Strolling the Sakura

A season of beauty blossoms in Nara and Kyoto

By: Monica Poling

As Japan’s winter melts into spring, the country sheds its frosty landscape for a pink-tinged panorama. This is the time when Japan’s iconic cherry tree, or Sakura, blossoms in earnest. The blossoms, which spread through Japan in a “front,” are closely observed by the Japan Meteorological Agency, which releases an official blooming schedule in early March. The earliest blossoms appear in Okinawa in January, and by early April, the flowers emerge in Nara and Kyoto, which have some of Japan’s best and most plentiful cherry blossom viewing opportunities.

Mount Yoshino

The best Sakura viewing in Japan is on Mount Yoshino in the Nara Prefecture. Just two hours from Nara city, the mountain is covered by more than 30,000 cherry trees, encompassing some 200 different species of this Japanese icon.

A four-hour mountain trail provides a stunning springtime landscape. Along the way, the Kinpusenji Temple is simply breathtaking when framed by the pink-tinged flowers. Nearby, the gardens of the Yoshimizu Jinja Shrine offer panoramic views of the blossom-covered mountainside. Because of the shrine’s remote location, it has served as a hideaway for several political figures throughout Japan’s history.

Farther along the trail lies the Chikurin-in Buddhist temple. Now a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn), the temple houses a delightful open-air bathhouse. The inn is exceptionally popular during cherry season, and reservations should be made well in advance of travel.

Nara Park

For visitors with a tighter schedule, Nara Park in Nara city also provides Sakura-viewing opportunities. Famous for the 1,200 wild deer that roam freely throughout, the park is popular with locals who observe the Hanami ritual of picnicking under the cherry trees.

A popular park attraction is the Kofukuji Temple, a prosperous temple relocated in 710 A.D. Offering twice the viewing pleasure, cherry trees and their reflection can be enjoyed at the Sarusawano-ike Pond, which is usually photographed reflecting Kofukuji’s “Five-Storied Pagoda,” one of Japan’s tallest pagodas and also the symbol of Nara.

A leisurely stroll through the park reveals other popular treasures such as Todaiji Temple, which houses the world’s largest wooden structure and a 53-foot bronze Buddha statue, Japan’s largest. An energetic climb to the top of Mt. Wakakusa-yama, at 1,100 feet above sea level, affords panoramic views of Nara, and several blossom-covered neighboring mountains.


Less than an hour from Nara, Kyoto is one of Japan’s most popular visitor destinations. Once Japan’s capital for 11 centuries, Kyoto now houses Japan’s seventh-largest population. Cherry blossom season emerges in Kyoto at the same time as Nara, making them an ideal Sakura viewing combination.

A springtime visit to the Kyoto Imperial Palace, with its 1,000 cherry trees, is a must. The palace, which housed Japan’s royal family until 1868, is only accessible by guided tour and advance reservations are required.

The Hirano Shrine, relocated to Kyoto in 794 A.D., is famous for its extensive variety of cherry blossom trees, counting some 50 different types of trees. The shrine is home to an annual cherry blossom festival and by night the trees are lit up and food and drink stalls are set up throughout the area, making this a festive location.

Kyoto’s most popular location for cherry blossom viewing is the city’s oldest public park, Maruyama Park. Located next to Yasaka Shrine in Gion, home of Kyoto’s famed Geisha district, the park may provide fortunate photographers the ability to snap a picture of an apprentice Geisha strolling beneath a blooming Sakura tree. During cherry blossom season, the area also hosts a significant nighttime scene, complete with food vendors and activities.

Nearby, the Heian Jingu Shrine is another fabulous location for Sakura spotting. Comprised of four gardens, on 8 acres, the gardens turn a deep pink, the color of the weeping cherry tree.

One of the most romantic places to take in the Sakura, is along a 1½-mile stroll called The Walk of Philosophy, which connects Kyoto’s Silver Pavilion (Ginkakuji) to the Nanzen-ji temple, considered to be one of Japan’s most important Zen temples. Designated as one of the top 100 paths of natural beauty in Japan, nearly 450 cherry trees are planted along the way, and when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom, the path is completely covered by a romantic “flower tunnel.”


Heian Jingu Shrine

Kyoto Prefecture Tourism Information

Kyoto Tourism Information

Japan Meteorological Agency


Journeys International Cherry Blossom Tours

Nara Park Walking Tour Map

Nara Prefecture Tourism Information

Nanzenji Temple

Visit Japan Campaign

Yoshino Cherry Blossom Map