Graham and Linda have just returned from chasing and shaking cherry blossoms around Japan. They’ve shared their highlights with us on this week’s travel postcard and argued that this was the best year for cherry blossoms ever. Linda writes:
There are a few moments in life where beauty brings tears to my eyes; the birth of a child and cherry blossom time in Japan. It’s a fleeting, precious, once-in-a-lifetime moment of unearthly beauty and you start measuring the rest of your years in blossom seasons.
For me visiting Japan was like discovering a different planet, visit in April and it’s like that planet has been rolled in honey and dusted in dusky-pink feathers. The cherry blossom is heavenly, circling petals get in your hair, in your mouth and all over your clothes, and create carpets as you walk.
Japan feels like an older planet, where strangely-polite customs, refined thinking and stillness are galactic miles from anything in the west. I loved the way they nurture antiquity; their ancient cherry trees are propped up with timber posts, carefully pruning with bamboo frames to lighten their load. It’s so different to here where anything ‘old’ of ‘broken’ is wiped out for something ‘new’ and ‘fixed’.
So where are the best places to see cherry blossom in Japan? Here are my favourite spots. Bursting with Zen gardens, bamboo groves, Buddhist temples and geisha shuffling along cobbled lane ways, your first stop must be Kyoto. This ancient capital is lifted straight from a scene of a Japanese woodblock print. And come cherry blossom season – a national obsession in Japan –sakura (cherry blossoms) line Kyoto’s canals, hang low over lakes and transform gardens into blankets of fairy floss.
I think some of the prettiest cherry trees were in the strolling gardens of Heian Jingu Shrine. We walked though a sunken forest of cherry trees, the oldest trees were braced with intricate frames, like you can see here, supporting the graceful branches from below. This strolling garden was a picture of water, stone stepping stones, and blossom trees dripping out over the lake.
Heian shrine garden. Photo: Sean Pavone/shutterstock
Weddings are big at this time of year, this one was outside our hotel in Kyoto although I’m still not sure if it was a photo shoot or actual wedding. I love the idea of a day of fleeting petals for a lifetime of happiness.
What a location for a shoot, Kyoto. Photo: Linda Ross
Sakura petals bloom and fall within days. They are a symbol of change and a reminder of the temporary nature of all things. Picking petals is like messing with destiny. But Japanese like to eat the petals. For the few weeks of blossoming you can try a Sakura Mochi – a traditional Japanese sweet of pink-coloured rice – wrapped in sakura leaf to look pretty. The sakura leaf is edible, typically salted to improve it’s shelf life. Sakura Mochi can also be stuffed with anko (red bean paste) or sweet white bean paste. Or try Sakura ice cream; although I preferred the white peach. As far as flavour goes, it’s delicious.
White peach ice cream and pale pink cherry petals. Photo: Linda Ross
The ice-cream was purchased walking up a well-worn track to the ancient Moss Garden Temple, Saiho-ji is a Rinzai Zen Buddhist temple. A calligraphy lesson and poem chanting awaits, but first we navigated the charming back streets, canals, blossom carpets, flurries of petals – the whisper of the petal storm to come. A word of warning: you can’t just walk into the Moss Temple, you’ll need to write to them one year in advance for permission and that permission comes in writing!
The road to Saiho-ji, Kyoto. Photo: Linda Ross
A little rain added to the atmosphere as we walked up to Kiyomizu Temple and look down onto blankets of cherry blossom, verdant-just-burst Japanese maple leaves and dwarf bamboo. The grounds at this bustling temple are dotted with cherry trees. Don’t miss the night lights held during cherry blossom season.
Kiyomizu Temple, Kyoto. Photo: Linda Ross
Is this the most beautiful bridge on earth? The stream is flanked by mounds of ‘Kurume’ azalea, summer flowering Japanese iris and a blossom ceiling. This is Japan’s most beautiful and visited garden in Kanazawa called Kenrokuen and it’s a garden for every moment, every day, every season. Here it was at its frothy best, the bridge to the right…
The bridge at Kenrokuen. Photo: Linda Ross
And then the lamp to the left…
Lift your face up and even the sky was full of petals…
But I think the cherry blossom that we loved even more was this one. Lacy curtains of darker musk pink petals fell like a fairy floss waterfall.
Its called Prunus subhirtella pendula ‘Rosea’. Photo: Linda Ross
Feel like a little stroll? Then wander the Philosopher’s Walk, Tetsugaku-no-Michi, which stretches for three kilometres alongside a canal in eastern Kyoto and connects Gingakuji temple to Nanzen-ji temple. The story goes if you start the walk with a problem, it’ll be solved by the finish. I don’t know about actual problem-solving, but I do know we identified plenty of Japanese shrubs by scent – smelt before seen – and we thought that was pretty clever. The entire path is lined with cherry trees, and an evening walk, after the crowds have gone home and the trees are illuminated. I urge you to visit the northern end, near Ginkaku-ji Temple.
Philosopher’s Walk. Photo: Linda Ross
If night exploration is your thing, then Shimbashi Geisha District, must be on the visit list. A beautifully quaint cobblestone street running along the Shirakawa canal (which, by the way means ‘white river’), Shimbashi is the loveliest street in Gion and it looks magical in cherry blossom season, particularly after dark. It will be packed, but it’s worth it. Check out the far west end, where it empties out onto Karasuma-dori and the cherry trees form a tunnel.
Gion street Photo: leungchopan / shutterstock
If you’re planning to travel to Japan, my advice is to go in the first week of April. Start your adventure in Kyoto (don’t miss the Indigo dying workshop – more about this later) and work around in an anti-clockwise direction to Kanazawa, Nikko, Shirakawago and Tokyo. And don’t forget the water proof mascara – I think you’re going to need it!
Reflecting on life is easy in Japan, there’s time to walk, ponder and think. Especially in the grounds of Ryoanji, the Stone Garden. Double dose of cherries – on earth and also reflected into the water of the largest pond. Make sure you don’t miss it as you head up to the iconic stone garden, its on the left!
Ryoanji – the cherry blossom pond. Photo: Linda Ross
Graham Ross has been visiting Japan for 35 years. He returns later this year to see the autumn colour, check out his itinerary here. But if it has to be cherry blossoms, then why not join us next April? We guarantee you’ll love it.
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