For a short period each year, the cherry blossoms bloom in Japan. Danielle Rossetti was there to see the sakura trees in their full glory.
When the first blooms appear – in Kyoto, it’s usually around the first week of April – people flock to parks for hanami (flower-viewing) parties. They sit on blue plastic sheets with bento boxes and cases of sake. New workers show their devotion to the company by getting to the park early in the morning and reserving the best spot beneath the flowering masses of trees that look snow-laden and quite unreal. And other Japanese travel across town – even across the country – to temples and parks to see the best sakura, while websites are dedicated to daily updates on the progress of the blooms at various venues.
It’s only a tiny moment in each year, and we know many people who’ve worked in Japan or visited frequently and never had the good fortune to be there for those few precious days when the sakura bloom.
This year, we got lucky.
We took the red-eye to Tokyo Narita Airport, then caught the train into Tokyo Station and connected to the high-speed shinkansen through to Kyoto. We arrived by lunchtime – the train travels at up to 350km an hour and if it’s a clear day, you get a view of Mount Fuji on the way.
Sort out a JR Rail Pass before you go (buy the Exchange Order outside Japan and convert it to a ticket at one of the many JR Rail offices in stations in major cities) and you can enjoy 7, 14 or 21 days unlimited train travel all over the country. This also includes JR lines in Tokyo, such as the Yamanote line that takes you through most of the major sights in a loop around the central section of the city. Be warned: A number of different operators run different rail networks within Tokyo, so changing lines at a station often means five levels of escalators up to the surface, crossing a road, then re-entering another station a few feet away.
In Kyoto, we stayed in a traditional ryokan (guest house) called the Seikoro Inn and hired a walking-tour guide for a day to show us around the major temples. Walking and using taxis, you can see a lot of the city.
We spent a whole afternoon here, wandering through corridors of hundreds of red tori gates, and looking at small shrines and cemeteries that are tucked into the wooded hillsides.
Built completely of wood in 1266, this building has 1,000 statues of Buddha (each with 40 arms and 11 faces) ranked in rows along its length. From here, take a taxi to:
Trekking up the hill past the teapot shops feels a little touristy, but the sakura was stunning around the massive temple, and there’s a small waterfall with apparently therapeutic properties; the monks dress in white and bathe in the waters at night after the tourists have left.
• Ninen-Zaka and Sannen-Zaka
Leading away from the Kiyomizu-dera, these charming little streets hold businesses handed down through generations – the letterboxes show that people still live in the tiny wooden houses.
Blue plastic sheets aplenty in this park, with the most amazing display of cherry blossoms in one place. The trees are lit up at night and the partying goes for hours. Ignore the cawing crows and wander with the locals.
Just beyond the Maruyama-koen is the Yasaka Shrine, with bunches of grass and rope to symbolize the rice crop, and rows and rows of lanterns.
Through the shrine and across the road and you are in Gion, home of the geisha. Metal plaques on the doors indicate a geisha business, while wooden slats show which girls are in and available at the time. Note that any geisha you see around Kyoto (except in the early evening in Gion) will almost certainly be a tourist who enjoys dressing up and having her photo taken.
The Nishiki Market, also in this area, has the most amazing range of fresh, pickled and dried produce, takeaway food, knife shops, flowers, and ancient machines shaving bonito (dried fish as hard as wood).
From Hankyu-Karasuma station, take the train to Arashimaya station (change at Katsura). Walk straight through the car park toward the river, where picnics are held on the steel grey stones under the sakura trees. Paddleboats can be hired, and restaurants line the river.
Cross the river and walk the length of the shops and restaurants, heading towards the Bamboo Grove. The view is spectacular along the way.
Pass through the stand of tall bamboo and through to the Tenryu-Ji temple with its lovely gardens. Traditional Japanese gardens always contain water, stones and pine trees.
Another train, this time to Ryoanji station. Wander through suburban streets to the temple with its famous walled garden and raked stones.
A 20-minute walk will take you to the Golden Pavilion, where the Shogun used to house visiting dignitaries.
We saved one whole morning for the Philosophers’ Walk where people have strolled over centuries and admired the cherry blossoms which line the canal from Ginkaku-Ji (a lovely temple with gardens that include raked cones of white sand and a meandering path around the temple and gardens) to Nanzen-ji. Sit on the verandah edge and contemplate life for a while.
The shinkansen runs every 20 minutes or so, so you can arrive at the ultra-modern Kyoto train station at any time during the day to book your trip back to Tokyo. Pop down to the basement of the adjoining Isetan department store to pick up a bento box or some sushi for the trip (now that you know how the locals do it) and enjoy your ride back to the 21st century!
• Ryokan Seikoro
• JR Rail Pass (buy before you go!)
• Walking Tour Guide:
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