For sakura and fall colors seasons, Kiyomizu-dera Temple in Kyoto, Japan has special night illumination. We visited during the lighting for cherry blossom season, and thought we’d share some of our experience and tips we learned during that visit.
Prior to this, we had previously ben to Kiyomizu-dera Temple in October, and we missed the fall night illumination by about a month. Seeing photos, I was so bummed that we wouldn’t have that experience. The trees were just starting to turn, and I couldn’t even begin to fathom how beautiful the scene would look lit up in vibrant fall colors and illuminated for night. At that moment, I added the Kiyomizudera Temple nighttime illumination to my travel bucket list.
Two years later, I was thrilled that we would have the opportunity to check it off the bucket list so quickly. Well, in actuality, the bucket list item is the fall night illumination, but close enough for now. (Another bucket list item is to see Kyoto for fall color season and with snow, so we’ll get there eventually…)
After spending the day wandering all over Kyoto to see the highlights of sakura season (we’re working on a separate 1-day cherry blossom itinerary for Kyoto that will be posted next week), we made Kiyomizu-dera Temple our last stop of the day. It was actually our last stop twice: once for sunset and once again for the evening illumination of the cherry trees. (This was an accident–we’ll cover the why of that in the tips…)
During our previous October visit, the streets of Higashiyama were virtually deserted in the evening. Most shops closed before 8 p.m., and it was a veritable ghost town. This made wandering those streets quite the tranquil experience.
By contrast, I arrived at Kiyomizu-dera Temple at around 8 p.m. for the night illumination, and the streets of Higashiyama were shoulder-to-shoulder at that time. I stayed until the temple closed, after 9:30 p.m., and the streets were still alive with people.
The point here is that Sakura season is most certainly a popular time in Kyoto, and throughout Japan. In general, the crowd levels in April were significantly higher than October (or really, any time we’ve been to Kyoto). This is for good reason, as the cherry trees during sakura season are absolutely breathtaking, making the experience well worth the added crowds.
During the night illumination, Kiyomizu-dera Temple itself was also quite busy. To my surprise, it was not busier than it had been earlier that same day, but in thinking more about this, we saw a parking lot packed with tour buses prior to our day visit. Perhaps fewer tour group outfits offer nighttime tours?
Now, time for a few tips based on our experience…
One thing we did not learn from our research (and this could very well be due to insufficient research) is that the tickets for Kiyomizudera Temple’s night illumination differ from the day tickets to the temple. Meaning, if you go during the day, you’ll have to purchase a separate ticket at night. We thought we were being clever by heading to Kiyomizu-dera Temple right before sunset, thinking we’d be able to see both sunset and nighttime in one fell swoop.
That is not the case. The temple completely closes at the end of its normal operating day and reopens later for the night lighting. We made the “mistake” of purchasing both tickets, but those are most definitely air quotes around mistake, as making multiple visits to this gorgeous site is hardly anything over which anyone should shed tears.
Without question, Kiyomizu-dera Temple is one of my favorite spots in Kyoto, Japan. It’s easily in the top 5 (#2 or #3 depending upon my mood), and I cover why it is not to be missed in our full Kiyomizu-dera Temple Tips post. However, Kiyomizu-dera Temple is not one of the elite places in Kyoto for cherry blossoms. There are several trees below the main hall and around shrines that make for beautiful photos, but the number of trees is dwarfed by many other spots in Kyoto.
The reason Kiyomizu-dera Temple is such a popular cherry blossom spot is because of the night illumination (and since it’s always a popular spot in Kyoto). I mention this because you might be a bit disappointed after seeing hundreds of cherry trees at other locations only to find a few dozen (perhaps fewer?) here. The beauty of the complex at night and photogenic quality of how you can frame some of the cherry trees around iconic structures of Kiyomizu-dera Temple makes up for the sparse trees, in my opinion.
Speaking of sparse trees, part of that could be based upon when we visited. Based upon our observations, the cherry blossoms bloom earlier at Kiyomizu-dera Temple than almost any other popular spot we visited in Kyoto. There were several trees that had already lost most of their blossoms during our visit.
My assumption is that this is a normal thing (although I can’t find any resources to corroborate my assumption) due to Kiyomizu-dera Temple’s higher elevation. During our visit in early April, all other popular sites were in peak bloom (perhaps a few days post-peak), and it looked like Kiyomizudera Temple was easily a week or more past peak.
It was still a wonderful experience to see the temple and its trees bathed in lights under the starlight and with the lights of downtown Kyoto in the distance, but it would’ve been cooler if the cherry trees still had all of their blossoms. However, no matter where you go, you’re going to run into this “issue.” In addition to different parts of Japan blooming earlier or later, different locations in the same cities will vary, and even different trees in the same park! This is due to different breeds of cherry trees varying in when they bloom, so it’s unavoidable.
Plus, given that the night illumination at Kiyomizu-dera Temple only costs ~$4 and since this is one of the few temples in Kyoto open in the evening, it’s not like you have much to “risk” by doing this.
A final recommendation concerns how much time to allocate for the cherry blossom night illumination at Kiyomizu-dera Temple. The night lighting lasts around 3 hours, and there’s no way any casual tourists needs to spend that much time there. However, if you’re big into photography, you might want to allocate that whole time here. I found shooting the cherry blossoms to be particularly difficult as the trees blew in the wind.
Normally, this wouldn’t be an issue as a bit of motion blur gives a certain energy to trees in a photo. In this case, I think you want the blossoms to be crisp, though. I took and retook the photos in this post numerous times (the main hall shot at the top took me 11 tries to reasonably crisp–and it’s still not perfect), and ultimately did not give myself enough time to shoot and see everything.
Additionally, I’d recommend something like The Green Pod platform in lieu of a tripod. I used my tripod at Kiyomizu-dera Temple intermittently throughout the evening, but was informed in the last 5-10 minutes of operation that tripods are not allowed. Even if you aren’t told this, the Green Pod is going to be a lot easier to use for photographing the main hall than a tripod (the walkway back there is narrow and crowded–I didn’t even try to use my tripod there as it probably would’ve been impossible). Fortunately, there’s a thick handrail that’s easy for perching the Green Pod, a GorillaPod, or something of that sort.
Overall, I would highly recommend doing the cherry blossom night illumination at Kiyomizu-dera Temple. Even though the cherry trees are not as dense here as other locations in Kyoto, the experience is unique thanks to the night lighting, and the way the cherry blossoms enhance scenes that are already picturesque makes it an experience that is not to be missed. Kiyomizu-dera Temple takes on a really wonderful atmosphere at night, and even though it attracts large crowds, they are not any worse than what you’ll encounter during daytime hours, and it’s an experience you won’t soon forget.