The blossoming of the sakura trees reveals Japan at her most beautiful, and we Kansai dwellers are blessed to be within day trip distance of some of the most breathtaking viewing spots in all of the land. Here are ten of them, but get cracking – remember hanami season only lasts a few weeks!
1. Yoshino, Nara
Revered as a sacred site by the Shugendo faith since the 7th century, the area was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2004. Though Yoshino is awash with some 30,000 sakura trees, people flock to the four groves leading up Mount Yoshino, as the trees there blossom at different times throughout spring. The highest grove, Oku-senbon, lies 800m up the mountain trail. After a few sakes this might seem daunting, but it’s well worth the effort because at the top lies Kinpu Shrine, the most remote and mysterious shrine in the district
Access: A short walk from Kintetsu Yoshino station, take the ropeway up to the lowest grove; Shimo-senbon.
2. Philosopher’s Walk, Kyoto
Follow in the footsteps of influential 20th century philosopher Nishido Kitaro as you walk the path he used for daily meditation. The stone thorough-fare follows a weaving canal for 1.7 miles through Kyoto’s Higashiyama district and is lined with hundreds of sakura trees that explode with colour every April. It’s pram/stroller friendly and served throughout by vendors and cute cafes, so this gentle stroll is ideal for families with children or those who just want to do some meditating of their own.
Access: A 20 min taxi ride from Kyoto station, get dropped off at Ginkaku-Ji temple.
3. Shukugawa Park, Nishinomiya
Lying in the shadows of the majestic Mount Kabutoyama, the park boasts over 3,000 sakura trees and is dissected by the Shukugawa River. During peak periods, the riverbank can get crowded so you’ll have jostle to nab a spot with water views. Be prepared as well to hear a variety of music, from Japanese folk to drunken karaoke, coming from groups who have hit the sake a couple of hours before you. Vendors sell sake, beer and snacks but we say take the 50m stroll to the supermarket where you’ll find what you need for less extortionate prices.
Access: A 2 min walk from JR Sakura Shukugawa station.
4. Maruyama Park, Kyoto
The adjacent Yasaka Shrine is a sight not to be missed by visitors to Kyoto’s premier hanami destination. However, the true magic is experienced as night falls and the park’s centrepiece; a huge shidarezakura(weeping cherry tree), is illuminated to give a spectacularly-ethereal display that will make even those laying off the booze feel punch-drunk. We recommend a stroll around the park’s traditional Japanese gardens followed by a visit to one of the several restaurants as a sure way to satisfy your appetite.
Access: 20 min on the 100 or 206 bus from Kyoto Station. Get off at Gion.
5. Enryakuji Temple, shiga
Founded in 788 and now the head-quarters of the Tendai sect of Buddhism, this monastery has an enthrallingly gory past. KS would never spoil the story for you though; instead we recommend taking the pleasant walk through the hilly, pink forests of its three areas – Todo, Saito and Yokawa – to see the historical buildings and find out for yourself.
Access: Monks used to walk up the mountain but thankfully there’s now a cable car station a short bus ride from Hiezan Sakamoto station.
6. Satsuskiyama Park, Ikeda
Sprawling up the side of Mount Satsuki, Satsukiyama Park is ideal for the more active hanamiers. The five hiking trails with stunning views of the Osaka Plain should provide apt incentive for burning off the beer. However, if you prefer to take a more relaxed approach to cherry blossom viewing, the park also houses a free botanical garden, zoo and petting zoo that are open for the bulk of the day. A great park for families.
Access: A 10 min walk from Hankyu Ikeda station. Follow the crowds.
7. Himeji castle Park, Hyogo
The brilliant white of the walls alone is enough to draw visitors to Japan’s finest and most famous castle. Come hanami season, however, and the castle plays second fiddle to the blossoming sakura trees, which wash the castle grounds in pink. Note that this spring, repairs on the keep mean that it will be largely covered in scaffolding, but the observation deck offers the chance to watch the work as it happens, providing adequate consolation for those in need of their daytime TV renovation show fix.
Access: 5 min by taxi from either JR or Hanshin Himeji station.
8. Osaka castle Park
This fifteen-acre oasis surrounding Osaka’s exalted relic has cherry blossom trees strewn around its perimeter that bloom to create an exquisite pink barrier separating those inside from the grey of the city’s north-east quarter. Popular with couples, groups, in fact all Osakans; we say put a tarp down early as you’ll be surprised at how fast fifteen acres gets filled.
Access: You can’t miss it from JR Osakajo-Koen station or Tanimachi 4-Chome on the Tanimachi subway line.
9. Heian Shrine, Kyoto
After entering through the huge tori gate, KS recommends a leisurely jaunt around the courtyard that separates many of the main buildings followed by an exploration of the garden at the back. Here you’ll find an enchanting array of plants and ponds, but most importantly the weeping cherry trees that bloom a few days after most others, making this spot ideal at the tail end of the season around mid-April.
Access: Take the 5 or 100 bus from Kyoto station or the subway to Higashiyama station from which the shrine is a 10 min walk. Again, follow the crowds.
10. Sakurai, Nara
Abundant with sakura trees and miles into the countryside, this less-known location really is a treat for the senses. Here, one is able to experience the scent of the cherry blossoms in a way that is impossible near the bigger cities where the air is tinged with exhaust fumes. The river that snakes through the town has steps leading down to it at some points, making it ideal for gathering. It’s also comforting to know that you’ll be in divine company while having a tipple here as the nearby Omiwa Shrine is dedicated to the god of sake.
Access: Sakurai station on the Kintetsu Railway, Osaka line.