Ranking of Kyoto’s Sakura Spots (Part 1)

April 1 – 4, 2014

Photo set on Flickr

Thanks to cheap flights and an agreeable schedule, I find myself back in Kyoto right in time for the start of its sakura (cherry blossom) season. I actually prefer to come back in the autumn, but November is anticipated to be hectic this year – better capitalize on what’s certain now. I am traveling by myself again because my wife knows with a subject like cherry blossom I will be spending 12 hours shooting photos each day and she wants no part of that.

Japan has increased its consumption tax from 5% to 8%, beginning from April 1, my date of arrival. Everything from transportation to food has become more expensive. A good way to stretch your budget is to eat at gyūdon (beef rice bowl) fast food chains like Sukiya and Matsuya, where a meal costs less today than ten years ago.

Kyoto’s accommodation is unbelievably expensive during the sakura season. What I have found out is same-day promotion is often availaible on the Japanese website Rakuten Travel. I have stayed at three different accommodations over my three nights in Kyoto. None cost more than ¥‎8,900 (100 yen = 0.98 USD), which was what I paid for アパホテル〈京都祇園〉EXCELLENT, located right at the heart of Gion and is normally priced at ¥‎16,000 per night.

Kyoto’s sakura season officially begins on March 27 this year and usually lasts for around two weeks. There are numerous viewing spots over town, but do keep in mind that different cherry tree varieties bloom on different dates. For example, Somei Yoshino, the most common type of sakura in Japan, is an earlier bloomer, while Ninna-ji’s Omuro sakura only opens at the tail end of the sakura season. Everything I write only applies to the beginning of the sakura season, so when I say Ninna-ji is not worth visiting, that is only because I didn’t visit in season.

Between suffering from a severe bout of hay fever and nonstop photo shooting, I am absolutely spent at this point. I did manage to visit most of the famous sakura-viewing spots over the past 2.5 days and here are my thoughts and tips on each of them.

Too early

Ninna-ji 仁和寺

Five-story Pagoda, Ninna-ji

I knew it wasn’t in season yet, but since it was right next to Ryoan-ji I decided to check out Ninna-ji. There were a few Somei Yoshino cherry trees in full bloom, but the Omuro variety was at least a week away. The temple grounds is unexceptional, and because of a lack of time I decided to give the Goten (former residence of the head priest) and its ¥500 admission fee a pass.

Sakura Index: n/a
Opening hours: 8:00 to 17:00
Admission fee: ¥500 for the temple grounds during sakura season
Transport: Omuro Ninnaji Station on the Keifuku Kitano Line

Mediocre

Ryoan-ji 龍安寺

Zen Garden, Ryoan-ji

This has to be the most overrated site in Kyoto. Don’t get me wrong – I like Zen garden, but I just don’t see how Ryoan-ji’s stands above all others. It is the largest and that’s about it.

Ryoan-ji is not a prime sakura-viewing spot, so feel free to allocate your time elsewhere if you have seen its Zen garden before.

Sakura Index: 1.5/5
Opening hours: 8:00 to 17:00
Admission fee: ¥500
Transport: Ryoanji-michi Station on the Keifuku Kitano Line

Chion-ji 知恩寺

Sanmon, Chion-ji

Except for the largest surviving sanmon (the most important gate of a Japanese Zen Temple) in Japan, there isn’t much to see at Chion-ji as its main hall is under renovation until 2019. Some sparse sakura scatter around the complex – nothing to get excited about.

Chion-ji is located right in the midst of the sakura trail between Gion and Philosopher’s Path in Eastern Kyoto. You will come across it one way or another – it is your choice if you want to take a quick look.

Sakura Index: 1.5/5
Opening hours: 9:00 to 16:30
Admission fee: Free for temple grounds
Transport: Higashiyama Subway Station

Nanzen-ji 南禪寺

Hattō, Nanzen-ji

Nanzen-ji is my favorite temple/shrine in all of Kyoto, home to perhaps the town’s most bizarre sight – a Meiji-era aqueduct amid the serene temple grounds.

Famous for its autumn foliage but not so much for sakura, nonetheless I have a soft spot for Nanzen-ji and I recommend anyone who heads to the Philosopher’s Path to also drop by for a visit.

Sakura Index: 1.5/5
Opening hours: 8:40 to 17:00
Admission fee: Free for temple grounds
Transport: Keage Subway Station

Half bloom

Taizō-in, Myōshin-ji 妙心寺退蔵院

Taizō-in, Myōshin-ji

All over town during the sakura season you will find a poster of a beautiful Shidarezakura (weeping cherry) advertising a little-known temple called Taizō-in, part of the sprawling Myōshin-ji temple complex.

The subject of the poster was only about 30% opened when I visited. It would be a much better time to visit a week later, probably along with the nearby Ninna-ji.

Sakura Index: 2.5/5
Opening hours: 9:00 to 17:00
Admission fee: ¥500
Transport: Myoshinji Station on the Keifuku Kitano Line

Heian-jingū Garden 平安神宮神苑

Heian-jingu Garden

Another place I visited one week too early. Most of the sakura, especially the ones along the shore of the garden’s large lake, were only 30% – 50% opened.

Heian-jingu Garden

That said, Heian-jingu’s large varieties of cherry blossoms ensure it would not be a lost cause to visit early in the sakura season. The sakura in the rear part of the beautiful garden were about 80% opened.

Sakura Index: 2.5/5
Opening hours: 8:30 to 17:00
Admission fee: ¥600
Transport: Bus 100 or Higashiyama Subway Station

Full bloom

Kiyomizu-dera 清水寺(Night)

Kiyomizu-dera

For a few weeks during the sakura and koyo (autumn foliage) seasons a handful of sites in Kyoto will open their doors at night, including Kiyomizu-dera, in my opinion the town’s most iconic attraction.

Kiyomizu-dera

The highest concentration of cherry trees is located next to a pond near the exit. Still doesn’t account to much when compares to the neighboring Maruyama Park, but even without an abundance of sakura the draw of seeing an illuminated Kiyomizu-dera in the dark is too much to pass up.

Sakura Index: 3/5
Opening hours: 18:30 to 21:30
Admission fee: ¥400
Transport: Bus 100 or 206

Hirano-jinja 平野神社 (Night)

Hirano-jinja

Hirano-jinja, a Shinto Shrine located near the Kitanohakubaicho Station on the Keifuku Kitano Line, might seems unassuming at first glance, yet every year comes the sakura season this is one of the most beloved spot in Kyoto, thanks to the presence of 400 cherry trees over 60 varieties.

Hirano-jinja

Unlike the temples and shrines already mentioned, hanami (flower viewing) parties are allowed at the park next to the shrine. Tourists and locals alike gather under the cherry trees with their friends and families, bonding over beer and food.

Sakura Index: 3/5
Opening hours: Until 21:00
Admission fee: Free
Transport: Bus 205, 50, 15, 55

Maruyama Park 円山公園 (Night)

Maruyama Park’s famous Shidarezakura

Maruyama Park is another massively popular hanami spot. In fact, due to its location next to Gion, this park probably draws the largest crowd every night in Kyoto during the sakura season.

Inside the park is the most photographed cherry tree in Kyoto, a large Shidarezakura that was first planted in 1886, then again in 1947 followed the withering of the first incarnation.

I recognized a few food stalls from my last visit back in January, including a curry stall owns by a Japanese-fluent Indian. Food is not cheap, ranging from ¥300 – ¥500 per serving.

Maruyama Park

For Japanese, sakura viewing is as much a social event as appreciation of nature. My single-minded pursuit of photograph seems to go against what these beautiful flowers are all about. Not that I am feeling sorry for myself – I have taken some good photos on this trip and I can always come back next time with my family and friends.

Sakura Index: 3.5/5
Opening hours: Until 1:00 am
Admission fee: Free
Transport: Bus 100 or 206

Keage Incline Railway 蹴上傾斜鐵道

Keage Incline Railway

Nowhere is the prevalence of visitors from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong more noticeable than at this abandoned railway living a second life as a famous sakura-viewing spot with about 100 cherry trees. All I could hear when I arrived at 8:30 am were Mandarin and Cantonese. Just to clarify myself – this is not an exaggeration – nobody was speaking Japanese. At all. There were two couples from Hong Kong doing their pre-wedding photos to boot.

This place is extremely popular, so come early if you want to take photos without a huge crowd in the foreground.

Sakura Index: 3.5/5
Opening hours: Always open
Admission fee: Free
Transport: Keage Subway Station

Click here for Part 2 of the ranking. 

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