With its beautiful temples, gardens and surrounding scenery, Kyoto is the perfect backdrop for the splendor of the cherry-blossoms. The Japanese tradition of hanami, or « flower viewing » dates back to the Heian Period (794 to 1191), when it was popularized by the imperial court. The Japanese aristocracy, artists, poets, and musicians soon transfered the hobby of hanami to the masses, and flower viewing became a national obsession. The national flower of Japan, and an indelible symbol for the Japanese is the cherry-blossom, or ‘sakura,’ which is indigenous to the Prunus serrulata, or ‘ornamental cherry tree.’ This should not be mistaken for the edible cherries (sakuranbo) that come from a separate species. Due to their brief blooming period, the Sakura cherry-blossoms have come to symbolize the transience of life.
Kyoto in April
Although Cherry-Blossom viewing is a national obsession throughout Japan, Kyoto is perhaps one of the best places for viewing this pageant.
Cherry blossom season may only last for one week to ten days, depending on weather conditions and wind which can drastically shorten the viewing period. The sakura reach full bloom, or mankai approximately one week after the first blossoms, or kaika appear. As the blossoms fall, they scatter (chiru) leaving a carpet of pink and white on the ground. There are now over 300 species of sakura cherry blossom tree found in Japan that have been hybridized from the original trees that were found throughout Asia. One of the favorite hybrid varieties is known as Somei Yoshino, revered for its pure white color with a hint of pink at the center. The Somei Yoshino dates back to the Meiji period when it was first hybridized. The yaezakura and yamazakura are known for their deep pink petals and larger flowers. The « weeping cherry blossom’ tree, or shidarezakura is another beloved variety in Japan.
“Millions of Japanese plan vacations and family events around the coming of the sakura.”
In Kyoto, Osaka, and Nara, the blooming period is from late March (around the 25th to 30th) to early April (around the 7th to the 15th). The ‘Sakura Zensen’ Cherry blossom forecasting has become a very important science, as millions of Japanese plan vacations and family events around the coming of the sakura. The Japanese Meteorological Agency (JMA) tracks what is known as the « cherry-blossom front, » or sakura-zensen, predicting the exact time period for optimal sakura viewing. During the height of the cherry-blossom season of January to May, nightly news programs feature the sakura-zensen forecast. A favorite family pastime is the hanami, or « flower viewing party, » and throughout the sakura season you will see family gatherings and picnics taking place under the shade of the cherry-blossoms.You will also see a convergence of another Japanese obsession; photography, as hundreds of amateur photographers can be seen taking close-up photos of the blossoms on any given day. The cherry-blossom season varies greatly throughout Japan, with the first blossoms opening in the far south of Okinawa. This can happen as early as January. As the months progress, the sakura-zensen ‘cherry-blossom front’ moves north reaching Kyoto by the end of March, or early April.
The northern island of Hokkaido is the last place in Japan to see the sakur.A popular event in Kyoto is the Cherry Blossom Festival which occurs during the month of April. Also, the Miyako Odori or « Cherry blossom Dance » is held by the Geisha at Gion Corner theater in Gion, Kyoto. During this season you can find sakura liquor, sakura jam, sakura candy, sakura dishware, and just about anything else you can think of.Each location in Kyoto has a special aspect to its cherry blossom viewing. The Heian Shrine is known for its unique ‘weeping cherry-blossom trees, and at nigh there are concerts held at the shrine, where you can see a dazzling light show of lit cherry-blossoms.The Path of Philosophy is another favorite viewing spot, where you can take a leisurely walk under a conopy of blossoms. Arashiyama Park, Nakanoshima Park, the banks of the Kamogawa River, and Shosei-en Garden are favorite viewing spots to see an extensive variety of Sakura trees, and Maruyama Park adjacent to Yasaka Shrine is a favorite weekend picnic spot with a wide variety of ‘Weeping Cherry Blossom’ trees and festivities. Timing is everything, and in order to insure that you will see something, make sure you allow enough time – possibly one week in a given location. It is also best to watch the forecasts, and try to time it so that you are there in the middle of the ‘season.’ Yearly fluctuations are common, so don’t go exclusively by what happened last year.