April in Japan is cherry blossom time. After the long, cold, and dark winter, this marks the beginning of the warmer season. Although the Japanese cherries - sakura - may have carried buds for a while already, it will take an exeptionally warm day for them to open up. On such a day however, all of them seem to explode at the same time! And what has been merely a brown bunch of gnarled trees the week before now lines the streets and riverwalks of Kyoto in blinding white or delicate pink.
This is one of the few times when the Japanese open up a little. You will see a great number of people of all ages and walks of life flocking to the most scenic spots and taking pictures of what appears to be every single cherry blossom. Honestly, those little white flowers do have their very special allure - no matter how many you may have seen before!
And now is the time for what is called hanami - literally: flower viewing - a picnic under the cherry trees. Fresh couples or large groups of coworkers, friends and family meet under the trees to eat rice balls and sweets and drink beer and sake. And to enjoy the lovely warm weather that coaxed the trees out of their hibernation - and them out of the house.
Kyoto has many popular spots for hanami - whether you want to have a full-blown picnic with everybody you know, take a leisurly stroll somewhere, or just snap a few quick pictures.
Numerous sakura trees line the Katsura river in Arashiyama, the Kamogawa river, Shirakawa stream, and the Philosophers Path. On the Lake Biwa Canal opposite Kyoto Zoo, you can even take a short boat ride underneath the trees (until May 7). Temples and shrines all over Kyoto offer great viewing spots, for example Hirano-jinja, Nanzen-ji, and Kiyomizu-dera. Especially famous for its cherry blossoms is Daigo-ji temple, where on April 9, a hanami party from the 16th century is recreated each year by local actors in old costumes. In Nijo castle, there will be a special light up in the evening (18:00 - 21:00) to place both the castle and the surrounding cherry trees in the best light possible (until April 16). Maruyama park with its huge weeping cherry probably attracts the most lively crowd in Kyoto, and there are also plenty of foodstalls if you forgot your rice balls.
Even though cherry blossoms are very fragile, and a strong wind or heavy rain will destroy their beauty immediately, there are different types of cherry trees that bloom at different times. So do not despair if you miss the sakura now, there are plenty of spots in Kyoto where you can catch them all through April.
Wherever you go for your hanami - we hope you enjoy the spring season as it brings one of the most Japanese of all pastimes.