Kyoto Sakura Highlights Part 2: The Philosopher’s Path, Maruyama Park, and Arashiyama

After a spending a full day of hiking around Uji and seeing the once in a lifetime view of a full moon and fully blooming sakura at Toji, I was ready to start my final day hitting the last few aesthetic destinations on my list! Please see Kyoto Sakura Highlights Part 1: Byodoin, Go River, and Toji Temple for the first part of this article series. This article expands my recommended sakura viewing spots and also lists my favorite food and travel accommodations for the spring season.

Kyoto is a place that’s full of adventure and serene nature no matter where you go, but here are the places that I wouldn’t miss out on in late March:

Philosopher’s Path

If you are looking to experience some of the best scenery in Kyoto, then your best bet is to start at the Philosopher’s Path. The main path itself is actually not that long but it is lined with beautiful canals and sakura trees galore. The branching paths will lead you to many historic temples, traditional restaurants, and other exciting sights. One major point of interest is the Kaege Incline which is an old hill with railroad tracks that are now no longer in use making it the perfect spot for photography.

I recommend arriving before 10am or else you will run into tourists and wedding photography if you come during the afternoon like I did, but the experience here was definitely unforgettable! Everyone here stared in awe at the sakura petals that gently fell from the trees and drifted into the canals. I felt completely relaxed among the smiling people around me. I rented a kimono and took some of my best pictures in this area. For more information on kimono rental, please see my Yumeyukata Article.

If you keep walking down the Philosopher’s Path, you eventually will hit Nanzenji which I visited in the fall and also Ginkakuji. There are plenty of places in between those two temples you can explore too.

Admission Fee: Free
Access: There are a number of stations and bus stops that you can access this path from, but I would recommend taking the Keihan-Keishin train line to Kaege Station so you can start at the Kaege Incline and work your way up!

Maruyama Park

Maruyama Park is undoubtedly one of the most famous parks in central Kyoto. It has beautiful sakura, a picturesque pond, several temples, and amazing food stalls. I spent my 27th birthday drinking sake here and I will never forget the blissful experience. This time the same place that I bought sake at in October was selling sakura champagne so of course I had to indulge–they sure know how to make money here! Anyway, the major draw here in the spring is the sakura illumination at night. There is a zen garden with a projection of koi fish that look like they are swimming when you first walk in through the main entrance. The stairs near the hall of Chion-in have a neon pink flower projection spread across them that slowly changes color. The lights are creatively placed beneath the sakura to create an eloquent pink and white gradient that bring out the highlights of the petals. You can also stand in front of some of the lighting to have sakura images projected onto yourself. Technology sure is amazing! I was also very impressed to see a temple completely illuminated in blue where a sermon was in progress. I was surged with energy from all of these beautiful colors and would highly recommend coming to Maruyama both during the day and at night because you’ll never know what you’ll find here!

Admission Fee: 1000 yen
Access: Walkable from Gion Station and anywhere near Kawaramachi

Arashiyama

The final destination on my sakura itinerary was Arashiyama! Here I visited the Moss Temple in the morning, ran into Goddess Madoka in the streets, and then went hiking in Nakanoshima Park to see a beautiful view of the Oi River and mountain sakura trees. The climb to reach the lookout point takes roughly 20 minutes and is very leisurely compared to the hiking I did earlier in the day. One sight in Arashiyama I always enjoy seeing is Daihikaku Senkoji Temple because it is very colorful and looks extremely remote up in the mountains surrounded by trees. You can climb up to it by crossing the river and hiking for approximately 40 minutes. The view from the window is incredible, especially in the fall. Besides the park, I would recommend checking out the area around Tenryuji because there is a dragon mural and a lot of beautiful sakura there too. There are also onsen and cafes all around Arashiyama so it is very easy to relax here. I am happy to have ended my trip in such a beautiful place!

Admission Fee: Free for the park, but most temples have an average price of 500 yen to enter. However, you can always stand outside of the temples and take pictures of them like I did!
Access: From Kyoto Station, take the San-In Line to Saga-Arashiyama Station. This takes roughly 12 minutes and costs 240 yen. Most things you can reach by foot here.

Food

No trip to Kyoto would be complete without sampling aesthetic food. I have been to many restaurants and cafes here, but these are my top recommendations from this trip:

  • Veg Out: This is a cozy vegan place near the Kawaramachi River that serves up amazing Buddha Bowls! These meals are monk diet-friendly and contain the perfect balance of vegetables and grain. Mine tasted a lot like vegan taco rice and I ordered some fig and coconut chips to go. This meal gave me the exactly amount of energy I needed and I am so grateful that I visited here!
  • Salon de Royal: This is a chocolate shop that my friend recommended to me that is also near the river. It has delicious teas and wine and features an original chocolate that is shaped like the Eiffel Tower specked in gold! I also noticed they were selling chocolate high heels here for 3000 yen. I definitely enjoyed the vibe of this place because it had an outdoor deck and would come back in the future for more delicious candy. I even took a sakura tart to go!
  • Arashiyama Street Food: Fancy yourself some traditional taiyaki stuffed with bacon and eggs? How about a yuba tofu flavored donut or ice cream? They even have Miffy bread here too! I cannot wait to see what ridiculous street food they have next time I come!

More more recommendations, please see my Aesthetic Kyoto Food Series.

Accommodation

In previous times I’ve always stayed at guest houses or capsule hotels, but since my favorite capsule and spa is permanently shut now I opted for lush business hotel near the Kawaramachi River called OYO. The cheapest single room is roughly 3000 yen per night and it came with everything I needed for my adventure. The staff was friendly, the location was grand, and there was free coffee and tea too. Unfortunately I did not take any photos of the room because I ran out of time, but the ones displayed on Booking are pretty accurate. I would definitely stay here again, but I am also open to trying other options down the river because you never know what’s out there! I like staying in slightly different places each time because with a change of environment often comes newfound inspiration.

Final Thoughts

Despite the pandemic, this was the best and most intense sakura season that I have ever experienced. Last year when the pandemic hit, many parks were closed in major cities so I spent my time exploring new areas in Nagoya. While those areas were beautiful, they weren’t nearly as festive as Kyoto. I woke up at 7am almost every morning to hit every major spot, ate a large variety of food, and ended both nights with beautiful illuminations. By the end of the third day I was so exhausted that I fell asleep on the shinkansen to Tokyo, but that is a sign of a trip well spent. For all my life I will never forget the sight of the full moon and fully blooming sakura!

I would like to come back to Kyoto next month to explore Uji more and also go to a cosplay event by acosta. And next year I have already decided that I want to spend sakura season in Nara with the deer!

My next upcoming trip is to Okinawa at the end of the month, and I am very excited to publish my itinerary! Thank you for all the positive comments on my recent posts and photos–I will continue to do my best to inspire people to travel in Japan once the effects of Covid become more diminished!

Kyoto Sakura Highlights Part 1: Byodoin, Go River, and Toji Temple

Earlier I wrote about my visit to Kyoto’s Sacred Moss Temple in Arashiyama, so today I will be writing about all of the best places to view the sakura in Kyoto! The best time of year to go is during the last week of March because the trees will be in full bloom and you can see them with their anime-like aesthetic. There is nothing more beautiful than watching the delicate petals be carried away in the breeze, especially if you are by a river or pond. Numerous sakura trees are planted around Kyoto so their distinctive pink petals are nearly impossible to miss, but I will cover my top three recommended spots in Part 1 of this article series. I recommend staying in Kyoto for at least three days so you don’t miss out on this festive season! Some of these views require precise timing and are a once in a lifetime chance to see, especially if you live outside of Japan.

Byodoin

Known for its tea room and gorgeous gardens, Byodoin is undoubtedly one of the best temples to enjoy a stroll around in Uji! It is quite easy to reach from Kyoto Station and only only takes around 35 minutes via the Nara Line. The petals that lined the paths to the main temple nearly made my heart melt. I brought my Totoro plush with me and took some pictures with him in the trees while listening to Nujabes (I frequently use my stuffed animals as markers when I am doing photography with a timer). The wait time to enter the main hall was roughly an hour so I decided to skip it this time, but honestly walking around the pond and doing photography was fulfilling enough for me. Not to mention some of the street food I saw here was hilarious! The matcha takoyaki and the green yakisoba are definitely on my aesthetic food list next time I come back here which will hopefully be soon if there is a music event here.

Entrance Fee: 600 yen (completely worth it)

Another place I recommend checking out in Uji is the heart-shaped temple that I visited last year!

Go River

After browsing various geotags on Instagram to see the most florescent sakura parks, I stumbled across the highly aesthetic Go River near Chusojima Station. This river has boat rides where you can float across a trail of sakura petals that have fallen into the water. When all of the petals have fallen off the trees, the water looks quite pink! I arrived here during the time when they were still on the trees, but the atmosphere of the place was incredible. Not many people were here on the weekday that I visited and I could get a lot of neat photos by walking across the bridges. Some of these branches were quite low to the ground so it was relaxing to lay down underneath them. I lived the true sakura picnic life here!

Park Admission Fee: Free
Boat Rental Fee: 1400 yen*

*Please note that tickets require advance purchase at the terminal on the side of the river.

Toji Temple

Undoubtedly the most spectacular illumination I have ever seen in Kyoto is the Toji Temple Sakura Illumination. When I arrived at 8pm on Monday, there was a full moon and fully blooming sakura which made it look like a wonderland buried within pink petals. This was truly a once in a lifetime experience and I am so happy that I entered at the perfect time of the season! The colors of these sakura and the clear reflection of the pagoda reflected in the water are still clearly etched in my memory. I felt full of energy and truly inspired by this miraculous site and would recommend it to everyone! You will truly feel like you have entered another world.

Admission Fee: 1000 yen (insanely cheap for this high quality view)

The Kiyomizudera Temple Illumination is also worth seeing, but I recommend going in fall because there are less sakura trees there.

High Tea at The Thousand Kyoto

This tea room is actually where my adventure began and I can’t recommend it enough! The Thousand Kyoto is around 8 mins walking from Kyoto Station and their seasonal tea set gave me all the energy I needed to go hiking around the aforementioned sakura parks. The set started with a cup of freshly made green tea and then was served with some delicious scones with strawberry jam. Next up was an assortment of chocolate, strawberry, and matcha cakes with quiche and tiny sandwiches. I thought that the cup they placed on the second tier was tea so I tried to drink it, but it was actually pudding!! They also had chocolate that looks like Nezuko’s muzzle from Demon Slayer, and I think that was my favorite sweet included in the set. I regret not taking more pictures with it, but at the same time I was hungry from going boxing in the morning before I left Tokyo. I had properly earned the right to eat these sweets and I was going to enjoy every last bite. After I was finished with all three tiers, they brought out a strawberry ice cream dessert as the final boss!! I washed it down with some spicy apple tea. No need for lunch or dinner that day, this was definitely breakfast fit for a queen.

High Tea Price with Unlimited Tea: 5000 yen (expensive but worth it for the high quality assortment of desserts and tea)

Final Thoughts

I was completely exhausted by the end of the day, but my heart and mind felt extremely full of all the beautiful sights that I have seen! Even if you can’t make it to all of these destinations, I would start with your favorite park, leisurely enjoy some wonderful food, then end your night at Toji Temple for an unforgettable experience. I will be publishing the second part of this article with my next top recommended sakura locations, so please look forward to it!

Exploring Kyoto’s Sacred Moss Temple: Saihoji

Over the last three days I have been backpacking around Kyoto for the purpose of seeing the sakura in full bloom and capturing them on camera. Having witnessed enough pink petals to last me the rest of the year, on my final day of the trip I decided to take a bus deep into Arashiyama to see the lush green moss garden of Saihoji, also known as “Kokedera”. I have ventured to Arashiyama at least three times in the past to see the bamboo forest and go hiking around Oi River, but I never knew that this place existed until one of my coworkers told me about a mysterious temple that only accepted reservations by postcard. Since I am a curious adventurer, I mailed a paid reply postcard addressed to Saihoji a week before my departure with my requested visiting time and received a written response welcoming me on March 31st, 2021. It is recommended to visit during the summer season when the moss looks its fullest by absorbing the most sunlight and rain, but Saihoji is open year-round to those who make a reservation. I was lucky enough to see the sakura outside of it at full bloom because I came at the end of March!

Getting to Saihoji & Reservation Process

Saihoji is actually quite easy to reach from Kyoto Station. The 73 and 83 buses are almost a straight shot there and take around 55 minutes to reach the Kokedera Bus Stop. The bus only costs 230 yen so I would recommend it over the train route which requires multiple transfers and is more expensive.

You can make a reservation for Saihoji one week ~ one month in advance. Usually they will ask you to enter between 10am to 12pm. If you live in Japan you can buy a paid reply postcard at any post office and mail it directly from there. You can write in either English or Japanese. Please note that garden is sometimes closed during times of the year for maintenance. For detailed instructions on how to fill out your postcard, please see the official admission page. If you live overseas, I recommend mailing it from your accommodation once you arrive to Japan as opposed to going through a foreign booking agency because it may cost double the price.

I found it ironic that the temple has an official Instagram account that updates frequently but still only accepts reservations via postcard. That is Japan in a nutshell for you!

Admission Fee: 3000 yen

This is more expensive than other temples in Japan, but the maintenance of the moss garden takes quite a lot of effort so I would say the money is worth it. This temple is extremely rare so I would recommend it to those who have been to Kyoto before and are looking for a more unique experience. You will also get a postcard and a sheet with kanji you can trace and offer as prayer. Though I am not religious, I enjoyed learning about the customs of Saihoji. I spent about 45 minutes here and was satisfied with what I saw.

Exploring the Moss Garden

Once you enter through Saihoji’s main entrance, you will immediately see the main temple and a small stone garden ahead. After paying your respects to the temple, the gate to the moss garden is simply a stone’s throw away. As you walk around you will discover a beautiful pond, tiny bridges to small islets, and the greenest moss that you have ever seen:

Seeing the reflection of the moss on the pond was my favorite part. Though areas were roped off to preserve the garden, there still was a lot to explore. Apparently Saihoji’s innovative design later influenced the layout of the Ginkakuji so this temple really has a lot going for it.

Here is a short video I took while trekking on the stone path around the moss garden:

I definitely felt relaxed and achieved total zen during this journey, but afterwards I headed back to central Arashiyama for some food because I was starving!

Recommended Food in Arashiyama

Since yuba (tofu skin) is extremely famous in this area, I decided to try to yuba rice set at Saga Tofu Ine. This meal was completely vegan and tasted even better than the yuba that I tried in Nikko! I also stopped by the Miffy Sakura Kitchen for dessert. This place was so popular that only the Danish and sakura cube bread were available when I arrived, but both of them were delicious and the little bunny shape was so adorable. I definitely want to come here outside of sakura season when it is less crowded!

Please look forward to my next two posts on the highlights of sakura season in Kyoto! I still have one more to publish on Nagoya too… It sure feels good to be busy traveling again!

Visiting the Hot Spring Gods at Gero Onsen

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Gero Onsen during peak sakura season.

After making my pilgrimage to the real-life village from Your Name, I decided to take the Hida Express down to Gero Onsen; a popular hot springs town and resort destination in Gifu Prefecture.  I arrived at the perfect time in early April when the cherry blossoms were in full bloom and nearly everything in nature looked picturesque.  The town is pretty straightforward to navigate with a river that surrounds a free public outdoor hot spring and several buildings with more hot springs and saunas available for day use.  There are more secluded resorts up in the mountains.  Even if you’re not interested in hot springs, there are still a number of parks and shrines that you can see.  I spent around three hours exploring Gero Onsen and it was very aesthetic day trip.

When I got off at Gero Onsen Station, I first walked to the Funsenchi outdoor hot spring so I could see the beautiful park next to it. This is the best place to view the sakura in Gero making it a wonderful spot for photography.  You can walk across the rocks that surround the hot spring to see the Hida River and mountains too.  Walking across the bridge will give you a great view of the town as well.

Funsenchi is free to use for all visitors as long as you wear a bathing suit but it’s quite small.  If you are here just for the day I recommend the following hot springs:

  • Sachi no Yu: My personal favorite that has an indoor hot tub, waterfall bath, and outdoor hot spring.  Entrance is only 350 yen.
  • Curegarden Open-air Bath: A large collection of outdoor hot springs with amazing views.  I wanted to go here, but it was sadly closed due to the COVID-19.  I will go again if I get the chance.  Entrance is 700 yen but likely worth it.
  • Shirasagi no Yu: This is a western-styled bath with no outdoor hot springs, but reviews say it’s good.  If you go, please tell me how it is.  Entrance is 360 yen.

*For a full list of resorts, please see the official Gero Onsen Guide.

After bathing for an hour at Sachi no Yu and feeling completely refreshed afterward, I decided to visit a temple called Onsenji and pray to the hot spring gods.  This was about a 15 minute walk on an incline but it was extremely fun because I got to see more of the town while listening to all of my favorite music.  When I reached the shrine, the sun was setting and I saw an amazing view of it behind the mountains:

Another thing I love about Gero is all of the frog motifs.  “Gero” is a noise that frogs  make (like ribbit in English) so obviously a frog was the ideal candidate for a mascot here.  I tried the Gero Manjuu from a local sweets shop and it was very delicious.  I also saw frog stuffed animals in a liquor store and frogs painted on the street.  This is truly a Frogger-themed onsen village and it’s kind of awesome.

After spending a good amount of time here, I decided to ride the express train down to Nagoya.  I debated about spending the night here because there are cheap hotels and guest houses, but I opted to go to the city instead so I could spend time doing photo editing at one of my favorite 200 yen bars called Moonwalk.  Gero Onsen is the ideal day trip but there isn’t much to do at night besides more hot springs.  The quality is definitely worth it though!

Access

From Nagoya Station, take the Hida Limited Express to Gero Onsen.  This takes around 2 hours and is 4700 yen one way.  

I combined this with my trip to Hida-Furukawa, so from there it only takes 1 hour and 2900 yen.  If you wake up early enough, you can experience Gero Onsen and the Your Name town in one day.  For me, that was the ideal choice.

Exploring Shiratori Park and Osu Kannon in Nagoya

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Sakura blossoms amidst the garden of Shiratori Park.

While I was in Nagoya two weeks ago eating aesthetic food and seeing the sakura blossoms, my friends showed me around two amazing places I never knew existed.  One was Shiratori Park which is one of the best places in Nagoya to see the cherry blossoms in the spring, and the other was Osu Kannon which is a complex of shrines and a unique shopping center full of everything from traditional Japanese food to arcades and tapioca.

In this article I will be sharing my adventures in both places with you.  For other fun things to do in Nagoya, check out my Amusement Parks articles~  As I always say, Nagoya is one of the most underrated cities in Japan because there is so much you can do here!

Shiratori Park

Shiratori Park is hands down my favorite Japanese-style garden in Nagoya.  It has a mini waterfall pond that you can cross over with stone steps, a small but beautiful garden of bamboo, and gorgeous sakura trees planted all throughout the park.  The pond looks completely aesthetic when the pink petals fall naturally in the water.  There is a school of koi fish that dwell inside the pond.  We listened to nujabes while we watched children feed them for a complete Modal Soul experience.  You could easily spend two hours or more here just relaxing because it’s not nearly as crowded as the parks in Tokyo, Osaka, or Kyoto.  There are also tea ceremonies that are periodically held here.  This place cannot be skip if you visit Nagoya, period.

Access

1-20 Atsuta Nishimachi, Atsuta Ward, Nagoya, Aichi 456-0036

Admission Fee: 300 yen

Osu Kannon

The Temple of Osu Kannon is (unbeknownst to me) one of the most popular Buddhist temples in Nagoya, but in addition to that there’s a flea market on certain weekends and tons of interesting shops you can see.  They have everything from ceramic plates to replicas of old guns for sale outside of the temple during the flea market which really amazed me.  We walked by a lot of vintage clothes stores and food stalls as well.  My favorite place I came across was a flower store called PEU CONNU.  They have a vintage approach to their flower displays that I enjoyed seeing.  We also saw mini shrines with fox deities along the way there.

After investigating the flea market and flowers, we decided to head to the anime / gaming district of Osu.  The super potato there was maybe the best gaming store in Japan I had ever walked in to.  On the left was the “gamer fuel” section full of chocolates, energy drinks, and imported sweets (some were in English), and on the left were a selection of classic cartridges (all Japanese).  Everything from the Famicom era until now.  A true gamer experience:

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The upstairs had a shrine devoted to Kirby (my boyfriend kindly bought me a Waddle Dee), and also a picture of Isabelle fishing up a Luigi.  Nice.

Some other great imagery I saw around this area was a picture of Darth Vader saying “BAZINGA” and a shirt of the crocodile that will die after 100 days (though his death still remains ambiguous in the Japanese webcomic).

The things that you find in these Buddhist shrine complexes is truly mindblowing.  There are a couple of places that have short shows you can see on the weekends.  I am planning another trip to Nagoya very soon and am excited for the other things that I will discover!

Access

1-20 Atsuta Nishimachi, Atsuta Ward, Nagoya, Aichi 456-0036

(No Admission Fee)

Seeing Penguins on the Beach at St. Kilda

While selecting activities for my trip to Australia, I came across many tours for penguin watching on the beach online.  As an animal lover, I decided that this was something I must definitely experience!  However, most of these tour packages were priced at over $100 to go on a two hour trip to Phillip Island, which is a bit expensive for people who are backpacking.  With a little more research, my friend and I figured out that you can see them pretty much every night at the beach in St. Kilda, which is just 20 minutes away via tram from central Melbourne.

After knocking back a couple drinks at the bars in CBD, we hopped on the tram from Southern Cross Station and made our way to the pier at St. Kilda Beach around 7pm a little after the sun set (we confirmed this time via the weather app).  At first we weren’t sure if they were going to come out, as spring had just started in Australia and it was a bit chilly.  But we saw a large group of people gathered at the pier and sure enough, a group of penguins started to emerge from the rocks!

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Sometimes they are hard to see in the dark, so usually a fluorescent light is shone over them so people can view them from the wooden docks.  Park rangers are present to ensure the penguins’ safety, but sometimes they wander close to people.  One even climbed up to say hello to us (I apologize for the low video quality, as no flash photography was allowed):

I really enjoyed this experience a lot because it wasn’t like going to a zoo–it was a completely natural phenomenon!  Compared to other penguins I’ve seen in other countries, these ones looked a lot tinier.  In addition to Melborune, there are several other places in Australia where you can see penguins frolic on the beach.

St. Kilda also has botanical gardens that I recommend going to during the day!  My friend and I were able to see some sakura blossoms here and along the Yarra River.  Though I thought the weather here was quite cold compared to Tokyo, I am really happy I was able to see the beautiful sakura once again this year!

No matter what time of year you come to Australia, I think you can always find something beautiful to enjoy!