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With Zen gardens, bamboo groves, Buddhist temples and geisha shuffling along cobbled laneways, Kyoto seems to be lifted straight from the scenes of an ancient Japanese woodblock print. And come cherry blossom season -- a national obsession in Japan – the country’s cultural heartland is not to be missed. Signalling the arrival of spring, this season sees trees bloom into sakura (cherry blossoms) that line Kyoto’s canals, hang low over lakes and transform gardens into blankets of fairy floss.

Cherry blossom philosophy
The cherry blossom is richly symbolic within Japan – it is depicted on the 100 yen coin and was used as a symbol to stoke nationalism during World War II. Many Japanese believe that the blooming of the trees symbolises the transience of life and is an annual reminder that time is precious. The cherry blossom cycle is seen as a metaphor for life itself – a time to reflect on your achievements and think ahead to your future. Once you have finished philosophising, indulge in some of Japan’s more light-hearted symbolism. Many consumer brands take advantage of this time of year, with many sakura-related products on sale. Try a pastel-pink Sakura Frappuccino at Starbucks or the cherry-flavoured white chocolate Sakura Kit Kat.

Hanami
It is unknown exactly when hanami (cherry blossom viewing) first started, but it was mentioned early on, in Shikibu Murasaki's classic Japanese literary work, the Tale of Genji, thought to be written around the 11th or 12th Century. Hanami is an important Japanese custom, when locals break free of their conservative reputation and enjoy a picnic with friends and family under the cherry blossom trees. To partake in a hanami party, grab a bento box and some beer from your nearest combini (convenience store) and head to one of Kyoto’s many viewing spots for a Japanese cultural experience of a different kind.

Kyoto’s famous cherry blossom spots can get extremely crowded, so make sure you get there early and claim your spot with a picnic rug or tarp. Your reserved piece of plot will be respected, even if you disappear and come back later that day.  

Top viewing spots
Kodai-ji
is a historic Zen temple located in the scenic Higashiyama area and was one of the first temples to kick off after-dark illuminations (when the gardens are lit by multicoloured spotlights), allowing cherry blossom viewing to continue well into the night.

The pedestrian path Tetsugaku-no-Michi, named after 20th-century philosopher Nishida Kataro, stretches for three kilometres alongside a canal in eastern Kyoto and connects Ginkakuji temple to Nanzen-ji temple. This well-known route is lined with cherry trees which are reflected in the still waters, and is an ideal spot to ponder and admire the surrounding natural beauty.

At the base of Kyoto’s western mountains, the area of Arashiyama is a main tourist spot thanks to its swaying bamboo groves and views of stunning foliage. It attracts tourists throughout the year, but really ramps up during cherry blossom season. People crowd the Togetsukyo Bridge (Moon Crossing Bridge) to take in the views, so head away from the main strip to get away from the hordes. At night, the area is lit up for cherry blossom viewing and food stalls are set up with a variety of snacks.

Located in the southern Higashiyama area, Maruyama Koen is usually a good spot to take in some peace and quiet after temple-hopping in Kyoto. However, during cherry blossom season, the park becomes crowded and noisy due to its extremely popular, huge weeping trees.

Best time for viewing
The season -- late March to mid-April -- is relatively short and the blossoming of the trees advances from the south to the north of the country, dubbed the “cherry blossom front”.  The Japanese Meteorological Agency tracks the progress of the blossoming trees every year and it is reported on the nightly news.  Otherwise, the Japan National Tourism Organisation also offers forecasts.

© 2012 Lonely Planet. All rights reserved. The article ‘Sakura season in Kyoto’ was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.

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