The blooming of Japan’s cherry blossoms heralds a springtime celebration – saké flows freely, geisha adorn the streets and manicured parks are awash with pink. Kirsty Munro joins the petal party in Kyoto.
Every March, like clockwork, Japan rouses from the long winter. The grey, sludgy snow melts, the bitter cold retreats and hundreds of thousands of cherry trees, so barren and dark, sprout tiny buds on their silver branches.
Suddenly, it’s game on. Television reporters scramble to report the relentless march of the sakura (cherry blossom) front that starts in Okinawa, in the south, and moves with military precision up the Japanese archipelago. Stern officials count the number of buds on designated trees and issue official reports with daily in-bloom percentages.
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On cue, thousands of people from all walks of life unfurl their blue plastic picnic sheets, unpack their festive bento boxes and pop open limited-edition sakura-decorated bottles of beer and saké for their hanami (flower viewing) parties under the trees.
It’s the perfect collision of commerce and camaraderie. But nature is capricious. The best weekend for a hanami party falls around April 1 and almost invariably sees the weather turn cold and grey again as revellers huddle on the chilly ground in their winter coats; it’s nature’s own April Fools’ prank.
Cherry blossoms are beautiful anywhere but something about the contrast between the pale, delicate flowers and the traditional dark timber houses draws us all to Kyoto.
It’s also the busy season for the city’s elegant and mysterious geisha, who hurry through the streets with tiny staccato steps on their way to appointments in private tea houses. You have a good chance of seeing them at one of the outdoor cherry blossom parties and you’ll definitely see them at the Miyako Odori spring dance recitals, when the geisha and maiko (apprentice geisha) of the Gion district show off their elaborate kimonos.
Like many Tokyoites, I rushed to book a seat on the Shinkansen (bullet train) as soon as tickets went on sale, in order to arrive in Kyoto at the peak of pinkness. Beware: everyone else has the same idea and hotels in the city book out months ahead. The 12th-century poet Saigyō said it best: “The cherries’ only fault: the crowds that gather when they bloom.”
The beauty and meaning of sakura is in their fleeting appearance. The most common variety, the five-petalled Somei Yoshino, are in full bloom for a scant week, conjuring the spirit of the samurai who revered them, unafraid to die at “the peak of beauty”. But they are also beautiful and bittersweet as they fade; petals swirl and flutter on the breeze, carpeting the rivers and streets in pastel pink.
The poetic association between fearless samurai and ephemeral blossoms reached its height in the Heian period, when Kyoto was Japan’s capital. Emperors and warlords held formal hanami parties where the nobles competed to compose spring poems while their elegant guests sipped saké. The drink is still a big part of the celebrations, which are now decidedly more garrulous, with poetry recitals giving way to karaoke and cosplay (costume play) under the paper lanterns.
You can still experience the grand Heian tradition of hanami at Daigo-ji in the city’s east. In 1598, the temple was the scene of a massive party organised by warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who certainly knew how to throw a bash. It’s said he invited 1300 people, planted about 700 cherry trees and built eight tea houses for the occasion; the women changed outfits at least three times during the day. Every year, on the second Sunday in April, the event is re-enacted with parades, classical court music and dances.
Heian-jingū Shrine also holds to tradition, with tea ceremonies held under the flowers for a calmer, more reflective experience.
The popular way to celebrate is to gather with friends in a park, taking far too many bottles of saké and boxes of fried chicken, which you end up sharing with neighbouring revellers. Under the blossoms, hierarchy and sometimes decorum are forgotten and friendships form quickly, thanks to the tradition that a glass should never be empty. It’s considered lucky if a petal falls into your saké cup (it may take many cups to get lucky!).
The larger parks have legions of yatai (food stalls) with enticing aromas of yakitori chicken and salt-grilled fish on sizzling hotplates, cold beer and toffee strawberries.
One of the biggest parties in Kyoto runs every night in early April in Maruyama Park, where an illuminated weeping cherry tree with cascading blossoms – it’s the largest you’ll see – has its own doctor, Toemon Sano, to keep it in good health. As the park is close to Gion, geisha and maiko are often seen entertaining guests in their spring finery.
Early one morning, after surviving the evening’s celebrations, I decide to avoid the crowds at Kiyomizu-dera Temple and take the Philosopher’s Path before the tour groups arrive. Starting at Zen temple Ginkaku-ji, where pink blossoms contrast with precisely raked gravel, I have the walk to myself.
The path meanders beside a canal towards Higashiyama through residential areas dotted with teashops and shrines. You could do the walk in less than half an hour but its quiet beauty, blushed pink with scattered petals, encourages dawdling.
Lovely as the city is, the place that draws me back again and again is the mountain village of Ohara, an hour north of the centre. The winding main street is lined with shops selling rice crackers and chilled cucumbers to snack on while strolling to Sanzen-in Temple, its secret, mossy gardens dotted with chubby Jizō statues watched over by weeping cherry blossoms.
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After getting my fill of manicured greenery, I walk past the pretty thatched farmhouses and tidy fields down to the river, which is lined with wild, unkempt cherry trees. Before I leave this lovely hideaway, the soft, savoury scent of the white miso for which this town is famous beckons from local restaurants promising a bowl of umami-rich broth and fresh tofu to banish the chill of early spring.
I have just enough time before the next bus back to town.
Where to stay
Escape the crowds by staying at Hoshinoya in Arashiyama, in Kyoto’s north-west, which is famous for its spectacular bamboo forest. As if in a fairytale, you reach this luxurious traditional ryokan (inn) by boat, gliding past blossom-covered mountains. All rooms face the Katsura River, with sliding paper screens that open to reveal cherry blossoms you can almost touch. At night, the gardens are softly lit for strolling. Be sure to take your matcha tea in the floating tearoom, a wooden platform high above the trees that makes you feel as if you’re suspended on sakura clouds.
For such a storied city, Kyoto has surprisingly few international luxury hotels. But the recently opened Ritz-Carlton, which bills itself as an urban resort, has started a trend and names such as Westin and Aman are also putting down roots. Right on the Kamogawa River, The Ritz-Carlton is in the middle of the cherry blossom action but is blissfully peaceful. The best room is the traditional Garden Terrace Suite Tatami with private Zen gardens and sweeping views over the river and mountains. All rooms overlook the river, which is one of Kyoto’s favourite spots for an evening walk under the blossoms.
This boutique hotel, perfectly located in the middle of Gion, has seven rooms and offers service and attention to detail that bring many repeat visitors. The rooms at Mume are Western style but decorated with Japanese antiques. The Flower guestroom – ideal in spring – has a balcony fronting the Shirakawa River and a bed enclosed within bamboo screens.
The freshly renovated Anteroom is a unique blend of hotel, residence and art space. The rooms have a minimalist retro feel with Mid-century Modern furniture. There are no famous views but the Terrace Twin Rooms have a private outdoor terrace with loads of natural light. A cool whisky bar attracts Kyoto’s late-night art cognoscenti. Just out of the busy tourist area, the hotel is minutes from Tōji Temple’s spacious cherry blossom garden and iconic pagoda, a symbol of Kyoto. ￼
Where to eat
When a geisha likes a restaurant, she leaves a personal paper uchiwa (fan) as a calling card. The impressive number of fans at elegant Gion Mametora (570-235 Gionmachi Minamigawa, Higashiyama) marks it as a local favourite. The food is traditional with a modern twist and the must-try dish is the Jewel Box: spherical morsels of colourful sushi presented on a wooden tray. It’s almost too pretty to eat.
Follow the line of hungry patrons to Oku (570-119 Gionmachi Minamigawa, Higashiyama), a popular restaurant in Gion. Chef Hisato Nakahigashi presides over the prestigious, expensive restaurant at the Miyamasou ryokan in the mountains north of the city but he opened this casual space to bring his innovative obanzai to a wider audience. Obanzai is the traditional home cooking of Kyoto, with a focus on local organic ingredients. At lunch and dinner, opt for one of the reasonably priced sets that give you a taste of everything or stand at the bar and have snacks with wine or saké.
A short stroll from the Nishiki food market, this venerable ryokan specialises in Kyoto kaiseki (traditional multi-course dinner). The dishes served at Kinmata change daily – perhaps sashimi presented like a chrysanthemum, pine mushrooms grilled at the table or a clear soup scented with eel liver. This is world-class dining that won’t cripple your wallet.
Tasuki by Pass the Baton
In the heart of Gion, Pass the Baton has turned a machiya (traditional townhouse) into a retail fantasy of second-hand designer pieces and traditional Kyoto crafts. In the elegant tea and saké room, matcha tea and wagashi (sweets) are presented on whimsical antique tableware – a Japanese version of the Mad Hatter’s tea party. There’s a good selection of saké by the glass and seasonal snacks.
% Arabica Kyoto
Kenneth Shoji, the owner of % Arabica Kyoto, is so passionate about the brew that he bought his own coffee farm in Hawaii. With a latte-art world champion and a dedicated team of baristas, he opened a coffee house in a minimalist concrete box on the river in Arashiyama and another in the Higashiyama district, close to the geisha area. In fact, one of his baristas is a former maiko.
When to go
Predicting mankai, the day the cherry blossoms reach full bloom, is difficult and depends on the weather. Generally, they start blooming in the last week in March, peak at the beginning of April then start to fall a week later. Hotels in Kyoto book out early so organise accommodation several months ahead; nearby cities Nara and Osaka also offer good options.
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