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. Note that we’ve updated our 1-Day Kyoto Cherry Blossom Itinerary for 2019 with lessons we learned last year while spending over a month in Kyoto during sakura season. (We should have more itineraries very soon.)
This 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.
In an average year, Kyoto should be in full sakura mode by the end of March, peaking around early April with blossoms falling by mid to late April. 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.
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…
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. During your walk along Philosopher’s Path, consider a detour to Honenin Temple and also a visit to Eikando Temple at the very end. Neither are renowned for their cherry blossoms, but they’re great, conveniently-located places to visit. Read our full Philosopher’s Walk Tips post for more info.
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.
Yoshida Hill Temples & Shrines – About halfway up Philosopher’s Path, you can walk east to reach Yoshida Hill, which is home to a scene-stealing sakura trifecta: Kurodani Temple, Shinnyodo Temple, and Yoshida Shrine. All of these are free and all are hidden gems of Kyoto.
Visit Yoshida Shrine first, then head towards the towering pagoda at Shinnyodo, the main entrance of which is directly down the street from one of Yoshida’s entrances. Finish at Kurodani (also known as Konkaikomyo-ji), which is a short walk from the rear side of Heian Shrine. You’ll also see some great cherry trees while walking to and from Yoshida Hill, making this a highly recommended diversion, especially if Philosopher’s Path crowds are starting to get heavier.
Heian Shrine – This shrine features a large number of pink weeping cherry trees throughout its grounds, most notably in the gardens behind the central area of the shrine. These cherry trees tend to bloom later than some other popular spots in Kyoto.
Admission to Heian Shrine is free, but the gardens require an admission fee. It’s worth the money. Worth noting is that Heian Shrine is slightly out of the way, and if you only do the free area, it’s not worth the time, as the blossoms there aren’t all that special.
Lake Biwa/Okazaki Canal (Optional) – If you opt to do Heian Shrine, this is a “might as well” scenario. This historic canal connects Kyoto with Lake Biwa and supplies the city with water.
A portion of the canal runs around Okazaki, and this beautiful section is lined with gorgeous cherry trees, making it a great option for a leisurely stroll or bike ride for locals. You can also take a cruise through the canal, although we don’t recommend that if you’re tight on time.
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.
Keage Incline – Years ago, Keage Incline was an important transport route between Kyoto and Lake Biwa, when a short rail system was constructed here to move boats over the change in level between canals.
It doesn’t receive much interest or use these days–except in spring when the cherry trees that line the tracks are in bloom, and visitors and locals alike swarm the gentle incline for photos. There are quiet spots in the adjacent park (albeit no blossoms) if you want a quiet spot to relax or enjoy a snack.
Maruyama 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 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.”
Kodaiji Temple (Night Illumination) – The best overall nighttime illumination in Kyoto thanks to its range: a high-tech projection mapping show, illuminated buildings, majestical bamboo pathway, plus what’s frequently an envelope-pushing art exhibit inside–one you’d never expect at a temple.
Kodaiji Temple is not particularly strong on sakura, but you’ll find cherry trees dotting the grounds, and the nighttime illumination emphasizes these. Ultimately, Kodaiji earns a spot in this one-day cherry blossom itinerary because it’s incredibly well-rounded and you’ll walk right past it while going between Maruyama Park and Kiyomizudera, anyway. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Kodaiji Temple.
Kiyomizudera 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. Kiyomizudera 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.
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 incredibly 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 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 trip to Japan that includes Kyoto, we recommend starting by consulting our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto, Japan to plan all aspects of our vacation. You should also check out our other posts about Japan for ideas on other places to visit!
Have you visited Kyoto during cherry blossom season? What did you think of the experience? Would you recommend sakura season to a first-timer debating when to visit Japan? Did you visit the locations in this plan? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Questions about following this 1-day itinerary? Hearing about your experiences—even when you disagree with us—is both interesting and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!