Ranking of Kyoto’s Sakura Spots (Part 2)

April 1 – 4, 2014

Photo set on Flickr

Click here for Part 1 of the ranking. Again, this ranking only applies to the early cherry blossom season.

Don’t Miss

Daigo-ji 醍醐寺

This is another one of those places where I would not have visited if not for its cherry blossoms. Alas, Daigo-ji is one of the “Top 100 cherry blossom spots in Japan” as compiled by the Japan Cherry Blossom Association, making it a mandatory stop during the sakura season.

Of all the places on this sakura mission, visiting Daigo-ji demanded the most money and time. Getting to Daigo from Gion took about 40 minutes by subway, then another five minutes from the station to the temple by shuttle bus. The ¥1,000 combo ticket was the most expensive I paid anywhere in Kyoto.

Was my effort well-rewarded? The answer is …probably… yes. Daigo-ji indeed has an abundance of cherry trees, which were mostly in full bloom when I visited. The most impressive batch, ironically, is planted along a corridor outside of Reihou-kan (霊宝館) in a free area. Yet I don’t find Daigo-ji’s sakura to be superior than, say, Keage Incline Railway’s. The temple’s fame does make bypassing it a difficult decision, thus my lukewarm endorsement.

Sanbo-in garden
I used my combo tickets to gain entrance to Sanbo-in (三宝院) and Garan (伽藍). Sanbo-in is a sub-temple dating back to 1115 and reconstructed by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1598. Photography is not allowed inside Sanbo-in. I personally don’t find the temple and the few cherry trees in the garden interesting enough to justify my time.

Garan is a large area that includes the picturesque Benten-dō (弁天堂), a Buddhist temple dedicated to Benzaiten (Sarasvati), goddess of knowledge and liberal arts. Not many cherry trees are planted, but I found this prime autumn foliage spot quite beautiful even during off-season.

Sakura Index: 4/5
Opening hours: 9:00 to 17:00
Admission fee: ¥600 for one attraction, ¥1,000 for two, ¥1,500 for three
Transport: ¥300 for round trip bus outside of Daigo Subway Station

Tenryu-ji 天龍寺

Ōhōjō and Zen Garden, Tenryu-ji
While not known as a sakura-viewing spot, Tenryu-ji, my second favorite temple in Kyoto, contains the single most impressive cherry tree among the thousands I have come across on this trip. There are also many other kinds of flowers in full bloom, including plum and papaya.

History has not been kind to Tenryu-ji; it was burned down nine times since its founding in 1339 and all of the current buildings were rebuilt relatively recently in the late 19th century. It is however home to one of the most impressive Zen gardens in Kyoto, and given its location next to the famous bamboo groves, anyone who plans to visit Arashiyama should circle Tenryu-ji as a priority.

Sakura Index: 4/5
Opening hours: 8:30 to 17:30
Admission fee: ¥600 for temple and garden
Transport: Keifuku Arashiyama Station on Keifuku-Arashiyama Line

The Best

Philosopher’s Path 哲學之道

Philosopher’s Path
The Philosopher’s Path, for 350 days of the year, is a quaint walkway that accommodated the daily meditation of the late philosopher Kitaro Nishida, but during the two weeks when sakura blooms it is transformed into one of the most crowded places in Kyoto, and possibly on Earth. With good reason – who doesn’t love the sight of row upon row of white cherry blossoms lining up neatly above a gentle stream? Just don’t expect any resemblance of tranquility during this time.

Those tired of cherry blossom can make detours to the numerous temples along the path, such as Nanzen-ji (covered in Part 1), Honen-in (法然院) and Ginkaku-ji (銀閣寺), all of which I enjoyed.

Sakura Index: 4.5/5
Opening hours: Always open
Admission fee: Free
Transport: Bus 17, 102, 203 then walk south from Ginkaku-ji

Nakanoshima Park, Arashiyama 嵐山中之島公園

In the past, I never understand the hype of Arashiyama. Besides the ugly bridge with the beautiful name (Togetsukyō, lit. Moon Crossing Bridge), what’s there to see besides trees?

The key lies within the trees. You see, as repeatedly mentioned throughout these rankings, visiting these places at the right time is extremely important. Many of the trees in Arashiyama are in fact cherry, and in early spring this becomes one of the best spots in Kyoto for sakura-viewing. Like Ninna-ji and Diago-ji, Arashiyama is also one of the top 100 sakura-viewing spots in Japan, highlighted by the riverside Nakanoshima Park (lit. Middle of the Island Park).

Nakanoshima Park
On a side note, everywhere in Kyoto I have bumped into DSLR-wielding people who obviously have no idea on how to use their gears, but this one lady from Hong Kong who I bumped into at Nakanoshima Park clearly takes the cake. For some reasons she had attached an external flash to her DSLR, and when she asked me to take a picture of her group, it was obvious from the setting of her camera she had no idea what she was doing. The result was the constant firing of her flash, even for landscape shots under the midday sun.

Sakura Index: 5/5
Opening hours: Always open
Admission fee: Free
Transport: Keifuku Arashiyama Station on Keifuku-Arashiyama Line

Shirakawa-minami Dori, Gion 祇園白川南通 (Night)

Shirakawa, Gion
On the first evening when I visited Maruyama Park, I wasn’t too impressed with seeing the cherry blossoms at night. The light-colored petals easily become overexposed under the bright lights. Besides, I found the whole atmosphere a little theme-park-like and gimmicky.

But I experienced a 180° change of heart the next evening during my visit to the place with the most beautiful cherry blossom in Kyoto (more on that in a moment). If not, however, for its unbearable crowd, the section of Gion along Shirakawa-minami Dori might very well receive my vote as the best sakura-viewing spot in town. That’s not to say Gion doesn’t resemble a theme park, but I am willing to turn a blind eye because its cherry blossoms are so amazingly photogenic at night.

Let me backtrack a little to mention there are numerous sakura spots in Gion, particularly along the district’s many waterways such as Kamogawa (鴨川), Shirakawa (白川) and Takasegawa (高瀬川). Many people do prefer quieter spots, but the stretch of Shirakawa along Shirakawa-minami Dori is commonly acknowledged to be where the most spectacular cherry blossoms reside in Gion. Adding the fact that here is a tourist’s best bet to bump into a geisha, it is no wonder why hundreds of people congregate on this narrow alley throughout the night.

Pedestrian Zone between Shirakawa-minami Dori and Kamogawa
Even when you are fed up with the crowd, be sure to continue to head west until you have reached the Kamo River, where you will find a small pedestrian zone towered over by a impenetrable canopy of cherry blossoms.

Sakura Index: 5/5
Opening hours: Always open
Admission fee: Free
Transport: Gion-Shijo Subway Station

Nijo-jo 二条城 (Night)

Finally we have arrived at the no. 1 spot on my ranking, Nijo-jo (Nijo Castle). Only the garden is opened to the public at night, so for those who would like to visit the castle you will have to do it during its day time opening hours (8:30 – 16:00).

The sakura at Shirakawa-minami Dori and Nijo-jo are both top-notch, but the latter has the benefit of a fenced off area where people can’t walk under the cherry trees. Taking also into account its slightly smaller crowd, it is much easier to take photos at Nijo-jo than most of the other famous sakura spots.

If you stay until the castle closes, you will get to experience the somewhat heavy-handed method by the staff to evict the remaining visitors. Fifteen minutes before closing time a dozen of so of the staff will lock their arms with one another and begin pressuring the visitor towards the exit in the form of a human wall. They won’t lay a finger on you, but they will be right behind your back and repeat the same sentence about the need for you to abide the castle’s schedule and leave now. At 21:30 sharp they will turn to their ultimate trick – turning off all the lights on the ground. 

The response was a collective “oh” from the crowd, followed immediately by laughters. So, I wonder, why the need for the anti-riot police tactic if they can just turn off the light at the moment the castle is scheduled to close?

Sakura Index: 5/5
Opening hours: 18:00 – 21:30
Admission fee: ¥600
Transport: Nijo Subway Station

Final Word

My schedule for these four days:
Day 1 – Hotel at 18:00; Maruyama Park, Kiyomizu-dera
Day 2 – Chion-ji, Heian jingū, Philosopher’s Path, Honen-in, Ginkaku-ji; Gion; Diago-ji; New hotel at 19:30; Nijo-jo
Day 3 – Arashiyama, Tenryu-ji; Ninna-ji, Myoshin-ji, Ryoan-ji, Hirano-jinja; New hotel at 19:30; Gion
Day 4 – Keage Incline Railway, Nanzen-ji; Airport

Just looking back at my ambitious schedule tires me out. The omnipresent crowd wears my patience thin. Hay fever is sapping my life rapidly – I feel like a part of me has died on the second day when I sneezed no less than a hundred times. The cherry blossoms all look the same after thousands of them in succession. And as noted before, sakura is not meant to be enjoyed alone.

All that said, I still have great fun. The cherry blossoms look great on camera and even better in person – any excuse to get me back to Kyoto is good enough for me.



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