The pros and cons of visiting Kyoto in Cherry Blossom season

July 7, 2020
The stunning Golden Pavilion in Kyoto

Visiting Kyoto in cherry blossom season is like a double-edged Samurai sword!

On the one hand I loved it because Kyoto is so pretty and picturesque in cherry blossom season. It feels romantic, almost like a fairy tale, with the beautiful blossoms adorning parks and dotting the landscape.

But it’s not all pretty pink petals. On the flip side the crowds in Kyoto during cherry blossom season are a big turn-off. Who really wants to share their holiday crammed into the same tight spaces with 30,000 other people you’ve never met?

Some of the most iconic and inspiring (perhaps overused) travel images are from sites in Kyoto, like the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest and the Fushimi Inari Shrine. They’ve been on my travel to do list for some time.  Excellent idea. Not such great timing.

Timing your trip to Kyoto for cherry blossom season

Our two-week trip centred on seeing the cherry blossoms in Kyoto and Tokyo and hiking the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail on the Kii peninsula, about 100 kilometres east of Osaka.

We timed our trip for the typical cherry blossom blooming dates in these areas, the end of March to mid-April. There’s no exact date the cherry trees flower so getting the timing right can be sheer luck; the season only lasts a couple of weeks and depends entirely on the weather.

Some years the trees might flower early if it’s been warmer than usual. Conversely, if it’s been unseasonably cold, the blooms might be a bit late and you could miss them altogether.

You need to keep an eye on the cherry blossom forecast. Japan’s Bureau of Meteorology and numerous websites  predict when the trees will burst into flower and provide daily updates on how the cherry trees are progressing, when the petals are likely to fall, and where to go for the best views.

Sakura (cherry blossom) season is a big deal in Japan. It’s one of the highlights of the year, symbolising rebirth and renewal with the onset of spring. The whole country gets swept up in the excitement and cherry blossom viewing parties, hanami, are extremely popular among locals.

We were lucky. While the cherry blossoms may not have been in full bloom in Tokyo and the petals starting to fall in Kyoto, the cherry trees were absolutely spectacular. We couldn’t get enough of them.

Cherry blossom trees on the Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto.

What we loved about Kyoto during cherry blossom season

#1 Kyoto love: Philosopher’s Path Cherry blossoms

The Philosopher’s Path is one of the most well-known cherry blossom viewing spots in Kyoto. The flowering cherry trees line a long canal with pathways on both sides and dozens of cafes, restaurants, shops and art galleries. It’s a peaceful, relaxing stroll through the blossoms. You need to be patient taking photos around the crowds but it’s a lovely sakura spot.

For other cherry blossom spots in Kyoto, read our How good is cherry blossom season in Japan post.

#2 Kyoto love: Gion, the Geisha district

We also enjoyed ambling through the Shirakawa area of Gion at sunset with all the old-style lanterns lit up along the banks of the canal.  We strolled beneath the cherry blossom and willow trees, soaking up the relaxed, unhurried atmosphere and the kind of hush that descends at dusk before the evening comes alive.

Gion is an historic district with charming shops, tiny laneways, restaurants and wine bars, and is Kyoto’s most famous geisha area. We were lucky enough to spot a geisha dashing between appointments as we wandered through the labyrinth of laneways.

We also stumbled upon a great little ramen restaurant, Ramen Muraji. It had a very unassuming entrance in a small side street not far from the canal, and as we ventured up a narrow staircase, we discovered a simply designed room with two large square tables that sat a maximum of 16 people. We timed our visit perfectly as on our way out a queue of people snaked down the stairs and spilled out the front door.

Delicious ramen at the Ramen Muraji restaurant in the Gion district of Kyoto.
Cherry blossom petals fill the canals in Kyoto
Beautiful pale pink cherry blossom petals build up in the canals in Kyoto.

#3 Kyoto love: Geisha Dance at Minamiza Theatre

One of the most sought-after things to do in Kyoto is to experience geisha entertainment. It’s extremely expensive however and you need a personal invitation. If you don’t have deep pockets and the right connections, you can do what we did and book a Geisha Dance performance at the famous Minamiza Theatre to see the Miyako Odori, reputedly the biggest and most spectacular geisha dance in Kyoto.

Designed for tourists, the geisha show has daily performances in April during the spring and busy cherry blossom season. The performance is a series of eight separate stories about the arrival of spring and lasts about 90 minutes. You can buy tickets online.

For the record there are some misconceptions about geishas, the most common is that they are prostitutes. This is not the case. Geishas are highly accomplished entertainers trained in traditional Japanese arts – they sing, dance and play musical instruments at private events.

#4 Kyoto love: Old style café heaven

We stayed in a lovely hotel in one of the main streets of Kyoto, the Royal Park Kyoto Sanjo.  

In the heart of tourist territory the hotel enjoyed many upsides: a supermarket right next door, a fabulous French bakery attached to the hotel, a three-minute walk to two subway stations, close to hundreds of restaurants, and our favourite discovery in Kyoto, a tiny, old-style coffee house.

Located just around the corner from our hotel, we had breakfast at Rokuyosha every morning. Its dark interior, wood panelling, cushy leather seats and low tables felt right out of the ‘70s. Breakfast was rather retro too: a boiled egg, thick white toast with jam, a glass of vegetable juice and a cup of coffee, all for 590 Yen or about $8 Australian dollars. The staff were so friendly and even came out onto the street to wave us goodbye on our last day.

You can read guidebook after guidebook, and spend hours scouring reviews and recommendations online in search of the best coffee and the most popular restaurants – that’s usually me. But often the best discoveries are the ones you stumble upon wandering a new city with your eyes wide open.

Rokuyosha had the authentic feel of a local’s café and each morning the regulars were there sipping their daily brew while reading the daily newspaper.

We had breakfast every morning at this old style coffee house in Kyoto. Great VFM – value for money.
The absolutely stunning Golden Pavilion, Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto, its gold leaf exteriors shimmering in the sunshine.

#5 Kyoto love: Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kinkaku-ji

It was a tough call on whether to include the Golden Pavilion in the ‘Love’ section as it suffers the same fate as other Kyoto attractions highlighted below – crazy overcrowding.

But with its top two floors covered in gold leaf, Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Temple is extraordinary. The gold shimmers in the sunshine and bounces off the pond. Beautiful Japanese gardens surround the temple and the whole scene is breathtaking. It’s hard not to be dazzled.

Originally created in the 14th century, the Zen temple is now a World Heritage site. It’s been rebuilt several times, including in the 1950s after it was destroyed by fire and now houses relics of the Buddha.

We visited in the morning before too many big tourist buses arrived, so we managed to enjoy a few minutes without having to jostle for a good vantage point. We took our time walking around the pathway that encircles the pavilion, pond and gardens, and before long visitor numbers increased dramatically and it became quite a crush.

In crowds like this it’s almost impossible to move at your own pace; the momentum of the crush propels you forward, limiting your movements. It can be quite disconcerting.

If you can visit the Golden Temple as early as possible in the morning, you might be lucky to avoid the full-on crowds.

#6 Kyoto love: Ryoanji Temple Zen rock garden

If I told you a rectangular garden (more like a courtyard) with white pebbles instead of grass and 15 different-sized rocks instead of plants was one of the most famous Zen gardens in the world, you’d be forgiven for raising your eyebrows. Unless you’re a Zen master of course.

We were a bit sceptical about this one but in the spirt of discovery and cultural enlightenment, we visited the Ryoanji Zen Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site and its famous Zen rock garden.

We joined dozens of visitors sitting in quiet contemplation on a series of steps overlooking the garden, trying to unravel the mystery and meaning of it all as we counted the carefully laid out rocks. Are there really 15? Why are they all different sizes? Is there a secret to uncover?

Amidst the chaos we encountered elsewhere I found the experience calming and rejuvenating. How nice is it to sit down and have a rest on the tourist trail! The gardens surrounding the temple are peaceful and particularly beautiful during cherry blossom season. Definitely worth exploring.

Ryoanji Temple with its internationally renowned Zen garden of 15 rocks surrounded by pebbles. Sit in quiet contemplation away from the busyness of Kyoto outside and feel rejuvenated.
Cherry blossoms in the beautiful gardens around the Ryoanji temple.

#7 Kyoto love: it’s an easy city to get around

Kyoto is a city of just under 1.5 million people. It feels relatively compact and once you get the hang of the local public transport system, it’s very easy to get around. There are only two lines in the subway system, the Karasuma Subway Line which runs north to south, and the Tozai Subway Line which runs east to west. We visited all the main tourist attractions by metro and bus.

What we didn’t love about Kyoto in cherry blossom season

One word. Crowds.

Outside of going to an organised event, in all my years of travel, I’ve never seen anything like the crowds we experienced at some of the most sought-after attractions in Kyoto.

While recognising we were visiting Kyoto in peak season, the sense of disappointment at some of the main attractions was overwhelming. Disappointed that we couldn’t properly appreciate the experience and disheartened that global travel has come to this – everyone, including us, wanting to see the same places, capture the same memories. Afraid of missing out. FOMO.

#1 Kyoto disappointment: Arashiyama Bamboo Forest

For years, photos of the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest had inspired me – its beauty, the stillness and sense of calm it evokes, and the feeling of otherworldliness it conveys.

Thanks to Instagram and social media its popularity had soared. And the need to go there had gone viral.

So much so that when we finally made it to the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest I felt as though we were in peak hour commuter traffic, hustling our way down a subway tunnel anxious not to miss our train home.

It was incredibly disheartening. The reality so far from the dream and from the tranquil, inspiring images used and shared worldwide by major travel companies and influencers big and small.

The bamboo grove is not that long but even without the crowds I’m not convinced I’d feel the magic I had imagined.

If you need to satisfy your curiosity and see it for yourself by all means go for it. My advice is to give it a miss.

The not-so-tranquil Insta-famous Arashiyama Bamboo Forest in Kyoto.
The vermillion torii gates at the Fushimi Inari Shrine. The further you walk along the trail towards the top of Inari mountain, the less people you encounter.
This couple managed to create a gap between tourists to capture a photo walking through the torii gates at Fushimi Inari Taisha.

#2 Kyoto disappointment: Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine

Same deal at the Fushimi Inari Shrine, a Shinto shrine famous for its thousands of striking red (vermillion) and black torii gates, lined up in perfect visual harmony along the trail to the top of Mount Inari.

The crowds were ridiculous.

Swept along the walkway with thousands of others, we were virtually unable to stop and reflect on the significance of the site; focussed instead on not bumping into anyone or treading on their toes.

Everyone is after the same Instaworthy image of a lone person against a backdrop of the iconic torii gates yet it’s impossible to capture this in the moment. These days it’s probably only achievable with a lot of Photoshop editing or perhaps an early morning visit in the depths of winter.

It’s about a two to three-hour hike up to the top of Mount Inari and back and the further you walk the less people you encounter. We wandered through numerous shrines, intrigued by the many small wooden prayer plaques we discovered.

Known as ema, visitors write their wishes or prayers on the back of the plaques and leave them at the shrine for the gods to receive and hopefully grant their wish. Many of the ema here are in the shape of a fox, because Inari is the Shinto god of rice and the fox is the messenger of Inari.

Fushimi Inari Shrine was certainly a better experience than the bamboo forest – it’s a much larger area overall so has greater capacity. If you plan a visit, pick your time, hope for the best and brace for the crowds.

Known as ema, these wooden plaques are for visitors to write their wishes or prayers on the back and leave it at the shrine for the gods.
The Togetsukyo bridge in Kyoto, not far from the Bamboo Forest and Arashiyama Park, popular tourist destinations.

#3 Kyoto disappointment: the Togetsukyo Bridge

There was also quite a crush at the Togetsukyo Bridge (moon crossing bridge) not far from the Arashiyama bamboo grove. It was astonishing to watch this mass of people move in unison across the bridge from a distance; up close it was chaotic and a disincentive to explore the other side.

We grabbed a coffee and a matcha tea cake at one of the many of nearby cafes, and instead headed to the Tenryuji Temple, one of the top Zen temples in Kyoto and another World Heritage site. This is worth a visit if you are in the area, although we didn’t pay to go inside the temples.

The verdict on Kyoto in cherry blossom season

Overall, we really enjoyed Kyoto and would love to revisit someday just not during cherry blossom season again! We absolutely loved the blossoms but the crowds elsewhere really did surprise us. Perhaps we’ve visited too many remote destinations in recent years so it’s a shock when we come across such intense crowds in tourist hotspots.  

In a post-Covid travel world, who knows whether crowds will be smaller in popular tourist destinations? Or whether local authorities will put in place measures to better control the numbers of people allowed to visit at any one time?

The future of travel is still very uncertain. One thing’s for sure, some of Kyoto’s attractions could certainly benefit from improved crowd management.

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