This 1-day Kyoto cherry blossom itinerary offers a walking route for seeing as much as possible during Japan’s popular sakura season. An efficient touring plan is important for Kyoto not just because there are a lot of beautiful cherry blossoms (they’re pretty much everywhere!), but because crowds can be overwhelming. Our plan of attack helps you beat the crowds, see the best free and paid cherry blossom spots, and also hit some nighttime illuminations during a single day in Kyoto. (Last updated March 18, 2018.)
We’ve updated our 1-Day Kyoto Cherry Blossom Itinerary for 2018 with things that we’ve learned since first posting this one day itinerary. We are in Kyoto right now, and it’s pretty clear cherry blossom season is right around the corner. Local forecasts have moved it forward about a week due to a warm snap, meaning the cherry blossoms have already started to open in some spots! Kyoto should be in full sakura mode by March 21, 2018, and peak from late March to early April 2018.
That’s great news for those planning early cherry blossom season trips to beat the crowds, and not-so-good for those visiting during the traditional peak of sakura season the second and third weeks of April. The good news is that no matter which of these weeks you picked, you should find some absolutely beautiful cherry blossom scenery in Kyoto.
Our Kyoto cherry blossom itinerary is doable in a single day, and we recommend experiencing it entirely by foot if you’re in reasonably good shape. While some of these locations are not exactly close to one another, the walk itself (and seeing more cherry blossoms and other slices of Kyoto’s beauty along the way) really help make the experience.
All told, this itinerary is the equivalent of walking a 12K if you go the most direct route. Realistically, you’re looking at something longer, as chances are you’ll see something down a side street that piques your curiosity, will make a diversion to stop and get lunch, or otherwise meander off the route.
Hopefully, you have more than a day to experience Kyoto’s sakura season, because there are easily 3-4 days worth of great sights to see in the city during this vibrant time of year. Next week (around March 22, 2018) we will have a full guide to Kyoto’s cherry blossom season, so if you need other recommendations, stay tuned for that!
With that in mind, let’s begin our 1-day Kyoto cherry blossom walking tour, early in the morning at one of the most popular spots during sakura season…
1. Philosopher’s Path – This is the best spot in Kyoto during sakura season. To be sure, the Path of Philosophers does not have as many cherry trees as the path along Kamogawa River, and Kiyomizudera’s juxtaposition of cherry blossoms and temple buildings is more wow-inducing and photogenic. Still, there is something absolutely enchanting about walking under a canopy of blossoms soaking up the meditative ambiance.
Except…that ambiance is hardly meditative during the middle of the day when tourists flock to Philosopher’s Walk, which is why we recommend doing this walk as early in the morning as possible. Read our full Philosopher’s Walk Tips post for more info.
2. Nanzen-ji Temple – Although this temple does not have much in the way of cherry blossoms, there are a few scattered around. These, coupled with the diversity of this sprawling temple make it an alluring spot during sakura season. Plus, it’s free and located at the end of Philosopher’s Path.
It’s also one of the better temples in all of Kyoto, which makes it something we’ll include in this itinerary. Presumably, you’ll want to see other highlights of Kyoto during your visit and are not laser-focused on cherry blossom options. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Nanzenji Temple.
3. Snack Break! – It might seem superfluous to specify a snack break, as most people (hopefully) know to eat when they’re hungry. However, I wanted to enumerate it here as there are a lot of sakura-specific snacks offered throughout Kyoto.
You’ll find ice cream, coffee, tea, etc. at small cafes and restaurants, but you can even find numerous items at 7-11 (like the Pepsi Sakura above) or McDonald’s. Since this next stretch is somewhat of a walk, it makes sense to grab a sakura-themed snack for the journey…
4. Heian Shrine – This shrine features a large number of pink weeping cherry trees throughout its grounds. These cherry trees tend to bloom later than some other popular spots in Kyoto (for example, during our visit these were in peak bloom while Kiyomizu-dera Temple was past-peak by almost a week).
The other upside here is that admission to Heian Shrine (but not the gardens) is free, and it’s on the way to a couple of our other cherry blossom spots. As with the next two spots, there are benches and tables (under cherry trees!) throughout this area so you could stop at 7-11 or Lawson and cobble together your own Hanami picnic for lunch.
5. Kamogawa River – How much of this you see is really up to you, but it’s a “might as well” scenario since you have to cross the Kamo (or Kamogawa…or “Duck River”) when going from the Heian Shrine to the Imperial Palace. It’s easy to see why this public space is a popular spot, as the length of the Kamogawa River is lined with cherry trees, making it a great option for a leisurely stroll or bike ride for locals.
The best location for cherry blossom viewing along the Kamogawa River is the triangular crossroads where two rivers merge into one (that’s a bit north of where you’ll be following this plan), which is something of an ongoing hanami celebration.
6. Kyoto Imperial Palace Park – From the Kamogawa River, it’s a short walk to Kyoto’s sprawling Imperial Palace Park, which has a scattering of cherry trees throughout the park. The highlight here is the cluster of weeping cherry trees on the north side of the park, and those are the ones to seek out.
Unfortunately, it’s a deceptively long walk from the southern entrance (where you’ll likely be entering), but it’s worth it. Upon leaving, you can either walk to the next destination along the Kamogawa River, or take the Keihan Main Line to Gion-Shijo Station.
7. Maruyama-koen Park – Earlier in the day, this park is pretty, but once the sun goes down, the vibe changes significantly. If you’re looking for the best of Kyoto’s hanami parties, this is your place. This park is located back towards the Higashiyama Mountains, essentially on the way to our final destination of the day. The centerpiece of Maruyama-koen Park is a tall weeping cherry tree, which is illuminated nightly.
Expect an inviting atmosphere and some serious crowds as locals gather for evenings of booze and merriment. You can find plenty of special food just for cherry blossom season in this area, or you can BYO-KFC. This scene won’t be for everyone, and I don’t think it’s as special as the hanami parties at Himeji Castle or Osaka Castle that we also experienced, but it’s worth at least passing through to get a feel for the atmosphere to see if it appeals to you. Again, it’s on the way, so “might as well.”
8. Kiyomizu-dera Temple – If you’ve read our other posts about Kyoto, Japan, you might know this is one of our favorite places in the city on a normal day. Well, during sakura season, it’s even better (if you can somehow believe that). That’s all thanks to the gorgeous night illumination, which occurs during a short window every spring (and fall). Even though the cherry trees are not as dense here as other locations in Kyoto, the way the cherry blossoms enhance picturesque scenes makes it an experience that is not to be missed. Kiyomizu-dera Temple takes on a really wonderful atmosphere at night. This is a must-do experience you won’t soon forget. Read our full post on the Cherry Blossom Night Illumination at Kiyomizudera Temple.
When we followed this itinerary, we stayed at an Airbnb that was 5 minutes from Inari Station. I liked the way this worked out because Kiyomizu-Gojo and Inari are both on the Keihan Line (separated by 4 stops), making it convenient to leave Kiyomizu-dera Temple once it closes, walk to its station (about a 20 minute walk, but that’s the best option), and then head directly to Inari.
Now, the most convenient option is just going to be staying somewhere near the Higashiyama mountains. This is an incredibly beautiful area, and convenient to a lot of different places. The downside is that it’s pretty pricey during sakura season. Additionally, I like staying in Inari because Fushimi Inari is open 24/7, and being close to that station makes it easy to venture there late at night or early in the morning. (Or, in my case, both!) All of this has absolutely nothing to do with sakura season as Fushimi Inari is not a prime cherry blossom spot, but in terms of a broader Kyoto strategy, I think it works out incredibly well.
I don’t think I’m going out on a limb with the assumption that most people reading this post are first-time (or once in a lifetime) visitors to Kyoto, so my goal with this was to provide more holistic touring strategy for Kyoto with an emphasis on cherry blossom season. If you want to pack your schedule even further, there are a few popular points of interest along this walk that are easy to incorporate into this 1-day Kyoto cherry blossom itinerary. Doing as much as you can should be the goal if you’re visiting Kyoto. There is so much to see here that, regardless of whether you have 1 day or 7, you cannot possibly see it all. However, we implore you to not take an uber-efficient approach that only hits the highlights. So much of what makes a great Kyoto experience is the walk, which gives you a chance to peel back some of the layers on this wonderful city. The idea of a 12K (or perhaps even 15K when all is said and done) walk might sound daunting on paper, but that’s probably not much worse than what you’d do on an average day sightseeing in Japan.
If you’re planning a visit to Kyoto, Japan, please check out my other posts about Kyoto for ideas of things to do (or not do) while there. Kyoto has a lot of things to see and do, so I also highly recommend the Lonely Planet Kyoto Guide to help better develop an efficient plan while there.
Have you visited Kyoto during cherry blossom season? Did you visit the locations in this plan? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Questions about following this 1-day itinerary? Share any other questions or thoughts you have in the comments!