Ah springtime in Japan…
Few things can compare to this country’s beauty when its legendary cherry blossoms begin to flower. In Japanese, “sakura” refers to the brief period of time when the trees are in bloom. Sakura has remained a highly treasured occasion throughout Japanese history. The cherry blossoms are so highly renowned that they have become akin to an iconic symbol of Japan. Should the timing workout, a chance to connect with friends while drinking outside under the trees is a quintessential Japanese experience.
When it comes to locations for viewing the cherry blossoms, you’re certainly spoiled for choice. In fact, it’s really hard to go wrong. Of course, there are perennial favorites like Chidori-ga-Fuchi near Tokyo’s Imperial Palace. Nevertheless, no matter where you visit expect to find magnificent cherry trees. That said, there is one spot in Japan that has stood head and shoulders since the dawn of time. Known as Mt. Yoshino, this hidden gem is by far Japan’s best kept secret when it comes to celebrating the cherry blossoms.
What makes Mt. Yoshino so special? Well, for starters, the mountain is blanketed in over 30,000 cherry trees mainly grafted from the Yamazakura variety (yes, there are indeed many different types of cherry blossoms). The trees are dotted along the north-facing mountain slope that makes up Mt. Yoshino’s cherry blossom areas. It is said that the very first trees on this mountain were planted well over 1,300 years ago. What’s more, Mt. Yoshino was also designated as part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004.
One of the most remarkable things about Mt. Yoshino is the fact that its elevation causes the cherry blossoms to bloom in gradation over time. Typically, the trees are divided into four distinct sections: the Shimo Senbon which are the lower trees at the base of the mountain, the Naka Senbon, the middle elevation trees, and the Kami Senbon, the trees within the upper areas. At the summit stand the final array, the Oku Senbon. Each of these clusterings bloom at different times meaning those who arrive a bit late for cherry blossom season still have a chance to partake.
Mt. Yoshino’s cherry blossoms typically start blooming in late March or early April. Keep in mind that the blooming is entirely dependent on the weather. As mentioned above, the changing elevations trigger the distinct areas to bloom a couple days apart from each other. Luckily, for those traveling in the latter half of April, the trees in the Oku Senbon area often do not start blooming until some time after those at the base. Be forewarned though; recent changes in the weather patterns have given rise to irregular blooming schedules. Check the forecasts!
Getting to Nara & Mt. Yoshino
Mt. Yoshino is located near the southern end of Nara prefecture. This means there are number of ways to make the journey but you’ll first need to get to the Kansai region. If you’re coming from Tokyo, know that the adventure will need to start with a bullet train ride to either Kyoto or Osaka. From there, you can easily make your way to Mt. Yoshino via any of the express Kintetsu Railway trains. Your final destination will be Yoshino station. As always refer to Hyperdia or a similar service to calculate the fastest route.
The real journey begins once you’ve reached Yoshino station. Rather than a single attraction, Mt. Yoshino is better thought of as a large, expansive area. To begin, you’ll need to make your way to the foothills of the town that resides within the lower stages of Mt. Yoshino. This can be done by either paying a few hundred yen to take the ropeway or alternatively, by simply opting to hike the short distance. Just know that there’s a lot of mountain left to climb so be sure to judge accordingly.
Exploring Nara’s Mt. Yoshino
Mt. Yoshino is like an expensive wine or spirit. It is meant to be savored over the course of a relaxing day with good friends. As such, when it comes to the cherry blossoms, there’s no specific area to head to first. After all, the entire mountainside is covered in cherry trees! Literally, the entire landscape transforms into something so visually breathtaking that it’s hard to imagine it’s real. During spring, Mt. Yoshino absolutely feels as if it has been ripped straight from the pages of a fantasy novel.
I recommend that you begin your adventure by exploring the small town that nestles the foot of Mt. Yoshino. Here, you’ll find many local shops and traditional ryokan which are always booked out well in advance during cherry blossom season. A stroll down the town’s quaint streets is particularly picturesque. Numerous cherry trees are planted along the road running through the town making the ascent a striking visual treat.
After Mt. Yoshino’s town begins to thin out along the upper edges of the Naka Senbon area, you’ll find the aptly named Naka Senbon Park. This area is one of the most popular locations for holding hanami picnics under the blooming cherry trees. The atmosphere here is nothing short of blissful and especially more so during periods of warmer weather. As with all things cherry blossom related though, expect hordes of locals. If you’re set on snagging a spot within the park, be sure to get there early.
Eventually, the Naka Senbon area gives way to the Kami Senbon and Oku Senbon sections. By far, the latter of these two has the fewest number of trees which makes for somewhat less spectacular viewings. That said, the Oku Senbon’s trees flower about a week behind the rest of Mt. Yoshino so consider this area should the lower sections begin to thin out. The Takagiyama Observation deck is supposedly the ideal spot; the deck sits about 90 minutes from the town.
Mt. Yoshino’s Best Spot
Mt. Yoshino is beyond beautiful and in such a way that can be only described as other-worldly. Yet, there remains one spot that stands far above. Known as the Hanayagura View Point, this overlook offers a jaw dropping view of the cherry tree covered slope as can be seen above. Though it’s a grueling hour long hike from the outset of the town the sweat you’ll inevitably work up is more than worth the awesome vantage.
Getting to the overlook can be a little confusing. En route, you’ll pass through a collection of countryside homes. Honestly, I was convinced that I was going the wrong way but worry not, if you press on up the endless incline, you’ll eventually happen upon the Hanayagura View Point. As it can be confusing, here’s a Google Map just in case. Just follow that and you’ll be all set.
Attractions Near Mt. Yoshino
There’s a lot more to Mt. Yoshino than merely the cherry blossom. Together with Mt. Koya and the Kumano Sanzan, the mountain was designated a cultural UNESCO World Heritage Site named the “Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range.” What’s more, Mt. Yoshino has been a center for Shugendo (mountain asceticism) for many centuries. In bygone times, Mt. Yoshino temporarily served as a the seat of Emperor Go-Daigo’s southern Imperial Court following an internal rift during 14th century.
Mt. Yoshino is home to a whole slew of shrines and temples. Detailing them all though would make this article into a tome large enough to qualify as a blunt weapon. In the interest of brevity and animal rights, I’ve come up with an abridged “CliffsNotes” version below. You’ll find a Google Map link in the section headers below as well.
Kinpusenji is the main temple on Mt. Yoshino and one of the most important sites for Shugendo. The 34 meter high Zao-do Hall holds claim to being the second largest wooden structure in Japan behind Todai-ji in Nara Park. Inside this behemoth structure you’ll find three, blue skinned statues of Zao Gongen, the fierce protector deity of the mountains in this area.
- Yoshimizu Shrine
This shrine was originally founded in the 8th century as a temple and thereafter served as the living quarters for practitioners of Shugendo. Later in the 14th century, the shrine served as the temporary imperial palace of Emperor Go-Daigo who continues to be enshrined here today. The lookout right before entering Yoshimizu Shrine has a superb view of the cherry blossoms.
- Mikumari Shrine
This small but serene shrine is dedicated to Ameno Mikumari, a female deity of water and safe childbirth. It displays several ancient mikoshi (portable shrines) and is one of four important Mikumari shrines in Japan. The current buildings date back to 1604 and were donated by the son of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. You’ll find the shrine about five minutes beyond the aforementioned Hanayagura View Point.
Originally established in the 10th century, Nyoirin-ji is a modestly sized temple that sits on the opposite side of the valley from Mt. Yoshino’s town. This makes it relatively troublesome to reach. Nonetheless, it is said that Emperor Go-Daigo worshiped at Nyoirin-ji after the Japanese Imperial Court dissolved into rival factions. You’ll find the former emperor’s mausoleum here just a few minutes from the temple grounds.
These days, this temple has been transformed into a traditional ryokan. It is well known for its beautiful garden which is said to have been designed by the famous tea master, Sen-no-Rikyu. The garden is surrounded by cherry trees and is open to the public. This one isn’t a must see but it is still quite nice if you have a few minutes to spare.
Until next time travelers…