Sunday, April 13, 2014

Cherry blossoms in Kyoto, Japan

Word has it that the Japanese government will soon remove visa requirements for some Asian countries, the Philippines among them, and perhaps Indonesia and Vietnam will be included.

That will be sometime in June 2014.

But for the shoestring traveler who can only afford a one-time-big-time trip to the Land of the Rising Sun, there's no need to rush booking the cheapest fares and heading straight on to Japan. I highly suggest that you make your trip to Japan sometime during Spring -- mid-March to mid-April, to be precise -- so that you can catch the cherry blossoms at their peak.

I really can't imagine just yet how Japan is without the cherry blossoms. Sure, it would be fun to enjoy the cosmopolitan Tokyo, try out the rides in Tokyo Disneyland or the Universal Studios in Osaka, or go check out Mount Fuji. It must also be quite an adventure during the colder months when northern Japan becomes a winter wonderland.

But for me, cherry blossoms accentuating Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, as well as rows upon rows of flowering trees that look like cotton from afar, are a sight to behold. The chilly air is a bonus for someone coming from humid weather all-year round.

I'm not really sure if Kyoto is the best place in Japan to celebrate the beauty of cherry blossoms. When I did my research, it just appeared that Kyoto is so blessed with lots of cherry trees that beautifully blossom come spring time, and luckily, it is close to Osaka where the cheapest flights to Japan are coming from Manila.

There are particular places around Kyoto that are said to be the best spots to go cherry blossom-viewing. I wasn't able to follow every place mentioned in every guidebook that I've read. But I guess I've encountered the not-so popular yet beautiful spots in Kyoto where cherry blossom-viewing can also be enjoyed.

1. The Philosopher's Path
The Philosopher's Path (or Path of Philosophy, depends on how maps are translated) is listed as one of the more favored spots in Kyoto for viewing cherry blossoms. Various sources indicate that the path, which is about 1.5 kilometers long, would take 30 minutes to walk on. Quite a long walk for the Kyoto University philosopher who wandered on this path, isn't it? The entire stretch of the path that runs through a canal is lined with hundreds of cherry trees. Just imagine how surreal it is when the wind blows and the petals fly dramatically while you stroll under the canopy of pinkish-white flowers! It took me more than 30 minutes to walk on the Philosopher's Path as I checked the temples along the way such as the Ginkakuji Temple or the so-called the Silver Pavilion, Honen-in Temple, as well as the cute souvenir shops and quaint eating places along the way.

Suggested tour of the area should follow this order, although I avoided the temples that charge entrance fees as I was on a tight budget: Hakusa-sonso Garden, Ginkakuji Temple, Philosopher's Path, Kumano Nyakuoji Shrine, Eikan-do Temple, Nomura Museum, Nanzenji Temple, and Konchi-in Temple.

How to get there: Take bus no. 5 (A1), 17 (A2) or 100 (D1) at the Kyoto station and get off at Ginkakuji Station. Some of these buses also pass by Gion.

One of the less flattering parts of the Philosopher's Path. Sorry, I didn't do justice!

2. The Old Rail Tracks by Nanzenji Temple
On your way out from the Philosopher's Path going to the subway station, you won't miss the old rail tracks lined with hundreds of cherry trees! When I reached this point, I couldn't say anything but, "wow, wow, wow!" It's so beautiful despite the horde of tourists (and couples that are about to get married) who want to have their pictures taken here.

Rail tracks no longer in use outside Nanzenji Temple.

3. Arashiyama
Tourists flock to Arashiyama because of the bamboo forest, which bode well for selfie addicts and shutter-happy travelers. But the place, being home to a couple of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, is also a good place to go cherry blossom-viewing.

Tenryu-Ji Temple at Arashiyama, Kyoto.
Boats docked at Katsura River in Arashiyama. Cherry trees are aplenty, which must have looked prettier during the full bloom of the blossoms.

4.Shirakawa area in Gion
Touted as the center of geisha culture, Gion prides itself for the traditional Japanese structures that serve as ochaya (teahouse) and okiya (boarding house for geishas), the Gion shrine, and, more appropriately, the beautiful cherry trees at the Shirakawa area. Take note that while the cherry blossoms are a sight to behold in the morning, these seem to glow at night especially when lit.

Cherry blossoms at night in Gion.

So many cherry blossoms at the Gion shrine!
5. Bank of Kamo River at Kawaramachi-dori
I was wondering why the bank of the Kamo River isn't considered a prime spot for cherry blossom-viewing or hanami. My first view of Kyoto was on my way out of Kawaramachi station, and there was a long avenue lined with cherry trees. Even the doorstep of the hostel where I was billeted, which is parallel to Kawaramachi-dori at the Miyagawa Suji, is greeted with cherry blossoms!

My folding bike, an Enda Leo, by the banks of Kamo River.
Another photo of my folding bike, this time at Miyagawa-suji.

6. That street by the Takase-gawa River
Just across the Kamo-gawa River from Miyagawa-suji and Gion is a narrow body of water called Takase-gawa River. Cherry blossoms right by the river, with traditional Japanese buildings and houses around, make for a good place for photo ops.

Another photo of my bike, by the Takase-gawa River.