shinnyodo — Remember to be respectful here.

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.

Kyoto's Finest: Cherry Blossom Season - EYExplore - A torii gate at the entrance to the stairs leading up to Munetada Shrine.
A torii gate at the entrance to the stairs leading up 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.

Kyoto's Finest: Cherry Blossom Season - EYExplore - Cherry trees line almost the entire length of the Kamo-gawa River in Kyoto City.
Cherry trees line almost the entire length of the Kamo-gawa River in Kyoto City

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).

Kyoto's Finest: Cherry Blossom Season - EYExplore - Cherry trees in full bloom along the Takano-gawa River north of Demachiyanagi.
Cherry trees in full bloom along the Takano-gawa River north of Demachiyanagi

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.

Kyoto's Finest: Cherry Blossom Season - EYExplore - A traditional Shinto wedding procession at Shimogamo Shrine.
A traditional Shinto wedding procession at Shimogamo Shrine

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.

Kyoto's Finest: Cherry Blossom Season - EYExplore - Having a picnic under the cherry blossoms at the Kyoto Botanical Gardens.
Having a picnic under the cherry blossoms at the Kyoto Botanical Gardens

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.

Kiyamachi Street

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.

Kyoto's Finest: Cherry Blossom Season - EYExplore - Women in kimonos seated along the Takase canal at Kiyamachi Street.
Women in kimonos seated along the Takase canal at Kiyamachi Street

Gion Shirakawa

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.

Kyoto's Finest: Cherry Blossom Season - EYExplore - I stumbled across a photo event at Gion Shirakawa where a couple of hundred people photographed two geisha. It was surreal. We can arrange private photography workshops for you.
I stumbled across a photo event at Gion Shirakawa where a couple of hundred people photographed two geisha. It was surreal. We can arrange private photography workshops for you to avoid these kinds of crowds.

Maruyama Park

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.

Kyoto's Finest: Cherry Blossom Season - EYExplore - These red platforms will be packed with people drinking at hanami parties in the evening at Maruyama park.
These red platforms will be packed with people drinking at hanami parties in the evening at Maruyama park

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.

Kyoto's Finest: Cherry Blossom Season - EYExplore - A Buddhist statue surrounded by cherry blossoms just south of Maruyama Park.
A Buddhist statue surrounded by cherry blossoms just south of Maruyama Park

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.

Kyoto's Finest: Cherry Blossom Season - EYExplore - A cherry blossom season crowd on Matsubara Street leading up to Kiyomizu Dera Temple.
A cherry blossom season crowd on Matsubara Street leading up to Kiyomizu Dera Temple

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.

Kyoto's Finest: Cherry Blossom Season - EYExplore - Cherry blossoms as the sun sets along Sanenzaka street. There can be great photo opportunities in the Southern Higashiyama neighborhood if you are willing to navigate the crowds.
Cherry blossoms as the sun sets along Sanenzaka street — There can be great photo opportunities in the Southern Higashiyama neighborhood if you are willing to navigate the crowds.

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.

Kyoto's Finest: Cherry Blossom Season - EYExplore - A boy wearing a kimono at Kiyomizu Dera Temple.
A boy wearing a kimono at Kiyomizu Dera Temple

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.

Kyoto's Finest: Cherry Blossom Season - EYExplore - Cherry trees in a school yard with traffic mirrors. Try to look beyond the obvious to find interesting photos.
Cherry trees in a school yard with traffic mirrors — Try to look beyond the obvious to find interesting photos

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.

Kyoto's Finest: Cherry Blossom Season - EYExplore - This ikebana flower arrangement in front of someone’s house incorporates cherry tree branches. You can find lots of interesting things just taking a walk with your camera.
This ikebana flower arrangement in front of someone’s house incorporates cherry tree branches. You can find lots of interesting things just taking a walk with your camera.

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).

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