April puts Kyoto in bloom

Cherry blossom season in Japan is a time to stop and celebrate the blooms and nowhere are they more cherished than Kyoto

KYOTO, Japan — Each spring, "The Land of the Rising Sun" wakes up to the tree of the blooming buds. Sakura season begins with the first blush of the cherry blossoms, and this city of 1.5 million people is one of the best places to experience hanami, when the Japanese take time to eat, drink and soak up the beauty of the cherry blossoms with a picnic under the branches.

The tradition began before the Heian Period (794-1185), when the imperial court would step out to admire the flowers and sip a sake. Over the centuries, it has evolved into a festive time that lasts from late March through April. Today, cherry blossom season also coincides with a new school term for Japanese students, so it is seen as a symbol for a fresh start.

This is also prime time for tourists.

"Kyoto is considered to be the Rome of Asia and one of the most visited cities, but during cherry blossom season it explodes," said Anne Alene, an in-country guide arranged by the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh Travel Program for a trip earlier this month. Tour groups from all over the world visit every shrine, temple or UNESCO World Heritage site, enjoying this spring bling.

"Maruyama-koen Park is the epicenter of cherry blossom viewing in Kyoto," said Eric Shiner, director of The Andy Warhol Museum, who led the Carnegie Museums group on a two-week contemporary art tour of Japan. "During cherry blossom season, it is so packed you can barely move. It's like New Year's Eve in Times Square."

PG graphic: Kyoto, Japan
(Click image for larger version)

The Carnegie tour group spent several days in Kyoto, admiring this bit of natural art.

One of the most popular sakura spots in Kyoto is the Philosopher's Walk, which is lined with flowering trees. The Gion district, one of several historically preserved geisha districts, is filled with atmosphere and blossoms, too. Visitors enjoy eating and drinking at restaurants along the canal. In the evening, spotlights make the cherry trees glow all around Kyoto.

"By the time you notice, they are in full bloom, their lives are already ending, which is very sad," said Yuko Eguchi, a doctoral student at the University of Pittsburgh who grew up in Tokyo.

While many Americans go to Washington, D.C., to see the cherry blossoms -- Japan gave the trees as a gift in 1912 -- Mr. Shiner and the Carnegie travelers caught the blossoms at their peak in their homeland. Members of the group spread out their picnic blankets under the trees along the Katsuragawa River, mingling with locals and other visitors.

While artists were painting the scene, it was the photographers who were as plentiful as the blossoms, trying to capture the fleeting flowers. Everywhere you looked, young women were pulling down low-hanging branches to frame their faces for the perfect portrait.

"Nature is essential to Japanese culture and is also worshipped in Shintoism," said Ms. Eguchi, who is studying ethnomusicology at Pitt.

This is evidenced by the carefully cultivated gardens that surround so many of the shrines and temples in the city. There are an estimated 2,000 Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples in Kyoto prefecture.

The Sanjusangen-do is Japan's longest wooden structure and is the home to 1,001 wooden statues of Kannon, the goddess of mercy. For 100 yen, or approximately $1, you can pick a fortune out of a box. If you like it, you keep it. If not, you tie it to a line outside the temple. The Heian Jingu Shrine had the fortunes on pink paper tied to sticks, making them look like cherry blossom bushes.

Saiho-Ji, the Moss Temple, is the site of one of the oldest gardens in Japan. A beautiful weeping cherry tree greets visitors as they gather for a chanting service. For a unique experience, try the optional calligraphy exercise. While the monks chant, visitors sit on tatami mats at small tables tracing Kanji characters. Afterward you are free to contemplate and wander the garden.

Rokuon-ji, known as the Golden Pavilion, sits on a beautiful lake that reflects the 200,000 pieces of gold leaf covering the top two floors of the structure that houses the ashes of Buddha. Once owned by shogun Yoshimitsu, it became a Zen Buddhist temple when he died.

"Many Japanese see the ephemerality of human lives in the cherry blossoms, and this is part of the reason they are the subject of poems and songs. It is all deeply connected to the philosophical thoughts of the Japanese," Ms. Eguchi said.

Most of the major temples and shrines have gift shops that sell all manner of good luck talismans and spiritual items. For more material pursuits, Kyoto offers miles and miles of shopping.

Nishiki Market, known as Kyoto's kitchen, is the foodies' favorite. The first shop appeared in 1310 and since then generations have sold fish, vegetables, noodles and utensils. Aritsugu, a kitchen tools shop, was founded in 1560 as a sword maker and is famous for its knives. Craftsmen will engrave your name on the knife in English or Kanji while you wait, but you can't leave until they have explained how to care for your purchase. (You can take the knives home on the plane in checked luggage.)

Nishiki is just off the Teramachi, another covered shopping arcade, which goes on for miles. Running parallel to that is Shinkyogoku shopping arcade. Credit cards are accepted at most places, but at Aritsugu it is all cash. The best place to find ATMs that take U.S. cards is 7-Eleven stores, which were purchased by a Japanese company in 1991 and are all over the country.

All of these shopping areas are perpendicular to Shijo Dori, a main shopping corridor in central Kyoto where there are department stores such as Takashimaya and Daimaru as well as countless boutiques. As with holiday, retailers use sakura season to sell -- even the 100-yen coin depicts the tiny flower on one side.

There is cherry blossom ice cream, sweets, tabi (split toe socks) and handbags. Even McDonald's offers a pink bun with what it calls its cherry blossom burger and special cherry blossom drinks.

Who can blame them for ringing the register? The city is flush with foreigners and Japanese wanting to hold onto the ephemeral flower, one way or another.

Patricia Sheridan: psheridan@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2613. Twitter @pasheridan

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