When it comes to cherry blossom, timing is everything. The season is so short – you get about a week when it’s at it’s best, and if it isn’t the week you chose to be in Japan, well, bad luck. There’s always next year. So when I planned to go to Kyoto and see the cherry blossom this year, I booked for the first week in April, the week when, all else being equal, the cherry blossom was likely to be at its best. Except for this year.
While London has been freezing, Japan has been unseasonable warm. So warm, in fact, that the cherry blossom has bloomed a week early, two weeks early in some places. I watched the cherry blossom forecasts gloomily – it could all be over before I got there.
I wasn’t the only one. Thousands of people go to Kyoto for the cherry blossom. If you want to book a hotel room in Kyoto in cherry blossom season you’d better start early – the hotels fill up, the car parks heave with tour buses and the queues to get into the top cherry blossom spots stretch for miles. Then cross your fingers that the weather will be good, the blossom will be out and you’ll get the perfect Kyoto cherry blossom experience.
I had many other things to do in Japan and just one evening and the following day for Kyoto. So how did it turn out? Perfect, that’s how. One day later and it would have been a disaster – a storm swept across the country, battering the trees with high winds and heavy rain. But the day we went, the sun shone, the blossom bloomed and Kyoto welcomed us with open arms.
We arrived in the evening and went straight to Nijo Castle to see the night sakura.
The main cherry blossom sites in Kyoto all offer night viewing – the trees are lit up by spotlight making the viewing experience all the more intense.
You had to be very careful not to lose sight of your friends – in the dark, once separated you might never meet up again.
Fortunately we managed to find each other in time to go and eat Kyo-yasai – a delicate cuisine using only vegetables which is a Kyoto speciality.
The next day we went to see the garden of the Heian shrine in glorious sunshine. The garden was laid out in the Meiji era, but in the style of a Heian era garden designed for holding Kyokusui-no-en, a garden party during which lords and ladies amused themselves by writing haiku.
When I think of Japanese cherry blossom, I normally think of yamazakura or someyoshino – both of them varieties with tiny delicate flowers, massed ranks of trees, blossom like pale pink clouds. Like this:
But the Heian Shrine is famous for its shidarezakura, a pink variety where the branches trail like weeping willow and the flowers blooms in elegant bunches.
The gardens at the Heian Shrine are designed for strolling through, with little paths that wander through the woods and past a serene lake crossed by a little roofed wooden bridge.
I’ve seen cherry blossom in Japan before now, but this was my first visit to Kyoto in cherry blossom season. It really is very special – if you get the chance, please go!