The Maximum Sakura Walk in Kyoto
Life is short. The cherry blossoms are out only for a brief moment in spring. So soak in the pink before they are all gone. Best enjoyed with friends and a bottle of sake to share.
The Maximum Sakura Walk is designed for our guests at Friends Kyo, so it starts from Friends Kyo in Gion. It is 16 kilometers (almost 10 miles) in total, so feel free to start or stop anywhere along the route. Bicycles are not recommended. Walk Part 1 (Gion to Heian Shrine) in the morning, Part 2 (Silver Pavilion to Yasaka Shrine) in the afternoon, and Part 3 (Gion at Dusk) after sunset for maximum enjoyment.
Total time: 3-5 hours for Part 1 , 4-5 hours for Part 2, 2-3 hours for Part 3
Difficulty: Easy all around, cobbled stone stairs only at Part 3
Time of year: Sakura season (late-March to mid-April)
The Maximum Sakura Walk takes you to Kyoto’s best hanami (sakura-viewing) spots in the eastern part of Kyoto.
Part 1: Gion to the Heian Shrine
Have a good breakfast at Friends Kyo (A), then walk towards Yamato Bridge (B). Rows of Somei Yoshino and Shidarezakura trees will greet you with their white and pink petals as you walk along the Gion Shirakawa river (there are more than 10 kinds of cherry blossom trees). Stop by the Gion Tatsumi Bridge (C) for a great view of all the trees. Then cross Hanamikoji Dori street to get to the tiny Nasuari Jizo Bosatsu shrine (D), which was built to commemorate the appearance of the Jizo bodhisattva when waterworks were done on Hanamikoji Dori street. There are more sakura over the river here.
At this point you might want to stop by the century-old Ichizawa Shinzaburo Hanpu to shop for handmade canvas bags. They used to make milkmens’ delivery bag, bags for ice blocks, and woodworkers’ tool bags. If it’s past 10am, you might want to have sweets at Kisshokaryo Kyoto, which uses their own freshly-ground soybean powder for their confectionery.
Now head towards the super-narrow Shirakawaippon Bridge (E). Mountain ascetics from Mt. Hiei complete their 1000-day pilgrimage here. You don’t have to be on a pilgrimage to enjoy the view of the weeping willow trees from this bridge though. Walk upstream and cross Sanjo Street. The wooden slated walls on this section of the river makes for an especially beautiful scene.
Make your way to the biggest torii gate in Kyoto, the Jingu Torii Gate (F), built largely with donations from the rich grandfather of Stanley’s friend (Stanley is the Singaporean owner of Friends Kyo). Cross Nijo Dori street to get to a small playground with a disused tram from back then when Kyoto had 70 kilometers (43 miles) of tram lines running through the city center. Sadly the tram service was shut down in 1978 despite strong opposition from the public. Next to the tram, in the center of the playground, is a magnificent Yaebenishidare sakura tree (G).
You are now just outside the Heian Shrine (H), built in 1895 to commemorate Kyoto’s 1,100th anniversary. You might wonder why you’ve been set to look at a sea of gravel, but make no mistake, Heian Shrine’s real beauty is just beyond its vermillion walls. Pay the ¥600 (adult fare) to get in. You won’t regret it, especially not in the sakura season. Allocate at least 30 minutes to explore the garden. Most people spend an hour inside.
At this point you might be getting hungry. Have udon at the famous Yamamoto Menzou (about ¥1.000). They serve some of the best udon noodles in the city, so the lines may be unbearably long. If that’s the case, try the hand-made soba noodles at Okunian (about ¥1,500) further up the street, sushi and seafood donburi at Toyo Sushi (about ¥1,500), or the omurice and juicy pork cutlets at Grill Kodakara (about ¥1,000, but up to ¥3,000 if you order premium cuts of pork).
Then head to the Okazaki Koen Bus Stop (I). Take bus 32 or 100 and alight at the Ginkakujimae Bus Stop. The trip will take about 20 minutes. Pay ¥230 by cash or IC card as you alight.
Part 2: The Silver Pavilion to Yasaka Shrine
Walk from the Ginkakujimae Bus Stop (A) towards the Silver Pavilion (B). The entrance fee is ¥500. The Silver Pavilion is not coated in silver foil, but it is really from 1482. The gardens and the view from the hill within the garden are magnificent. Then head to Honen-in Temple (C). Most tourists miss out on this quiet, charming place covered in moss. Camellia flowers bloom here in early April. Explore the grounds for free. Return to the Path of Philosophy (D) and look out for the fat cats. The entire path is lined with sakura trees. The view is especially sublime when the sakura petals fall onto the river in mid-April.
After a 20-minute walk you’ll get to Nanzenji Temple (E), where is a whole bunch of sakura trees between its Sanmon Gate and the main hall. Look up a the ceiling when you get to the main hall with the seated Buddha. Go to the right side, where you will find the Suiro kaku (F) brick canal that feeds Kyoto with water from the Lake Biwa. Consider paying the ¥400 to get into Tenju-an Temple (G), which has a beautiful koi pond that people usually miss out on. Afterwards, head out to the Keage Incline (H) to find disused railway tracks lined with rows of sakura.
If you’re tired and hungry at this point, take the subway from Keage Station to Sanjo Station, where you’ll find many restaurants to have dinner at. Otherwise, walk past the Westin Miyako Hotel and Awata-Jinja Shrine towards Chion-in Temple. The Chion-in Temple gates close at 5:45pm, but if you get there before closing time, walk up the stairs and have a peep at the newly-restored Miei-do. Walk down towards the Gion weeping cherry tree in Maruyama Park (I). Thankfully the tree survived the typhoon of September 2018 and continues to be lit up at night during the sakura season. You might want to wash your face at the Bigozensha Shrine, where the water is supposed to grant anyone who washes with it beautiful skin, then head down to the Yasaka Shrine (J). Again, you can stop here, and head for dinner.
Part 3: Gion at Dusk
But for those truly determined to maximize their day out with the sakura can continue on to the third part of this epic walk. Exit Yasaka Shrine via its southern gate and head towards Ishibei-koji Street (B). The cobbled alleyways here are lined with property once owned by the samurai. The end of the street takes you to the front entrance to Kodaiji Temple (C), which between 8 March and 6 May 2019 will be lit up till 9:30pm at night. The ¥600 fee will get you matcha while you immerse yourself in a sakura wonderland.
Then head towards Ninenzaka (D) and Sannenzaka (E) to get to Kiyomizudera Temple’s Nio-mon Gate (F), where you can get a view of the city lights through one of Kyoto’s oldest and most important temple gates. Kiyomizudera itself is open from 6-9pm for its spring illumination between March 29 and April 7 2019. It costs ¥400 to get in.
Walk down the hill back towards Ninenzaka, but this time head left towards the Yasaka Pagoda (G), and then down along Yasaka Street towards the Yasui Konpiragu Shrine. Set your GPS for Gion Maruyama, the traditional kaiseki restaurant next to a small Inari shrine (H) that the geishas frequent. Weave through these cobbled streets, which make up Japan’s largest geisha district, making sure to pass through Nishi Hamami-koji Street (I). Most tourists stay on Hanami-koji Street, but you’ll get a higher chance of spotting geishas if you go on the side streets and alleyways, like this one. Now head down towards Kenninji Temple, and you’ll find yourself back at Friends Kyo in no time (J).