GUEST ARTICLE: Cherry Blossom season isn’t the easiest to gauge. I had looked up the average “full bloom” of the season in Kyoto and found out that late in the first week of April would be our best bet. However, depending on the weather the blooming time can be finicky. For instance this year the weather was warmer than usual and the trees blossomed early – darn!
So unfortunately when we arrived we had ‘just’ missed their full bloom but we can’t complain there were still plenty of late-blooming trees and even though the blossoms might have been a bit sparse in spots Kyoto was still a sight to behold. Moral of the story – in Kyoto if you want to guarantee that you see cherry blossoms in all their glory then you should aim to be there in the last week of March AND the first week of April.
We had arrived in Kyoto on the JR train after spending a few days in Osaka. We thought we were going for a big train trip but were surprised when only 30 minutes later we arrived in Kyoto. For two big cities being so close to each other they were completely different. And we loved the short train ride, it just meant more time to get out there and start exploring!
The Kyoto station has to be the most modern architecturally cool station we’ve ever been to. It dwarfs any other we’ve seen with its grandiose 15-story structure home to not only a massive train network but also a shopping mall, restaurants, hotel and government offices. It really is an impressive building and not only looks beautiful in the daytime but lights up with awesome displays at night. There’s also a great view of the city from the rooftop.
Our hotel the Hokke Club Kyoto was in an excellent location being just right across the street from the station. We weren’t able to check in until after 3pm but they were more than happy to hold our luggage for us until that time. So in the meantime we headed out for our first sightsee.
Kyoto is a lot bigger than it looks. Sure, the centre of the city is pretty compact, but most of the sights are a fair distance apart. With a map in hand we marked off a few spots we thought we could tackle that first day. It was a perfect sunny spring day with just a slight chill in the air. We didn’t have to walk too long before finding a picturesque little canal called Takasegawa. It was a lovely peaceful walk along a cherry blossom lined street home to quaint cafes and beautiful little abodes running alongside it. That was an excellent walk in both the day and at night when it was lit up.
We continued on for quite some time winding in and out of quiet little alleyways and poking our heads out every now and again at the massive Kamogawa River. There were heaps of paths to choose from, we loved the thought of exploring each one to see what we would find.
One place on our list that day was Gyoen Park. According to the map it offered a few different Palaces to see but unfortunately we weren’t able to because they were ‘by appointment only’ visits. We actually found this to be the case with quite a few of the Temples around Kyoto, so make sure to check beforehand!
Fortunately (unbeknownst to us) we arrived at the Kyoto Imperial Palace in just the knick of time for its last free public Spring Open Day viewing. Like the others we would have had to apply for permission to see it but we just happened to be the very last (and I mean the very last) person to step through the gates before they closed up until its next public viewing in the fall.
The palace used to be home to Japan’s Imperial family until the capital was moved to Tokyo in 1869. The palace is still in very good condition and like most Japanese dwellings very well manicured. A few cherry blossoms still hung about adding just that little extra touch to the buildings and its tranquil gardens.
Just walking to and around the park was strenuous we were going to have to do like the locals and find us some bikes to rent to give us a better chance of seeing more and saving our feet! Later that afternoon we eventually made it back to our hotel and checked in. Our room was great! It was nice, clean and spacious with a big bathtub to soak our weary bones at the end of the day. We opted for the twin bed room (instead of the double, that was recommended on TripAdvisor for the space) and we were glad we did.
The next morning we awoke to a beautiful crisp morning. After a nice hot coffee downstairs we went in search of a bike rental shop. Luckily there was one just a few minutes walk down the road called Rental Bicycle Kyoto Miyabiya. Trusty owner Tak was really accommodating and set us up with some great bikes and a map with all the hotspots. They only cost us Yen1000 each per day, which turned out to be the best Yen1000 we’d spent!
Kyoto is really geared for biking (a main transport for the locals) and there are a multitude of excellent paths to choose from. Another bonus is that everyone is really bike aware so no matter if you’re in a car, ankle expressing it or biking traffic seemed to flow effortlessly amongst us all.
In Kyoto there are soooo many temples and shrines that is it hard to choose which ones to visit. I referred to TripAdvisor and on this occasion that wasn’t much help either – the reviews on temples were mixed and it was hard to differentiate one from another. So, we decided instead to use the temples as waypoints for our journey around the city. That turned out to be an excellent idea because on most occasions the temples weren’t quite what we expected and/or too crowded BUT the bike journey between temples was the real highlight!
There is so much to see in Kyoto that we almost had sensory overload. Masses of shrines with immaculate grounds, cherry blossom trees throughout, Zen gardens upon Zen gardens, giant flowing rivers, lakes, quaint tea houses … the list really could go on and on. In fact, I find it hard to do the whole experience justice in this blog. The best advice is just to get on a bike and get out there and explore – no matter where you go you can’t go wrong.
For example, on one occasion we got lost on our way to a temple and we found ourselves riding alongside a river through heaps of market gardens (gardens that have probably been tended in that way for thousands of years). On another occasion we came across a beautiful small lake (they call it a pond) called Takaraji-ike Pond surrounded by small hills covered in a myriad of colourful trees.
The temples and shrines seem to be the main event in Kyoto but for us they weren’t. As is the case with most famous cities in high season (high season in Kyoto is in spring for its cherry blossoms and autumn for the vibrant colours) the temples and shrines were really, really crowded and that’s never pleasant. Don’t get me wrong they are very beautiful but if you’re jostling for a view and continually avoiding getting in someone else’s photo it makes it hard to enjoy the beauty.
There are a few places though we thought definitely deserve special mentions – first the Fushimi Inari Shrine. Like the others it was very crowded and at first we got stuck in a slow migration up a stone staircase. But the area it covers is so large that if you keep walking the crowds soon dissipate and you find yourself walking through a maze of some very pretty (and relatively isolated) pathways lined with brilliant burnt orange columns covered in engraved Japanese writing.
My second favourite was the Ryoan-Ji Temple. It has a rock garden that is said to be one of Japan’s culture masterpieces. Many people go to see it to sit and admire and philosophise about it. We on the other hand didn’t quite get it and instead rather enjoyed its amazing gardens and tranquil pond. For me the Ryoan-Ji garden had the best giant drooping delicate pale pink cherry blossoms I’d seen and the moss gardens with their perfectly pruned trees were also a sight to behold.
The good news is that Kyoto is such a beautiful city that you can ride just about anywhere and find special spots that we found far more enjoyable. We especially liked cruising along the cherry blossom lined rivers where locals liked to sit in groups under the trees soaking up the ambience. Watching school kids having fun skipping rocks across the river or locals feeding pigeons while giant hawks soared high above, now that was beautiful!
Everything that we have come to love about Japan is in abundance in Kyoto – the people are polite, super friendly and always willing to help. We especially loved the food it definitely has to be some of the best in the world and there is no lack of it, it seemed like there was a culinary delight around every corner! The public transport is also something to be envied – super efficient, clean and is on time, every time! And last but not least the accommodations, every place we stayed at was excellent, I even got to love their half wheat pillows.
The mega bonus about Japan on this visit was the price of everything. We had arrived in Japan as the Yen had collapsed by 35% against the world’s major currencies. That made Japan very, very inexpensive for us. We were eating out most nights for under $30 including wine and desserts. Lunch was under $15. Being Australian I had grown up with Japan being ranked as one of the most expensive countries in the world but here I was experiencing Japan as one of the cheapest. I get a feeling that Japan won’t always be so affordable (it can’t be, surely) so this is definitely a great time for tourists to come and enjoy it!! And I would highly recommend doing it by bike!
This travel diary has been written by Machalle Gower, a friend who enjoys taking the road less traveled!