Kyoto Hanatoro 2018: Higashiyama & Arashiyama

Hanatoro (花灯路, Hanatōuro) is a set of illumination events in Kyoto, Japan that occur in mid-March and mid-December in the Higashiyama and Arashiyama districts, during which thousands of lanterns light the streets, there are public art displays, and other illumination events.

Translated literally to “Lanterns and Flower Lane,” Hanatoro is a festival in Kyoto that is big draw for locals leading up to the popular sakura season in the spring, and following fall foliage season in the fall. It’s a chance to enjoy a convivial atmosphere, and see two of Kyoto’s most beautiful districts in a new light.

We’ve now attended Hanatoro both in Arashiyama and in Higashiyama, and thought we’d share some of our photos from the events, plus thoughts about each experience, and info & tips in case you’re considering a trip to Kyoto that coincides with Hanatoro.

With that, let’s start by discussing Higashiyama Hanatoro, which just started last night…

Higashiyama Hanatoro

We were at the kick-off of Higashiyama Hanatoro, which started March 9, 2018 and runs until March 18, 2018. It was a frigid evening with high crowd levels (getting a clear shot of Yasaka Pagoda was a small miracle), and we had dinner reservations so we had to leave early. I’ll go back on a weeknight later this week for some better photos.

Lanterns line the 5 km walking path that leads from Shoren-in Temple on the north, through Maruyama Park and into Yasaka Shrine, before continuing on to the heart of the Higashiyama District and ending at Kiyomizudera Temple in the south. Throughout, there is also special lighting on major icons of the area, such as Yasaka Pagoda and other temples.

Higashiyama Hanatoro also features a range of free entertainment. Geisha dance for dedication at Yasaka Shrine, taking the stage at Kagura Hall with their gorgeous dancing. There’s also live music and performances by children’s groups in Maruyama Park and along the streets.

Kiyomizudera even had a mascot out posing for photos (above), so you know it’s a big deal.

In Maruyama Park, a flower arrangement competition is held with the cooperation of Kyoto Ikebana Association. The results of this competition are on display in various spots along the lantern path, and some are quite stunning and innovative.

There were also several large designs made of stained glass (or faux-stained glass) that looked almost like parade floats. I didn’t see any information about why these were there, but they were pretty cool. Across from them, there was a line of vendors selling street foods.

Arashiyama Hanatoro

Last year, we also attended Arashiyama Hanatoro, which occurred from December 8 until 17. If historic trends hold, this year’s Arashiyama dates will be December 7 through December 16, 2018. (While we’re pretty confident of those dates, you should check the official Kyoto Hanatoro website closer to your travel dates to ensure their accuracy.)

The major aspect of Arashiyama Hanatoro was the that the entire length of Togetsukyo Bridge, plus the foothills, and waterfront were all illuminated. (I wonder what the critters up at the Kyoto Monkey Park think of their home being lit up?)

Along the shoreline, there were also art installations, flower arrangements, vendors in pop-up tents selling street food, various entertainment acts, and some photo ops. I’d probably stop short of calling this a fully-fledged festival, but it had that vibe to it, and definitely attracted huge crowds to Arashiyama.

During Arashiyama Hanatoro, you’ll also find that the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove has its stalks illuminated, and there are lanterns along the ground to illuminate the path. We thought this looked really cool, but these narrow paths were crammed with people, even late in the evening.

Between the Togetsukyo Bridge and Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, the shops along the main path in Sagano were open late, and there were lanterns along the ground to create a nice atmosphere.

This was a nice touch, and it was interesting to see an area that’s normally quiet at night packed with people.

Hanatoro Tips

The first thing to note about both Higashiyama and Arashiyama Hanatoro is that the respective events occur before the start of sakura season and after the end of fall foliage season. While these are normally off-peak times of the year during the day, Hanatoro causes a surge of crowds (mostly locals) at night.

I wouldn’t book a trip around either Hanatoro, but if you are considering it for some reason, choose the Higashiyama one. The event is larger and features more entertainment, and the end of the event puts you pretty close to the start of cherry blossom season (and hopefully nicer weather).

Additionally, while there are nighttime temple illuminations during Hanatoro, we have not attended these as they are the same temples that have nighttime illuminations for fall colors and cherry blossom seasons. Since we are in Kyoto for those seasons as well (and budgets are finite!), we’ve chosen to attend nighttime illuminations when the trees are at their peak.

If you’re visiting Kyoto during Hanatoro but not fall colors/sakura seasons, you should definitely go to the temple illuminations. These illuminations are awesome, even when the trees aren’t at their peak. My strongest recommendation would be Kodai-ji Temple, since its illumination is not as dependent upon the trees; it also features a projection mapping show (above) and illuminated buildings.

We’d also recommend attending Hanatoro as late in the night as possible, and on a weekday. As noted, these events are largely aimed at locals (the Hanatoro posters plastered throughout Kyoto right now don’t even have any English on them), and most locals arrive early in the evening and clear out within the first couple of hours.

If you get to Gion around 6 p.m. do a nice dinner, and then head to Higashiyama around 8 p.m., you’ll have the best of both worlds: a modest crowd size to give the event some life, but not so many people that it’s difficult to navigate the pathways. Be mindful that some of the entertainment does conclude before the end of the night, so don’t arrive too late.

Oh, and one final tip: there are a number of representatives throughout the streets who answer questions and conduct surveys. Complete one of these (it takes maybe 90 seconds) and you’ll receive coupons for a meal of coffee and potatoes from the traditional Japanese establishment known as McDonald’s!

Overall, Hanatoro is a really fun event, especially if you like the communal experience of events like this. While we really enjoy walking around the Higashiyama District after the hordes of tourists have left and the streets are peaceful, there’s a palpable energy to Hanatoro. It helps that Hanatoro is a lesser-known event among foreign visitors to Japan, so most of the crowd you’ll encounter is locals. The Hanatoro experience is incredibly fun, offers some rare photo ops, and is a good way to spend the evening hours in parts of Kyoto that are normally “asleep” in the evening. We’d highly recommend making a point of checking it out if you’re in Kyoto in mid-March or mid-December!

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.

Your Thoughts

Have you visited Kyoto during Hanatoro? What did you think of the event? Was it a fun experience, or were you not particularly found of the added crowds? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Does visiting Japan during Hanatoro interest you? 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!

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