This post offers a guide to sakura season in Kyoto, sharing our favorite cherry blossom spots, photogenic temples, plus tips & tricks for avoiding crowds that descend upon Japan every April. We also take a deeper dive into the topic, highlighting hidden gems for cherry blossom viewing where you’ll find fewer people and no busloads of tour groups. This guide assumes multiple days in the city; if you don’t have that much time, consult our 1-Day Kyoto Cherry Blossom Itinerary. (Last updated March 28, 2018.)
As of March 28, 2018, Kyoto is in full bloom. We’ve spent the last several days racing around the city seeing the various temples and popular sakura spots (see our Kyoto Cherry Blossom Photo Update – Higashiyama post from yesterday); the weather has been perfect, crowds are bearable, and the trees are stunning. We’ve hit most of Higashiyama and Central Kyoto, and we’re moving on to Arashiyama tomorrow.
Before we get into the general tips, we want to note that Kyoto’s cherry blossom season began early in 2018. Blossoms started opening last week, and most areas of the city look beautiful right now. Peak should occurred about a week before normal, and should continue through late March into the first week of April. If you’re for some reason already in Japan and have flexibility, we’d suggest getting to Kyoto as soon as possible. Since most people book sakura trips months in advance, you can beat the crowds and see the best blossoms if you visit in late March…
After exploring Kyoto for a few weeks during fall colors season, one thing we realized is that many of the best places for seeing the vibrant foliage are under-the-radar. Most English resources regurgitate the same small list of temples and shrines, overlooking the best spots completely. With another extended stay in Kyoto for cherry blossom season, we decided to take a different approach: we bought a book about sakura in Kyoto.
Not just any book, a Japanese book. While perusing the shelves of the bookstore at Daikaku-ji Temple a couple of weeks before cherry blossom season, we found about a dozen books dedicated to the topic, but all of these were entirely in Japanese. Except one: Embracing Sakura in Kyoto. This book also featured temple names and a couple of sentences for each in English. Most importantly, it included full-color photography–the universal language. With that, we were off, planning our Kyoto cherry blossom itineraries!
That book basically served as a jumping-off point, and from that we were led to various online Japanese resources that we clumsily translated with the help of Google. We made notes about what temples, parks, and gardens we wanted to visit, and what you’re seeing now is basically a cleaned-up version of our notes, along with some added viewing tips based upon what we’ve learned from past sakura season visits to Kyoto.
With that, here are our tips for sakura season in Kyoto, and the best locations to go for viewing…
Cherry Blossom Viewing Tips
1. Start Every Day Before 8 a.m. – During the peak of cherry blossom season in Kyoto, sunrise is around 5:30 a.m. If you are up for it, that’s precisely when your day should begin. Philosopher’s Path, Maruyama Park, the Kamogawa River, and the streets of Gion & the Higashiyama District all never close. Kiyomizudera Temple opens daily at 6 a.m.
It is not outside the realm of possibilities to hit several of the most popular sakura spots in Kyoto by 8 a.m., before most tourists even leave their hotels. If you think that’s an unreasonably early wake-up call, you’ve probably never experienced the spirit-crushing chaos of the Higashiyama District at noon during the first week of April.
2. In the Middle of the Day, Go Where There Isn’t Bus Parking – Okay, so perhaps analyzing Google Earth to determine where there’s bus parking doesn’t fall under the ‘reasonable research’ banner. Nonetheless, this is an important tip because some of Kyoto’s most popular cherry blossom spots have become that not out of unrivaled merit, but because they are convenient to bus parking lots.
A good rule of thumb is the more English reviews on TripAdvisor or Google, the easier the temple is for tour groups to access. Prominent and popular temples are an important part of your itinerary, but beating the crowds to them is essential. Then, do the less “sexy” (but substantively fulfilling) stuff during the middle of the day. In our list below, we’ll tag every less popular and out-of-the-way location as a ‘hidden gem’ if it tends to draw smaller crowds. Just be advised that it’s all relative: nowhere is totally uncrowded during cherry blossom season in Kyoto.
3. End Every Night After 9 p.m. – Kyoto’s temple districts mostly ‘go to sleep’ by 6 p.m. due to most of the temples closing by 5:30 p.m. Some visitors will linger around until sunset, but after that crowd levels drop precipitously. The only exception to this are Maruyama Park (hanami central) and the temples around it, which do nighttime illuminations.
A good chunk of tourists descend upon Kyoto via tour buses, and the vast majority of these tours end by 5 or 6 p.m. That alone cuts the crowds in half. Again, Philosopher’s Path is a top pick, as is strolling along the Kamogawa River. Even walking through the Higashiyama District is more pleasant at night. If going from 5 a.m. until 9 p.m. is too much, take a break during the middle of the day. Mornings and nights are so much better.
4. 7-11 and Lawson Are Your Friends – Unless you find yourself in the middle of nowhere, restaurants are going to be fully booked or have lines out the door during sakura season. Don’t even bother with Our Favorite Restaurants in Kyoto. Instead, go to 7-11 or Lawson for a grab and go lunch. Seriously.
Convenience stores are part of the Japan experience, and the food is unexpectedly good. The reason we recommend Lawson or 7-11 rather than any of the other ubiquitous chains is because both have English labels on the prepared foods. There’s nothing worse than picking out a mystery rice ball at Family Mart only to take a bite into it and almost throw up because it’s beets & mayonnaise.
5. Skip Guidebook Top Picks – That top 10 list on TripAdvisor or in Lonely Planet? Skip it. Same goes for our ownTop 10 Things to Do in Kyoto. Those are all general lists that aren’t unique to cherry blossom season. Moreover, places like the Silver Pavilion, Golden Pavilion, and Arashiyama Bamboo Grove will all be swarmed with tourists despite offering little in the way of cherry blossoms.
Since many visitors are once-in-a-lifetime travelers to Japan, they understandably want to see all of the highlights, not just the cherry blossom highlights. The thing about that is, Kyoto is a veritable highlight reel, and there are always amazing temples and shrines you’re going to miss, no matter how long your stay. The only non-cherry blossom top draw that’s a must-do no matter the season is Fushimi Inari Shrine, and the good news there is it’s open 24/7/365, so you can go really late at night to avoid crowds.
Top 5 Kyoto Cherry Blossom Spots
Philosopher’s Path – This is the most popular cherry blossom spot in all of Kyoto, maybe in all of Japan. This intimate walkway between the Silver Pavilion and Nanzen-ji Temple is awash with pink, and it makes for a stunning scene. We love strolling along Philosopher’s Path, and there’s no prettier season for that than the spring.
Unfortunately, everyone else has the same idea, and the “intimate” nature of this path becomes a problem when you add huge crowds to the mix. Whereas Maruyama Park or the wide Kamogawa River pathways can absorb heavy crowds, Philosopher’s Path cannot. Our strong advice here is to go early in the morning or late in the evening.
Kiyomizudera Temple – This one is a surprisingly difficult recommendation. Normally, Kiyomizudera would be our top pick, because it has a good amount of cherry blossom trees and, unlike other places on this list, is actually interesting thanks to the temple. Unfortunately, the main hall is covered (see above), which makes its most iconic scene much less iconic.
Nevertheless, Kiyomizudera contains enough natural beauty and plenty of other temple buildings that we actually think it’s seeing (even in its present state) both during the day and at night if you have the time. Depending upon how early you get up (sometimes, jet lag is your friend), you may want to hit Kiyomizudera when it opens at 6 a.m. before heading to Philosopher’s Path. Read our full post on the Cherry Blossom Night Illumination at Kiyomizudera Temple.
Maruyama Park – Located between the heart of Gion and the Higashiyama District, Maruyama Park would draw a lot of people by default during cherry blossom season, even if it had zero cherry trees. Thanks to its many trees and ample hanami place, it’s the most popular spot once the sun goes down.
The park is always a lovely green space, and the added vibrance in spring is quite nice. However, what separates Maruyama Park from any other public space on this list is the huge weeping tree at the park’s heart that is illuminated at night. This tree is Kyoto’s most well-known cherry tree, and that’s for good reason. It’s spectacular.
To-ji Temple – I’m not normally all that keen on To-ji Temple, but during cherry blossom season, there are few scenes more iconic than the cherry blossom-lined pathway leading to its towering pagoda.
Note that To-ji Temple also offers a separately-ticketed nighttime illumination. I did this for the fall illumination, and this ticket (which was fairly steep at 1,000 yen) offered access to the building interiors. The scene is pretty impressive at night, with the pagoda reflected beautifully in the pond.
Hirano Shrine – A small shrine you probably won’t even hear discussed outside of sakura season, Hirano Shrine is renowned in the spring for the festival it has hosted since 985, making it the longest-running annual event in Kyoto.
With a winding path of trees illuminated at night plus a variety of food vendors, Hirano Shrine is an incredibly popular hanami spot. The good news is that it’s out of the tourist districts (although it is walkable from Ryoanji or the Golden Pavilion), so you’re more likely to see locals than tourists.
Arashiyama – While most of our favorite cherry blossom spots in Kyoto are on the eastern side of the city, the western side shouldn’t be overlooked. Arashiyama has over 1,500 cherry blossom trees in its main shopping lane and around the Togetsukyo Bridge, which is a pretty impressive number.
As with the fall colors, one popular way to enjoy the cherry blossoms in Arashiyama is on the Sagano Torokko or Sagano Romantic Train, which passes through a veritable tunnel of sakura. Another scenic option is on the boats that regularly depart from the area.
Other Kyoto Cherry Blossom Viewing Locations
Yoshiminedera Temple – Due to its remote location, it took us a while to finally visit Yoshiminedera, but we did over the weekend and were blown away by the overall experience. It’s easily one of the best temples in or around Kyoto.
Unfortunately, the cherry blossoms dotting its hillside landscape we had seen in photos had largely not yet bloomed. There were a handful of trees that had (like the one pictured above), but many more should be coming in the next couple of weeks. Even though it required an hour-long bus ride to get here, we’re considering a return visit for the full bloom as we enjoyed it that much.
Tenryu-ji Temple – Always one of the busiest temples in Kyoto, Tenryu-ji is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that becomes even busier during cherry blossom season.
It definitely looks pretty with these trees in bloom, but to be honest, we don’t get the hype. If you’re not into crowds, we think the next temple offers a superior overall experience. This is pretty much the opposite of a hidden gem.
Jojakko-ji Temple – One of the overlooked Arashiyama temples that’s at the edge of the main tourist corridor, Jojakko-ji Temple is fairly unassuming from the outside. It’s beautiful inside with a multi-level view from both under and above the cherry trees.
We are huge fans of Jojakko-ji Temple, as it changes with each of the four seasons. Its bright green moss provides a sense of vitality in summer, deep red foliage is perfect in autumn, and (although we’ve yet to see it) we’re sure a fresh blanket of snow makes it stunning.
Nison-in Temple – This is not normally a popular temple is something we’d normally recommend skipping, but during spring its trees give some nice color to the temple.
The approach along the promenade is lovely, and the double-flower weeping cherry tree in front of Nison-in Temple’s main hall is photogenic.
Horinji Temple and Dendengu Shrine – Located in the foothills below Kyoto Monkey Park, these two locations are in the same complex that time–and tourists–have passed by. Despite that, they offer stunning views of Arashiyama peaking above the cherry blossom treeline.
When you map the location, enter Dendengu Shrine into Google Maps. There are several other Horinji Temples around Kyoto, and you don’t want to end up at the wrong one. Definitely a hidden gem.
Daikaku-ji Temple – One of the great, unheralded temples of Kyoto, Daikaku-ji is an eclectic mix of architecture with a limited number of trees inside the paid grounds (definitely worth seeing).
Outside, you’ll find a number of cherry blossoms around the large pond and exterior temple buildings. It’s busier in the spring, but not proportionate with its very high quality, so we’re still going to call this a hidden gem.
Taizo-in Temple – A subtemple of the sprawling Myoshin-ji Temple complex, this contains several gardens. The most famed of these is Yoko-en, a colorful garden with seasonal flowers. During the spring, this is framed by a weeping cherry tree, and looks unlike and other garden in Kyoto.
When we were at Myoshin-ji Temple recently, there were fliers at Taizo-in Temple for a nighttime illumination that included dinner. I’m not entirely sure whether a dinner-less version of this is available, but I’ll see when we visit next week during the daytime and report back.
Ninna-ji Temple – An easy walk from Ryoan-ji, Ninna-ji is normally the quieter and less-busy of the two temples. That all changes during cherry blossom season, when the grounds are filled with cherry blossoms. Normally free, it’s actually busier as a paid temple in the spring.
Ryoan-ji Temple – The main reason to go here is the beautiful rock garden, which is always worth seeing. During sakura season, this scene in punctuated by a lone weeping cherry blossom tree that makes it particularly photogenic. Expect the garden to be even more crowded as a result.
There are also other cherry blossom trees on the expansive grounds here, and since they are not the main draw, they can be enjoyed without the same degree of crowding. A good experience, but one that is recommended not so much for its cherry blossoms as for its normal appeal.
Kamogawa River – The Kamo River is definitely not one of Kyoto’s natural wonders, but it is a nice, functional public space where locals go to exercise or picnic.
It’s also a great spot for cherry blossoms. There are several stretches that are lined with cherry trees, and it’s enjoyable to walk along the upper path right next to them, or the lower riverside trail with branches looming overhead.
Rokkakudo Temple – We had never even heard of this temple until Embracing Sakura in Kyoto recommended it, and unlike many other off-the-beaten-path temples the book recommends that we’ve eliminated because they are in the middle of nowhere, we plan on visiting this one.
That’s partly because we had unknowingly already visited this temple (it’s located in the heart of Downtown Kyoto near a ramen shop we frequent), and we had just forgotten the name. It’s small and definitely not a destination temple, but its hexagonal (like the temple itself) cherry blossom arrangement looks cool.
Nijo Castle – As Kyoto’s lone castle (Fushimi Castle doesn’t count), Nijo is always a popular tourist destination. That’s even more the case in spring, as it does have some cherry blossom trees scattered throughout its grounds that make for compelling marketing photos.
Rather than going during the day, we’d recommend Nijo Castle for its impressive nighttime illumination. After that, it’s also easy to take the Tozai Subway Line to Higashiyama to see a couple of the nighttime illuminations there.
Kyoto Imperial Palace – We’re not the biggest fans of Kyoto Imperial Palace Park, but it’s undeniable that there are some nice weeping cherry trees in the northern corner of the park.
Those, and some other areas of the park, are definitely pretty. It also doesn’t hurt that the park is free (as is Kyoto Imperial Palace–and it no longer requires reservations), but we’d disagree with those who rank this in the top 10 of Kyoto cherry blossom spots. Nonetheless, it’s worth the effort if you’re in the area for Nijo Castle.
Kyoto Botanical Garden – Compared to almost any standalone garden in Japan, Kyoto Botanical Garden is fairly lackluster. Upkeep is uncharacteristically poor, and if you visit Japan’s other major gardens (particularly Shinjuku Gyoen), you’ll be underwhelmed.
Nevertheless, there’s a good number of cherry trees here. It’s worth the cost of admission in the spring if you’re already heading to northern Kyoto. However, it is not worth a special trip up here.
Heian Shrine (Garden) – A wide open public space that’s pretty eye-catching, there’s more than meets the eye with Heian Shrine. This is particularly true during cherry blossom season.
While unassuming visitors might only waltz through the free areas, not seeing much in particular, savvy guests know to head back to the paid gardens behind the main temple. This area features some of the best late-blooming weeping cherry trees in Kyoto.
Kurama-dera Temple – My second-favorite temple in all of Kyoto, Kurama-dera is an excellent option regardless of the season (the photo above is from Kurama Station; the temple at the temple weren’t opening when we visited a couple days ago). During the spring, you can find several temple buildings framed by cherry blossoms.
While I tried to avoid including day-trip temples on this list, I made exceptions for both Kurama-dera and Daigo-ji (bottom of the list). In both cases, you can combine these temples with other stops along the way that make the commute well worth the effort. Both are also hidden gems due to their locations.
Enkoji Temple – Located a far enough north of the Silver Pavilion that it’s inconvenient but not so far that it requires a day trip, Enkoji Temple is a hidden gem.
In the fall or spring, Enkoji rates especially high, as its buildings are surrounded with added vibrance. Beyond the cherry blossoms that give vibrance to its dry garden, you’ll find a hillside trail that offers aerial views of the lower temple buildings, plus a serene bamboo grove.
Yoshida Shrine – We had never heard of this temple until the book recommended it, but I was sold as soon as I saw the photo of torii gates framed by cherry blossoms.
Just north of Shinnyodo Temple, it’s easy to see why this small shrine is under-the-radar, and while it’s premature to call it a hidden gem, that’s probably a safe bet.
Kurodani Temple – Located a short walk from Shinnyodo Temple, one of our favorite ‘hidden gem’ spots for fall colors in Kyoto, Kurodani Temple is a hillside temple with an impressive collection of buildings–and cherry trees.
I’m not entirely sure why this free temple isn’t recommended by guidebooks, but it’s a great hidden gem. (Hat tip here to Simon from 4corners7seas who commented about this location in our 1-Day Kyoto Cherry Blossoms Walking Itinerary. We had never even heard of it until then!)
Nanzenji Temple – Not the best cherry blossom spot, but the scattering of trees plus no entrance fee plus location makes this a can’t miss during sakura season.
Then there’s the “other stuff” that makes Nanzenji Temple one of the top draws any time of year. Stop by at the beginning or end of strolling down Philosopher’s Path. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Nanzenji Temple.
Keage Incline – Located near Nanzenji Temple, Keage Incline is basically a southern extension of Philsopher’s Path. Well, not really, but it’s the same general idea both in terms of a peaceful walking path and the abundance of cherry blossoms.
The only downside is that Keage Incline doesn’t connect to Maruyama Park or other temples in the area, meaning you’ll need to double-back once you’re done here.
Shoren-in Temple – This temple offers a beautiful nighttime illumination with the ground bathed in LED lights and the temple’s main features lit in brilliant lighting. As with Kodai-ji, the cherry blossoms are arguably not the highlight.
This is a good option if nighttime illuminations at Kiyomizudera and Nijo Castle are too crowded. Despite its location a short walk from Maruyama Park, Shoren-in Temple is relatively under the radar. It still draws crowds at night, but a fraction of what you’ll experience at the top spots. (Above photo from their fall illumination.)
Kodai-ji Temple – Another temple that is recommended for its nighttime illumination. Kodai-ji runs the most nighttime illuminations of any temple in Kyoto, and that’s in large part because the temple’s night offerings are not season-dependent.
Instead, Kodai-ji Temple has a projection mapping show, illuminated bamboo forest, and its buildings illuminated. There are cherry trees too, but those almost feel like an afterthought. In our full post about Kodai-ji Temple, you can see photos from the fall illumination.
Kiyamachi (Gion) – This quaint street that curls along the canal in Gion is lined with small shops, and is swarmed with people any time of year during the day. During cherry blossom season, it’s stunning, with the blossoms set against the traditional machiya buildings and stone streets being an iconic Kyoto scene.
Due to crowds and limited space, we would strongly recommend going as late at night as possible. Street lanterns will give the trees a soft glow, making this just as pretty of a view, and a much more serene experience.
Yogen-in Temple – This temple’s name probably won’t ring any bells, but it’s story might. Yogen-in Temple is famous for the “blood ceiling” of its main hall, which is literally the blood of samurai warriors, who died at the end of an 11-day siege of Fushimi Castle.
This main hall and other buildings around the modest temple are framed by cherry trees, making it a lovely spot to visit. Definitely not a “destination” temple, but perhaps of interest for the lore of the blood ceiling.
Kennin-ji Temple – Located on the southern edge of Gion, Kennin-ji one of Kyoto’s most famous temples for its incredible artwork and assortment of gardens.
Inside the center of the paid area of the complex, you’ll find gardens with cherry trees. It’s nothing overwhelming, but Kennin-ji Temple is always recommended, and this just puts it over the top. You’ll also find a scattering of cherry blossoms in the free areas on the outer perimeter of the complex. Read and see more in our full Kennin-ji Temple Review, Info & Tips post.
Sennyu-ji Temple – A fairly large temple compound tucked away in a park-like setting, Sennyu-ji Temple does not draw crowds. We’ve yet to see it for cherry blossom season, but it was stunning in the fall and there was no one else there!
Be warned that this one is deceptively difficult to access. We walked here for a night illumination in the fall, and Google Maps directed us through a forest path (I’m not kidding) rather than taking major streets. Naturally, we listened to Google, and I felt like Michael Scott driving his car into the lake.
Daigo-ji Temple – A beautiful and sprawling UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s outside city-center, Daigo-ji Temple is most renowned for its vibrant fall colors, but it also has some pretty weeping cherry trees.
Due to the time commitment of getting out here (and exploring the vast grounds), it’s not a spot we’d recommend to anyone with fewer than 6 days in Kyoto, but it is pretty.
If you’re planning a visit to the Japan that includes Kyoto, please check out my other posts about Japan. I also highly recommend the Lonely Planet Kyoto Guide to determine everything you should see and do while there.
Have you visited Japan during sakura season? Did you have a chance to visit any of these locations in Kyoto to see the cherry blossoms? Any other temples or shrines you’d recommend visiting for cherry blossoms? Any questions about these sakura season recommendations and tips? Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!