Cherry blossom season has now made its way north to the alps and Tohoku region. However we can't forget glorious Kyoto during spring and cherry blossom season - for many of us Kyoto awash with sakura trees symbolises our love of Japan ....... and just as we wait patiently each year for the cherry blossoms to bloom we now wait patiently for the coronavirus pandemic to end and we can all travel again.
So for the moment we are using this time to update our tours, introduce new programs and add new sightseeing activities that we think should appeal to students and school groups.
When visiting Kyoto keep in mind that cherry blossom trees can be seen throughout Kyoto and the famous places are always very crowded. Buy some drinks and obento lunches, find a quiet spot and photo opportunities will still abound everywhere. With so many stunning places to view cherry blossoms in Kyoto the most difficult decision is where to begin!
Let's start at one of my most favourite places to view the blossoms, Tetsugaku no Michi, better know as Philosopher's Path. This path follows a cherry-tree lined canal between Ginkakuji Temple and Nanzenji Temple. The path received its name from the 20th century Kyoto University professor and philosopher, Nishida Kitaro, who used this path for his daily meditation. From Kyoto Station take bus #5, #17 or #100 to Ginkakuji Temple. A one-day Kyoto City Bus Pass costs ¥600 for adults and students 12 years and over or ¥300 for 11 years and under. Passes can be purchased at Kyoto Station or for ease of use and convenience Saizen Tours has stock so that passes can be included in your final documents.
The bus from Kyoto Station stops directly outside Ginkakuji Temple. Ginkakuji (銀閣寺 Silver Pavillion) is a Zen temple that was built by Shogun Yoshimasa as his retirement villa in 1482.
It was modelled on Kinkakuji, 金閣寺 Golden Temple, but was never actually covered in silver. After Yoshimasa’s death in 1490 the pavillion was converted to a temple. The temple is famous for its beautiful moss garden and also sand garden. Ginkakuji is open daily and admission is ¥500 for adults and high school students, ¥300 for junior high school students and primary school students. No group discounts are available. Philosopher’s Path is a 5-minute walk from Ginkakuji. The tree lined canal was built during the Meiji Era, originating from Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture. The path is approximately 1.5 km long and is lined with cherry blossom trees, cafes, restaurants and traditional shops and boutiques.
The path ends a short walk from Nazenji Temple (南禅寺) one of the most important Zen temples in Japan. Entry into the Nanzenji complex is free but there are admission fees if you want to enter the gardens (adults ¥500), the famous Sanmon Gate (adults ¥500) or Nanzen-in (adults ¥300). The bus back to Kyoto Station is a short walk from Nanzenji. If time permits continue walking to the trail behind Nanzenji along a small canal to Keage Incline – this cherry tree lined slope is one of the most beautiful spots in Kyoto and is renowned for incredible photo opportunities at cherry blossom time.
GION YASAKA SHRINE AND MARUYAMA PARK
Think Kyoto, think kimonos, think cherry blossoms, think Gion!
Take bus #100 or #206 from Kyoto Station to Gion bus stop. Cross the road and you standing at the steps leading up to Yasaka Shrine (八坂神社) Also known as Gion Shrine it is one of Kyoto’s most famous shrines. Tourists flock to the shrine all year but particularly at cherry blossom time as the shrine sits adjacent to Maruyama Park. The shrine is always open and there is no admission fee. The central courtyard is filled with lanterns that light up at night and the shrine pathway leads to Maruyama Park (円山公園). When the blossoms are in full bloom the park is filled with people having picnics and celebrating hanami under the trees. The centrepiece of the park is the famous shidarezakura weeping cherry tree that is beautifully illuminated at night.
There is a convenience store opposite the main stairs of Yasaka Shrine. A suggestion is to spend the morning at Kiyomizudera Temple and then wander the traditional, narrow streets that wind down to Yasaka Shrine. Make your way through the shrine to the main entrance. Stand at the top of the stairway and enjoy the brilliant view of Shijo Dori and the Gion district.
Go down the stairs, cross the road and purchase obento for an economical hanami picnic in Maruyama Park. After lunch retrace your steps back to Yasaka Shrine and the main stairway leading to Shijo Dori.
GION, SHIRAKAWA AND SHIMBASHI DORI
Start your walking tour of Gion from the main steps of Yasaka Shrine. Walk straight ahead up the main street, Shijo Dori, taking time to visit the many beautiful, traditional shops along the way. On the corner of Hanami-Koji Dori is Ichiriki Teahouse. This historical ochaya was featured in the book and movie ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’. Turn left and walk down Hanami-Koji Dori and stroll the many traditional restaurants, cafes and shops lining the mainly pedestrian street. Best time is in the evening when there is a strong chance to spot authentic Geisha and Maiko walking through these streets, heading to restaurants and teahouses.
At Gion Corner there are nightly cultural performances including dance, music and tea ceremony. Admission prices are ¥3,150 for adults, ¥2,200 for high school students and ¥1,900 for primary and junior high school students. Group discounts are also available for groups of 20 or more. Saizen Tours can make group bookings for Gion Corner and include tea ceremony and admission tickets within group tour packages.
A spring festival highlight featured during cherry blossom season is the Miyako Odori, performed at Gion Corner. This annual performance showcases song, dance and musical instruments performed by the maiko and geiko from the Gion geisha districts. The show is performed four times a day from 1st to 30th of April every year. This is a not-to-be-missed show with beautiful kimono costumes and classical Japanese performances. Tickets sell quickly and bookings are essential therefore contact us for early group bookings as soon as tickets are released.
Retrace your steps back to Ichiriki Teahouse, cross Shijo Dori and continue straight ahead walking north up Hanami-Koji Dori for a few minutes until the small crossroads at Shimbashi Dori. Turn left and this will take you to the charming Shimbashi Geisha District running alongside the Shirakawa River. Traditional wooden machiya houses and cherry blossom trees cling to the path and stream.
Many tourists hope to see a geisha or maiko when they are visiting Kyoto, particularly in Gion and Higashiyama districts. Photo opportunities are increasingly difficult as Kyoto tourists jostle the crowds hoping for a quick photo snap during a fleeting glimpse as the maiko move between engagements. Private meetings are usually expensive and difficult to arrange.
The good news is that Saizen Tours has had a long relationship with a Gion ochaya teahouse and can arrange a special experience for school groups to have a one hour private meeting with a maiko. The maiko will perform a dance and tea ceremony plus join in conversation with students, answer questions and participate in lots of photo opportunities.
A very special experience and always mentioned as a highlight by both teachers and students. Below is one of Saizen Tours groups visiting Kyoto during cherry blossom season.
KIMONO RENTAL EXPERIENCE
Another highlight for many of our school groups is to dress in Japanese yukata and visit some temples and shrines in Kyoto. We have access to kimono studios located in different sightseeing areas of Kyoto that allow for convenient and easy access to popular temples and shrines. Kimonos are available for all ages, all sizes and for both male and female students and teachers. Rental includes accessories such as the obi sash, traditional sandals and hair ornaments for girls. There are a number of rental plans available including studio photos taken by a professional photographer. One of our most popular and economical plans allows students to choose and keep a new yukata and accessories from ¥2,800 per person - a delightful group experience with lasting photo memories of their Japan trip.
The beautiful family photo below is Saizen Tours group consultant, Noreen, who could not pass up the opportunity to have a family photo shoot during her last visit to Japan.
The 1200 year-old Kiyomizudera Temple (清水寺) is one of the most popular and most visited UNESCO sites in Kyoto. From Kyoto Station take bus #100 or #206. Get off at Gojo-zaka or Kiyomizu-michi bus stop and walk 10-minutes up the hill to the temple. Entrance fee is ¥300 for adults and high school students and ¥200 for junior high school and primary school students. Kiyomizudera is perched high up on a hilltop with sprawling views of Kyoto City below. Climb the steps known as Chawan-zaka and wind through the laneways of ‘teapot alley’. Breathe in the smells of traditional food, Kyoto incense and in spring, cherry blossoms. The petals fall softly and mingle with cobblestones and tourists, pottery shops from whence came the name ‘teapot alley’, fan shops and traditional sweets.
Before entering the main hall try finding your true love at Jishu Shrine, close your eyes and walk the path between two stones. If you succeed you will find your true love! Kiyomizudera,is known as ‘Pure Water Temple’ so make your way to Otowa-no-taki (Otowa Waterfall) inside the grounds and pick one of three streams to drink for health, wealth or longevity.
SAGANO TRAIN AND HOZUGAWA RIVER CRUISE
One of my favourite things to do in Kyoto is to take the Sagano sightseeing train to Kameoka and then board wooden boats for a cruise through forest gorges down the Hozugawa River. Beautiful in autumn when the forests are a blaze of reds and yellows and equally spectacular during cherry blossom season. Take the JR Line from Kyoto Station to JR Saga-Arashiyama Station – 15 minutes and ¥240 per person (or use Japan Rail Pass if valid). Opposite JR station is Saga Torokko Station. Here you board the Sagano Romantic train for the 25-minute trip to Kameoka Torokko Station. This train departs regularly and due to its popularity bookings are essential.
At Kameoka Station you have two choices, take a waiting public bus to the river and cruise. Or walk into the delightful small town of Kameoka and have lunch. Kameoka was originally a castle town, however now only a park and castle ruins remain. Return to the station and take the next bus to the river. Local bus is ¥320 per person (half price for primary students). The boat ride takes two hours from Kameoka to Arashiyama, winding its way through the 16-kilometre river course.
Arashiyama is the perfect place to finish the cruise beneath Togetsu-kyo Bridge and the hills lit up pink with cherry blossoms. Of course there are many things to do and see before departing Arashiyama including Tenryu-ji Temple, the famous bamboo forest, Monkey Park and many shops to keep students happy!
Saizen Tours can organise all bookings for a fun, sightseeing day in Western Kyoto.
Not the most famous temple for cherry blossom viewing however a visit to Kyoto would not be complete without a visit to beautiful Kinkakuji Temple, (金閣寺) better known as the Golden Pavillion. Kinkakuji is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Japan’s most visited temples. From Kyoto Station take Kyoto City Bus #205 or Raku Bus #101 and #102 (Kyoto City Bus Pass can also be used on the Raku Bus). A few buses stop at Kinkakuji-mae bus stop but most stop at Kinkakuji-michi bus stop, a few minutes walk from the temple. Kinkakuji is open daily and admission is ¥400 for adults and high school students, ¥300 for junior high school students and primary school students. No group discounts are available.
Kinkakuji was originally built as a retirement villa for Shogun Yoshimitsu who lived in the villa until his death in 1412 after which it was designated a temple and officially named Rokuonji. The villa was built extravagantly with the top two floors completely covered in gold leaf and each of the four floors built to represent a different style of architecture. Kinkakuji has been destroyed by fire and rebuilt a number of times. You enter the temple grounds through a small pathway of pine and maple trees, turn a corner and there stands Kinkakuji shimmering with its reflection on the small lake that surrounds it.
We would love to receive your comments, share the places you like to visit in Kyoto and share your favourite places to take students. We are thinking of everyone and look forward to returning to the joy of assisting with your trips to Japan. Take care, stay safe!
Written by Rondell Herriot, Co-Managing Director Saizen Tours