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The best places to see cherry blossoms in Kyoto

by Staff

(Image credit: Alamy Stock Photo)

Cultural expert Sara Aiko shares her picks for the best places to admire cherry blossoms in Kyoto, from the secluded Heian Shrine to Kiyomizu Temple at night.

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Welcoming spring each year with vibrant shades of pink and white, sakura (cherry blossom) season is one of Japan’s most beloved natural attractions. The celebrated flower symbolises renewal and impermanence, as the ephemeral buds can only be viewed for a short period of time each year between March to early May. Blanketing mountains, lining rivers and park walkways, the delicate blossoms that burst across cities like Kyoto inspire hanami (flower viewing) parties for residents and tourists alike. We spoke to Sara Aiko, Condé Nast Travel Specialist and founder of boutique travel agency Curated Kyoto, to find out the best places to admire the sakura in Kyoto.

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Sara Aiko has lived in Kyoto since 2010. Since then, she has channelled her artistic passions as a tour guide and cultural curator for her company Curated Kyoto, where she offers personalised insider experiences and consultations, connecting people and brands through her networks. She has been on Condé Nast’s Travel Specialist list since 2021.

“What makes Kyoto so special is the way it expresses and celebrates beauty,” said Aiko, who has lived in Kyoto since 2010. “From the beautiful architecture to the elegant ceramic bowls and the intricate food presentation… everything is performed and presented in such a way that beauty can be felt naturally, rather than being forced. It’s a way of life.”

These expressions of beauty come alive during hanami season, and with over 2,000 temples and shrines and 17 Unesco World Heritage sites in the city, Kyoto offers particularly stunning backdrops to witness cherry blossoms.

“The cherry blossom trees, of course, steal the show with their stunning beauty,” said Aiko. “Whether capturing their splendour with your camera or simply immersing yourself in the moment by sitting under them along the north of the Kamo River, it’s an experience that’s truly special.”

Here are Sara Aiko’s five favourite places to admire the cherry blossoms in Kyoto.

To beat the massive hanami crowds, Aiko recommends heading to the gardens at the Heian Shrine or to Okazaki Canal (Credit: Alamy Stock Photo)

To beat the massive hanami crowds, Aiko recommends heading to the gardens at the Heian Shrine or to Okazaki Canal (Credit: Alamy Stock Photo)

1. Best for beating the crowds: Heian Shrine

Springtime in Kyoto ushers in blossoming sakura – but also droves of people. While Aiko does recommend braving the crowds to visit top cherry blossom destinations like the Arashiyama district or the Philosopher’s Path, one of her personal favourite spots for a bit more solitude is the Heian Shrine. Built to commemorate Kyoto’s former standing as the capital of Japan, the late 19th-Century Shinto shrine is a must-see for its massive red torii gate and tranquil garden that surrounds a central lake.

“As you approach the shrine, you may not see any trees,” said Aiko. “But upon paying the entrance fee (¥600 [£3.15]) and entering the temple garden, visitors will be greeted by delightful sakura trees mingling with other flora. The garden, designed in the Japanese strolling style, invites guests to wander and savour the diverse sights and blossoms it offers.”

Aiko noted that visitors can also head to the nearby Okazaki Canal where cherry blossoms drape the river embankment’s southern side, or Okazaki Park, a former castle that explodes with blossoms along its pathways.

“If you’re strolling from the city centre, don’t miss a visit to Toriba Coffee for a superb takeaway brew,” said Aiko. “And for a delightful lunch spot, Tan, a beautiful Japanese restaurant, is just a 15-minute walk away.” Reservations are recommended.

Website: https://www.heianjingu.or.jp/english/english.html
Address: 97 Okazaki Nishitennocho, Sakyo Ward, Kyoto, 606-8341, Japan
Phone: +81757610221
Instagram: @heianjingu_official

There are many beautiful places to have a hanami picnic in Kyoto, but Aiko favours the banks of the beautiful Kamo River (Credit: Alamy Stock Photo)

There are many beautiful places to have a hanami picnic in Kyoto, but Aiko favours the banks of the beautiful Kamo River (Credit: Alamy Stock Photo)

2. Best for enjoying a bento box or picnic: Kamo River

Hanami can be as simple as a leisurely stroll through a park, but traditionally, it involves a picnic party beneath the blooming trees when colleagues, friends or families gather with beers and sake to relish the beauty of the blossoms and celebrate the arrival of warmer weather after a long, isolating winter.

Tip

Throughout Kyoto, hotels and cafes offer cherry blossom-inspired menus and afternoon teas featuring delicacies like sakura mochi (sweet chewy rice cakes) and sakura parfaits. If you find yourself at Kiyomizu Temple, Aiko recommends a detour to the Park Hyatt Kyoto for a cherry blossom-inspired treat to complement temple visits. “[You can] indulge in a decadent afternoon tea, artfully curated with sakura-inspired bites using sumptuous seasonal ingredients,” she said. “Each dish is thoughtfully paired with a selection of Japanese tea.”

Aiko’s favourite hanami spot in Kyoto is the Kamo River. “Since Kyoto boasts few parks, the riverbank becomes a hub for various activities, including walking beloved pets, exercising, reading, and of course, enjoying hanami,” she said. “I recommend experiencing hanami anywhere along the stretch from the Sanjo Bridge to the Kitayama area (northern Kyoto), where the blossoms are most abundant. You’ll encounter enthusiastic hanami-goers of all ages, eagerly flocking to the river from early morning, armed with their signature blue picnic mats to claim a prime spot.”

She suggests bringing along a mat, a bottle of good wine or sake (yes, public drinking is legal in Japan), and a bento (lunch box) filled with delicious treats like grilled fish, fried pork cutlet, rice and pickled vegetables.

“You can find quality bento boxes at department stores such as Takashiyama and Isetan,” said Aiko. “Particularly on the basement floor. Additionally, Kyoto is renowned for its pastries and bread, so make sure to visit one of the city’s many bakeries for the perfect picnic treat – my personal favourite being Bakery Uki.”

The cherry blossoms are even more romantic under the moonlight, especially at Kiyomizu Temple (Credit: Alamy Stock Photo)

The cherry blossoms are even more romantic under the moonlight, especially at Kiyomizu Temple (Credit: Alamy Stock Photo)

3. Best for admiring the cherry blossoms at night-time: Kiyomizu Temple

Experiencing sakura is a romantic experience in and of itself, but to experience cherry blossoms at their most magical, Aiko recommends seeing them when they’re lit up at night. Several temples in Kyoto host evening cherry blossom illumination events, including places of worship that extend their hours past 17:00 to welcome visitors, including Kiyomizu Temple.

“Among the 17 Unesco World Heritage Sites in Kyoto, Kiyomizu Temple stands out as one of the most popular destinations during this season,” said Aiko. “And for good reason. Its grounds are adorned with cherry trees, and the sight of Kyoto city in the background, set against the glow of the illuminated trees, is simply breath-taking.”

Aiko noted that Kiyomizu’s neighbouring temple, Kodaiji Temple, also hosts a cherry blossom illumination event, offering visitors the opportunity to explore two stunning locations in the area.

“And if you’re keen for a third spot,” she said. “Take a stroll down to Maruyama Park to marvel at the weeping cherry blossoms.”

Website: https://www.kiyomizudera.or.jp/en/ 
Address: 1 Chome-294 Kiyomizu, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, 605-0862, Japan
Phone: +81755511234
Instagram: @feel_kiyomizudera

Cherry blossoms are beautiful at ground level, and even more so when viewed from high above at Kyoto's Haradani-en Garden (Credit: Getty Images)

Cherry blossoms are beautiful at ground level, and even more so when viewed from high above at Kyoto’s Haradani-en Garden (Credit: Getty Images)

4. Best for a panoramic view of the sakura: Haradani-en Garden

A few years back, Aiko says she accidentally discovered what she calls a cherry blossom utopia, tucked away on a hill in the north of Kyoto. “Haradani-en Garden, a tad off from the city (but conveniently close to the Golden Temple), is a privately-owned garden that generously opens its gates for a limited time, specifically during the cherry blossom extravaganza in spring and the autumn leaf spectacle,” she said.

Aiko notes that the garden – open from 25 March to 14 April  – is so exclusive that many Kyoto residents don’t even know about it. “In this little-known sanctuary, you’ll find over 400 cherry trees of 20 different varieties sprawled across 13,000 sq m, showcasing an impressive palette of pink and white blossoms,” said Aiko. “Take your camera and note that the garden doesn’t allow tripods.”

Website: http://www.haradanien.com
Address: 36 Okitayamaharadaniinuicho, Kita Ward, Kyoto, 603-8487, Japan
Phone: +81754612924

Timing is everything when it comes to enjoying the cherry blossoms, but late bloomers can still find them at Sanzenin Temple just outside of Kyoto (Credit: Alamy Stock Photo)

Timing is everything when it comes to enjoying the cherry blossoms, but late bloomers can still find them at Sanzenin Temple just outside of Kyoto (Credit: Alamy Stock Photo)

5. Best for late blooming cherry blossoms: Sanzen-in Temple

While cherry blossom season in Kyoto typically spans from late March to the first two weeks of April, unpredictable shifts due to global warming – like 2023’s early bloom – are increasingly common. But Aiko says that if you missed the peak bloom in the city, don’t fret.

“A short journey northward may still offer breath-taking spring vistas,” she said. “Nestled in the ancient farming village of Ohara, Sanzen-in Temple‘s cherry blossoms tend to bloom slightly later due to the region’s cooler temperatures. Around early to mid-April, approximately 500 cherry blossoms adorn the temple grounds, creating a stunning scene. For accurate bloom forecasts, consider checking online or consulting your hotel concierge.”

Sanzen-in Temple holds historical significance as one of Kyoto’s five Monzeki Temples, where members of the Imperial family traditionally served as head priests. The Ohara area, home to the temple, is renowned as the city’s vegetable garden, supplying delicious local delicacies to restaurants and dining tables. To enhance your Ohara experience, Aiko recommends exploring eateries such as Somushi, a Korean-inspired restaurant, or Kulm, a charming café offering picturesque views.

Website: http://www.sanzenin.or.jp/en/
Address: 540 Ohararaikoincho, Sakyo Ward, Kyoto, 601-1242, Japan
Phone: +81757442531
Instagram: @sanzenin_temple_official

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