The idea of chasing the blooming cherry blossom trees, sakura, across Japan is not new, nor original. Numerous websites are devoted to predicting the ideal time and place to catch the peak of Japan’s national tree as the light-pink flowers spread across the mountainous island nation. It is a thing entirely worth doing. And it was this idea, wrapped in the romantic notion of lively picnics beneath an impentrable floral canopy as blossoms fluttered down all around us, Kristin tossing her unflippable hair and laughing as a petal improbably landed in my sake cup, that led to our deciding to spend six weeks in Japan this spring. And it is the beauty of this brief phenomena mixed with Japan’s rich cultural heritage that leads all sakura-seekers, eventually, to Kyoto… and therein lies the problem.
I received — and ignored — the first clue that Kyoto in April was not a good idea when, back in late January, my attempt at finding a room in Kyoto for the first week of April proved impossible. Every one of my go-to websites turned up a complete and utter absence of vacancies: Hotels, Orbitz, Hostels, Booking, etc., not a single room to be found for the first week of April. I knew Kyoto was a popular spot for hanami, cherry blossom viewing parties, but to flip through dozens of pages of hotel listings and come up empty — at any price range — left me feeling like the only kid who forgot to study for the big exam. I restructured our itinerary to head to Koyasan and Kobe for a few days, pushing back our arrival in Kyoto to later in the week, at the risk of missing peak bloom (an excellent decision, as you will see). Shuffling the dates landed us a private room at a very cheap, very old, and very tiny guesthouse on the north end of Kyoto, appropriately named Small World. It was perfect, albeit rather cold and drafty.
We alighted from the train in beautiful, majestic Kyoto Station on April 6th and promptly took a place in line at the nearby Tourist Information office to try and snag last-second tickets to Miyako-Odori, the annual spring Geisha dance festival. Thirty minutes of waiting in a snaking line of backpack-laden travelers, most of whom were asking for tourist maps and bus schedules (available along the wall) or pleading for a hotel room in this completely sold-out city (ignoring the large sign on the door stating there were none available), eventually got us our tickets. I couldn’t believe it! Already sensing that April in Kyoto was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, for not all the right reasons, we splurged and got the premium tickets to attend the tea ceremony as well — absolutely worth it!
After dropping our bags, we set off on foot to Kinkakuji, the famed Golden Pavillion. I was fortunate to have visited Kinkakuji on a trip to Japan in 2009 and consider it to be one of those rare, obvious, over-hyped tourist-traps that actually still merits a visit. At least once. So, since it was within walking distance and Kristin hadn’t seen it, we went. The peaceful garden surrounding this shimmering gold-leafed six-centuries-old Zen Buddhist temple that I had visited on a cold winter’s day six year’s prior was now lined wall-to-wall with umbrella-wielding tour groups, with more pouring out of a convoy of tour buses every minute. Hundreds of people, predominantly Chinese, jockeyed for a position near the bamboo barrier lining the pond in hopes of getting a clear photo of the gorgeous temple that deserved so much better than this. Nobody stopped to just take it in. Nobody stood in reverence or in contemplation. Selfies, group poses, peace-signs for the camera. Snap, snap, snap, move along. Been there, done that, bought the postcard. The fact that it was a historical religious temple of architectural magnificence mattered not.
We walked over fifteen miles through the streets of Kyoto the next day, from our guest house to the Imperial Palace to Nishiki Market to Gion, and over to the Path of the Philosopher in the city’s eastern edge. We hit the ground early in effort to visit the Imperial Housing Office with our fingers crossed that we’d be able to get tickets for Katsura Rikyu, the Imperial Villa on the southwest corner of town. A friend back home, originally from Japan, recommended it as the absolute best thing to see in Kyoto. We got the tickets — they’re free, but limited, and only available with passport in person at the IHO — thanks Mire! We then got on line to enter the Imperial Palace Grounds. It was the last day the grounds were open for un-guided viewing. Though we were on line before the gates opened at 9am (the IHO office conveniently opens at 8:45) we were already stuck behind two hundred raised umbrellas as another convoy of Chinese tour buses idled patiently in the lot nearby.
Perhaps everyone (except us) already knows the Imperial Palace in Tokyo is a more worthwhile destination, but the only truly noteworthy element of the Kyoto palace grounds is the Gonaitei Garden. But, beautiful as it was, we could have skipped it considering we were already in possession of tickets to Katsura Rikyu. In dire need of some coffee and a little peace-and-quiet, we soon left the palace grounds and headed straight to the nearby McDonald’s. Yes, there is better coffee in Japan — by a mile — but where else can you get 120¥ coffee and sit and read while being serenaded by a live pianist? Yes, I digress, but it must be noted that several of the McDonalds we’ve been to in Japan have baby grand pianos on their second floor with daily performances. It is not uncommon to find Japanese people working, conducting meetings, napping, and reading or playing portable games in a McDonalds. For a Westerner looking for a cheap respite, they’re invaluable. Also, in the interest of full disclosure, Sausage Egg McMuffins are my drug of choice.
Caffeinated but hungry, we delved deep into the the slowly progressing crowd of foragers inching their way through Nishiki Market, Kyoto’s epicenter of fresh food, free samples, and all manner of unrecognizable goodies. Duck on a stick? Yes, please. A handful of miniature, translucent salted sardines? Sure, why not. A baby octopus with a boiled quail egg stuffed inside its head? Umm… sorry, but we’ve had our fill of octopus this week. Honestly. I returned to the knife shop upon whose floor I had left a small puddle of drool in 2009 and was able to smile confident in the deal we got on four Sakai Takayuki knives at a restaurant supplier in Osaka. We also returned to the print shop where, last trip, I bought a yellowed old print of Hokusai’s famed “Great Wave off Kanagawa” printed by an apprentice shortly after his death. This time, unemployed, we were just browsing.
As we walked on, towards Gion, the crowds only intensified. I don’t like large crowds of people. Sporting events aside, I tend to avoid festivals, concerts, and other events that attract large quantities of people. I’m a shoulder-season kind of guy who always preferred the lonely beach of September to the bikini-clad one in July, the wilderness campground to the hot spring resort, and the quiet gathering of friends to a raucous party. The rain had stopped, we were fed, and the cherry blossoms were past their prime. This didn’t matter; Gion in April is a nightmare. It is a commercialized, hanami-profiteering orgy of food stalls, pop-up tents, and tacky souvenirs stands. We wended our way through Maruyama Park, uphill away from the throngs of kimono-clad twenty-somethings on dates, the masses of tour groups, and out of sight of the gawdy blue, red, and yellow tents and canopies. I couldn’t imagine it on a sunny day at peak bloom.
We traversed a hill with a trail of temples — some counts put Kyoto’s number of temples and shrines over 1600 — and soon found ourselves along Tetsugaku-no-michi, the Path of the Philosopher. With hundreds of cherry blossom trees lining a narrow canal, the Path of the Philosopher offers a quiet, beautiful walk for you and everyone else visiting Kyoto. Or so I feared. Actually, at nearly two miles in length, the crowd got pretty spread out, especially late in the afternoon when we were there. This was a highlight of our grand walking tour of Kyoto, as it allowed for plenty of photo-ops without dealing with tour groups. The people walking the canal trail were just local families, couples on dates (in beautiful traditional dress), and pairs of tourists like us. One thing we learned, and saw repeated again the next day at Fushimi-Inari (the other must-see, obvious tourist trap in Kyoto but with free admission), is that tour groups don’t stray far from the bus. A two mile walk? You’ll leave the masses behind in under a quarter of a mile.
If Not Kyoto, Where?
Our six weeks of chasing the cherry blossoms are coming to an end (though, as I write this, they are in full glory here in Nagano Prefecture). We’ll be headed to Bali next week. And, looking back, missing the peak bloom in Kyoto was a blessing in disguise. Skipping Kyoto altogether — this trip — was an opportunity missed.
Kyoto is a magificent city, not exactly easy on the eyes, but it’s got more than its fair share of history, culture, arts, dining, and everything else a traveler can ask for. It is, make no mistake, one of my favorite cities. But the things I love about it, the things most people come to see, are always there. While certain festivals such as Miyako-Odori only take place in April, there are plenty of fantastic places to view cherry blosoms elsewhere in the country, with far fewer people, and with virtually no commercialization polluting the experience.
One of those places, our favorite, was Mount Egeyama Park in Kobe. This small park with its spiraling hillside walking path has over 1400 cherry blossom trees of multiple varieties. We spent a few hours in this park on a picture-perfect Saturday afternoon. There were women walking their dogs, dads and their sons throwing baseballs around, a small group of young boys with a net and bug jar collecting insects, and even a toddler taking her first steps as her mom blew soap bubbles. It was a park the way a park exists in our rose-colored, Norman Rockwell memory banks. We walked every inch of the park’s trails then sat on a bench and read under the shade of towering cherry blossom trees.
An occasional petal fell onto the screen of my Kindle. It wasn’t the sake cup I envisioned, but it still made us laugh with joy.
On Tap: For those considering a trip to Japan in the not-so-distant future, the next posting is going to cover our decision to not purchase a Japan Rail pass for our time here… and whether or not that was a wise decision. I’m going to itemize our travel costs and compare them to the price of the 1, 2, and 3 week JR passes that are available for foreigners. I’m not sure whether or not we saved money by not buying the passes, but I think we just might have. Stay tuned to find out!
Postcard Winner! Congratulations to Justin Vander Pol! Not only is Justin the kick-ass realtor who got our house sold in just 8 days, but he’s also a longtime Board Member (and former Executive Director) of Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance, and most importantly (not really) the winner of this month’s postcard-and-more drawing!