What is Cherry Blossom Viewing?
Kyoto Cherry Blossoms are among the best to see in Japan but what is cherry blossom viewing or “hanami?” It has become perhaps one of Japan’s most definitive activities. For those already initiated in the ritual of hanami, much of what I’m about to say might be old news but for the newbies, there might be some interesting tidbits. I’ve heard and read the word “sakura”-cherry blossom pop out into more conversations about Japan. With that in mind, what is hanami all about? And more specifically, where can you do it?
Cherry Blossom Viewing: Getting your Philosophy On
Sakura are interwoven into so many aspects of Japanese culture. It’s no surprise then, the cherry blossom tree is the national tree of Japan and though short, the sakura blossom period has become a symbol of how precious life is and a reminder to enjoy those fleeting moments in it. I think Japanese especially identify with this as their busy lifestyles tend to allow them very little time to appreciate long periods of personal recreation time or enjoyment, making what little time they have, even more precious.
When did Cherry Blossom Viewing Start?
In Japan, Sakura seem to have originated from Yoshino, a storied area in the southern prefecture of Nara. They grew wild in the mountains of Yoshino, eventually interwoven into stories by poets and writers who adroitly used sakura and many other natural elements to evoke a particular emotion, filled with a unique sense of subtlety and nuance, Japanese culture has become renowned for. In novels such as the Tale of Genji, hanami was a past time of Imperial court nobles and as political power shifted to the samurai or warrior class, powerful warlords such as Hideyoshi Toyotomi put on hanami parties, not so different than what most Japanese people do today.
How to do Cherry Blossom Viewing?
Now-a-days, cherry blossom viewing is a chance for Japanese people to let loose from their hectic lives and enjoy hanami under the sakura. Typically, you’ll find most Japanese in parks or public spaces enjoying a picnic style lunch or dinner. Since drinking alcohol in public is allowed, beer or sake usually takes front and centre, along with the delectable, yet very reasonable bento box. You have to sit on the ground, and most Japanese bring a blue tarp to spread out beneath them. Still have yet to figure out why the “blue” tarp…
For visitors wishing to see Kyoto cherry blossoms and do hanami, the cheapest and easiest solution is to find a local conbini (convenient store) like 7-Eleven, FamilyMart or a supermarket. One of the cheapest and popular supermarket chains is Fresco. However, if you’re looking for an upgrade, why not check out the Basement Floor of Takashimaya or Daimaru Supermarket-the sweets section is also worth a look! Make sure to also keep an eye out for the latest seasonal beer, sake or ume-shu (plum wine).
Kyoto Cherry Blossoms: Best Viewing Spots
You’ll find Kyoto has some of the best cherry blossom viewing spots in Japan. Having said that, be prepared to “share” the delicate blossoms with other visitors…although not an extensive list, here are some of the best spots, not in any particular order.
Kintaro Nishida (1870-1945), a higly-regarded philosopher who seems to have frequently strolled along the canal, hence the name “Philosopher’s Path.” Located between Ginkakuji and Nanzenji, it’s a peaceful 2 km walk providing you with views of ducks, carp and sakura. Lined with hundreds of cherry trees, the sakura at their peak are sure to set you into peaceful bliss.
Tip: Best in the early morning, around 7 or 8 am to miss the other visitors.
Maruyama Koen (Park)
Maruyama Koen is probably the most common place to find people, both Japanese and foreign visitors alike, doing hanami. Located next to Yasaka Shrine, it has many food stalls and close to the restaurant area, they even put out old tatami mats in some places for you to sit. Don’t miss the night illumination of the impressive weeping cherry in the centre of the park. You’ll find lots of university students.
Tip: Get there early, maybe 7 or 8 am to stake your spot!
The Kamogawa River is a perfect place to take a stroll and do hanami. Lots of sakura blossom along the Kamogawa, especially between Shichijo (Seventh) and Gojo (Fifth) Street. Also, from Shijo (fourth) Street to Imadegawa Street, close to Shimogamo Shrine. Anywhere along here is great for hanami.
Tip: The sakura tend blossom earlier starting from the south to north. That means sakura from Shichijo to Shijo will be out earlier.
Lots of food stalls and incredible amount of sakura, this shrine is a good place to see the sakura. However, it’s really popular with Japanese people and recently non-Japanese too.
Tip: Get there early!!
Reizan Canal and Okazaki Park Area
This is a lovely place to also see the sakura. It’s close to the Heian Shrine, National Museum of Modern Art and Kyoto Municipal Museums and the Keage incline is only a 10 min. walk away. There are boat rides along the canal but usually they’re sold out well in advance.
Tip: There’s a 7-Eleven just south of the big tori gate where you can buy a bento and bevies.
This was used as a transport route for goods between Kyoto and neighbouring prefecture of Shiga. Boats carrying sake, koku (bails of rice exchanged for silver, gold etc.) and other commercial products were carried along on the rails from one water way to the next. Now, it serves as a sought after spot for hanami and more recently wedding pictures.
Tip: If you go further up the incline, you’ll see one of the transports used. It has a boat filled with some of the products delivered back in the day.
Imperial Palace Park
Most people don’t realise it but the Imperial Palace is actually just one building inside a large park. The park area is open 24/7 and great spots for hanami. In particular, the north and west side of the Imperial Park. Not only Sakura, but Magnolia and Ume-Japanese plums too.
Tip: There is a FamilyMart and Fresco Supermarket located near the Karasuma/Imadegawa intersection where you can buy bento, snacks and bevies. Perfect for hanami.
Located a little south of Kyoto City, Daigoji Temple has tons of sakura. Originally planted by warlord Hideyoshi Toyotomi for one of his many lavish tea gatherings, the sakura still grace the grounds of the temple and beckon visitors.
Tip: Take a taxi from the train station as it’s a bit of a walk.
Arashiyama (literally stormy mountain) is a place located in Sagano, a suburb west of Kyoto. It also has the bamboo forest and Tenryuji, one of Kyoto’s 17 UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Sites. There are a few sakura trees that dot the side of the mountain. Great views to be had from Togetsukyo bridge or along the north side of the river.
Tip: Enjoy soba noodles at Yoshimura with a picture perfect view onto Arashiyama or enjoy some coffee at Arabica, just down the street to the west.