8 Secret Cherry Blossom Spots in Kyoto Only Locals Would Know
Many people who visit Japan in spring do so in order to see the beautiful and iconic cherry blossoms, also known as "sakura" in Japanese. In this article, an editor for a publishing company in Kyoto shares with you some little-known sakura spots, specially selected for those who would rather enjoy the cherry blossoms quietly and away from the usual crowds. If you think hotspots like Daigo-ji Temple and Maruyama Park are too packed with people to fully appreciate the cherry blossoms in peace, then try one of these secret places that are still unknown to most tourists not only from abroad but even those from Japan or Kyoto itself!
Feb 04 2020 (Sep 09 2020)
It is said that the ancient Uho-in Temple was built over 1,000 years ago. In Kyoto, cherry trees are normally estimated to bloom in early April, but this place is a late-bloomer by Kyoto standards: peak blooming season is mid-April to late April, just like the Omuro Sakura in the more famous Ninna-ji Temple, which are famously the latest cherry blossoms in Kyoto. Here, a narrow area is literally canopied with cherry blossoms, and everything around you is pink, no matter where you look. Plus, there are many rare cherry tree species with multi-layered petals, such as Kannon, Kanki, and Shogetsu, and seeing all of them bloom together at the same time is truly breathtaking.
Moreover, near the temple gate, you'll also be able to admire the super-rare Gyoinko, a type of cherry tree whose flowers have a light-green color. Although well-known for these beautiful cherry trees, this temple doesn't have that many visitors, so it's definitely a great spot for tourists. The blooming period doesn't coincide with the regular cherry-blossom high season, and the best time to visit this place is after most Kyoto sakura sightseers have left. Go on a weekday to get all the fully-bloomed cherry trees for yourself, and you'll feel like the luckiest person on Earth.
Adjacent to Kawaramachi, which is Kyoto's major shopping district and the birthplace of ikebana (art of flower arrangement), Rokkaku-do Temple is in the heart of the city, and it's within a 5-minute walk from Karasuma Station on the Hankyu Line. Considered the centermost point of Kyoto, it's marked by a hexagonal stone called "hesoishi", and it's a popular rest spot not only among tourists but also the locals and people who work in the neighborhood.
Yet, only a few visitors come to the temple for its cherry trees. One of the reasons may be that, compared to famous sakura spots, these cherry trees start blooming a little earlier, in late March. In the temple premises, you'll find Miyuki Sakura, which is a type of weeping cherry tree whose petals turn red after blooming. There are only a handful of trees planted in the area, but walking under the pink shower created by the cherry blossoms will be the highlight of your visit.
There are many other things to see in its tiny grounds, including the lovely 16 arhat statues lined up under the cherry trees, and the hexagonal main hall that the temple owes its name to ("rokkaku" means six angles). Come visit this super-accessible cherry-blossom site!
Kumano Nyakuoji Jinja Shrine
Philosopher Kitaro Nishida used to practice meditation while walking along this branch of the Lake Biwa Canal, and that's why this road was named "Tetsugaku-no-michi", or the Philosopher's Path. The whole 2km of this narrow lane is lined with cherry trees that create a stunning tunnel, through which thousands of tourists pass every spring. On the south side of the Philosopher's Path is the Kumano Nyakuoji Jinja Shrine, and not everyone knows that it hides a hill dotted with cherry trees. If you keep walking along the street that goes uphill behind the main shrine, past the "Cherry Blossom Garden" sign, you'll bump into some stone steps that look like they're being sucked in a slightly elevated hill. From there on, you'll find yourself in a surreal scene, surrounded by numerous cherry trees raising their bloomed branches towards the sky.
These are called Yoko Sakura, a unique species whose tree branches grow straight towards the sun. The best time to see them is a little earlier than the Somei Yoshino of the Philosopher's Path, whose peak season is early April; these particular cherry trees bloom between late March and early April. When they're fully bloomed, the contrast between the dark pink petals and the blue sky is marvelous. This small hill is not crowded at all, and you won't believe the noisy and packed Philosopher's Path is just a few steps away. You can enjoy these beautiful sakura at your own pace, while looking at the townscape of Kyoto below.
You may have heard of Shinnyo-do Temple as one of Kyoto's fall foliage hotspots, but it's lately been gaining a more quiet recognition as a sakura spot as well! For Japanese tourists who associate the temple with its colorful autumn leaves, it's hard for them to imagine it with cherry blossoms, hence there are fewer visitors in the spring than in the autumn. Several sakura species entertain the visitors of this temple: Somei Yoshino Sakura welcome you to the main hall, the 3-storied pagoda is framed by beautiful weeping cherry trees, and there is also the Tatekawa Sakura, so named for the vertical bark (= "tatekawa") on its trunk. Plus, all these scenic sakura views are for free! This place is a must-visit in both spring and fall.
While you're at it, you may also enjoy the cherry trees of Munetada Jinja Shrine, which is in front of Shinnyo-do's main gate, or those at Konkai Komyo-ji Temple, both highly appreciated by the locals as well. Don't miss this chance for a relaxing stroll away from the hustle and bustle.
Along the Ujigawa Haryu Canal (Fushimi)
Ujigawa Haryu is a canal originally built to transport materials for the construction of Fushimi Castle ordered by national ruler Toyotomi Hideyoshi. It flourished as a water transportation town, and the water in this area was used to make sake, hence there are still lots of refined sake cellars. That same canal can be visited from spring to fall on a sightseeing cruise called Fushimi Jikkokubune, which is definitely worth taking. Enjoy the colorful sakura as the boat proceeds on the willow-lined canal.
During the 50-minute trip, you can make a stop to visit the Misu Locks and its museum. Admire the evocative panorama of sake cellars and cherry trees, and plunge into this area full of history.
In front of Seiryutei
Soldier and politician Yamagata Aritomo, writer Ueda Akinari, Panasonic founder Konosuke Matsushita, and many other people whose names have gone down in history built their holiday houses in the neighborhood of Nanzen-ji Temple. Further examples are Hekiunso, the villa of Nomura Holdings founder Tokushichi Nomura, and Seiryutei, of the navy soldier Heihachiro Togo, both of which have been designated Important Cultural Assets by the country. These two villas are separated by a path lined with stunning, deep-red weeping cherry trees. Literally overflowing from the fence of Seiryutei, you'll see a continuous downpour of pink flowers going on for dozens of meters. Seiryutei is a private property generally closed to the public, but everyone can get close to the villa to admire these beautiful sakura blooming in profusion, creating a spot that locals love.
Keep walking down the lane until you get to the triple gate of Nanzen-ji Temple, and you'll find yourself surrounded by the solemn atmosphere of the Japanese upper class. Most tourists, from the Philosopher's Path, pass by the Eikan-do Temple and head directly to Nanzen-ji Temple, but you will have to remember to drop by the Nomura villa.
Senbon Shaka-do Hall
Merged into the quiet townscape of the Nishijin area, Senbon Shaka-do Hall is not only the oldest wooden main temple building in Kyoto, but it's also renowned for its many Buddhist and architectural features, as well as Important Cultural Properties like the statue of the Six Manifestations of Avalokitesvara and one of the Buddha. There's one single weeping cherry tree in its precincts called Okame Sakura that, despite its small and sparse petals, is somehow enchanting.
The name "Okame" refers to the wife of the master carpenter who worked at the construction of the main temple. When he made a mistake measuring an important pillar and ended up cutting it too short, she gave him useful advice to get out of trouble but then committed suicide just before the construction was complete, because "it would have been shameful for a master carpenter to fulfill such an important task only thanks to the wisdom of his wife". The weeping sakura blooming right in front of her statue looks as fragile as the Okame of the legend.
Kyoto Prefectural Office (Ex-Main Building)
Built in 1901, the former main building of the Kyoto Prefectural Office is a little-known sakura spot. Here you can enjoy an unusual sight in Kyoto, of a brick building amidst cherry trees. The facility is now used as a conference hall, and it's considered the oldest government building in Japan that retains its original appearance. The inner garden hosts 7 cherry trees of 6 different types, and it's open to visitors every year from mid-March to early April, when there is a "Sakura Viewing Festival". The historical "Gion weeping sakura" blooming in the center of the garden is the grandchild of the famous 1st-generation weeping sakura in Maruyama Park. The cherry blossoms can be seen from both inside and outside, but the most recommended is the magnificent view of the Gion weeping sakura through the windows of the 2nd floor.
Other photogenic spots you can't miss are the arch at the entrance of the 1st floor and the inner garden entrance from which you get to see the whole building with the cherry trees. This is a great opportunity to enjoy Kyoto sakura in a different setting from the usual shrine or temple.
Of course, if you don't mind braving the crowds you could always check out our list for some of the more famous places to visit (or maybe have a look to see where to avoid if you aren't so fond of crowds) for sakura viewing!
If you're planning a trip to Japan this spring, check out our 2020 Cherry Blossom Forecast! This article includes the most beautiful cherry blossoms spots in Japan and exactly when they're forecasted to be in their peak in 2020, giving you all you need to know for an amazing spring visit.
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Title Image: MyPixelDiaries / Shutterstock
The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.