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Cherry Blossom Kyoto - a Travel Journal


cherry blossom Kyoto

The best among blossoms is the red plum, whether light or dark in colour. As for the cherry, the blossoms should be on slender branches, the petals large and the leaves deeply coloured.

Sei Shonagon, The Pillow Book



For the Heian aristocracy, Kyoto was the only place to be.


In much of the literature of these early years of the new capital, people who are banished from the city for alleged misdemeanors - Kitano Tenmangu Shrine's Sugiwara no Michizane, or the fictional Prince Genji cast adrift in Suma - for them, the capital was the whole world and the only place that they could possibly want to be.


When I walk the streets of Kyoto, the literature and the poetry from a thousand years ago echoes around me. The grid of the city is recognisable from the old Heian capital, with street names that whisper the placenames of the past.


Here was the garden for the boating parties; here was the fictional Rokujou palace. Here was Rokuhara, stronghold of Kiyomori, the leader of the Taira, defeated by the Genji clan as the rooftops of Kyoto burned.


Here is the geiko hanamachi; here is the temple built to placate an angry spirit; here are the artisans like the weavers of Nishijin, so close to the Imperial Palace, still moving their shuttles of twisted golden thread back and forth.


When I read about the origins of the cherry blossom patterns that feature so strongly in our Kyoto furoshiki and tenugui designs, the history takes me directly back to the anthology of waka poetry, called the Kokinshuu, commissioned by Emperor Uda in early tenth century Kyoto.


Waka poetry was social communication for the Heian nobility. The ability to compose meaningful poetry spontaneously was highly prized as waka referenced a deep knowledge of classical poetry from China, as well as motifs and metaphors for love and longing in the shape of idealised seasonal flowers.


sakura at Imperial Palace Gardens kyoto

Sakura cherry trees bloomed so profusely in the capital it became known as Miyako no Hana, 'flowers of the Capital'.


I love Kyoto when the cicadas are shimmering in the heat of the summer; I've been dazzled by the explosion of colour in the Fall; I loved Kyoto in the winter when the mountains that ring the city are frosted white and tiny flakes of snow settle upon the early plum blossoms.


But nothing could have prepared me for the quiet beauty that is Kyoto hanami.



...And when Sachiko was asked what flower she liked best, there was no hesitation in her answer: the cherry blossom.

All these hundreds of years, from the days of the oldest poetry collections, there have been poems about cherry blossoms. The ancients waited for cherry blossoms, grieved when they were gone, and lamented their passing in countless poems.

Tanizaki Junichirou, The Makioka Sisters


 

cherry blossom Kyoto a travel journal

Travel Journal, Kyoto 2024

I left Tokyo and the wonderful wedding celebrations that we had shared together, taking the smooth shinkansen past gleaming, ice-capped Fuji to Kyoto.


Cherry Blossoms at Daybreak, Mitsui Family Villa, and a Festival for a Poet

I was staying at ryokan Mugen, an enchanting restored machiya which had once belonged to a kimono merchant. The proprietor Tome is among the nicest people you could ever hope to meet. I had first stayed as a solo traveller in the little room upstairs in 2016 when the ryokan was newly opened. Tome showed me to my familiar and often-thought-about room, and as I crossed the threshold she said to me 'お帰り’ (okaeri - 'welcome home').


view from Mugen

From my room there is a view across to the old storehouse and the beautiful grey-blue rooftiles, and down into the small, square machiya garden.


To see the view, I gently slide the beautifully made shoji. There is a vintage lamp on the deep wooden shelf which has a recess so that you can comfortably sit on the tatami floor, and look, and drink tea.


Tome, super lovely, super helpful, suggests getting up early to see the cherry blossoms at the north end of the Imperial Palace Gardens. Tome knows how the sakura will flower around the city. I say I'm thinking of going to Ninna-ji for the Omurozakura. It features on a woodblock print I own by Kyoto artist Tomikichiro Tokuriki, and I'd love to see it - but it's too early. Go to the north end of the Imperial Palace Gardens, she kindly advises.

Tokuriki Tomikichiro cherry blossom artwork

I love walking through the quiet lanes of Kyoto in the early morning. There's hardly anyone about. I reach the Imperial Palace just after 6am, and the few people who are there have a quiet reverence for the flowers.


cherry blossom Kyoto

It's an extraordinary light. The flowers are soft greys, with faint flushes of pink, and striped with pale yellow where the early sun is beginning to pierce them.


I head to the Kamogawa river, and walk across a bridge towards Shimogamo Shrine. Three hours have passed when I wander down the lane out of the forest and stop at the Old Mitsui Family Villa.


What a beautiful house! I'm interested in these early twentieth century villas, like the Old Asakura House in Daikanyama, Tokyo. They transport me in my imagination to the elegant world of Tanizaki Juunichiro's Makioka Sisters.


I sit on the tatami looking out across the beautiful, peaceful garden.


Old Mitsui Family Villa Kyoto

 

Zuishin-in Ono no Komachi

I have loved in vain

and now my beauty fades

like these cherry blossoms

paling in the long rains of spring

that I gaze upon alone.


Hana no iro wa 

utsuri ni keri na 

itazura ni

wagami yo ni furu 

nagame seshi ma ni


Ono no Komachi, One Hundred Poets One Poem Each



Butterfly Dance Tale of Genji

I took the Tozai train to Ono, and followed the people who were drifting up to Zuishin-in Temple for the Hanezu Odori.


Local school girls practise hard for the performance which tells of Ono no Komachi and her ill-fated love.


The temple celebrates this brilliant poet, not only in the dance and the plum blossom garden, but in quiet rooms which feature her likeness.


On the fusuma wall of a rear room of the temple there are what look to me like Heian courtiers dancing the Butterfly Dance.


The dance features in Murasaki Shikibu's The Tale of Genji. And there is another dance too, to honour a very special cherry tree:


A little past the twentieth of the second month, His Majesty held a party to honor the cherry tree before the Shishinden. To his left and right were enclosures for the Empress and the Heir Apparent, whose pleasure it was to be present according to his wishes. The Kokiden Consort took offense whenever Her Majesty received such respect, but she came, for she would not have missed the event.


It was such a lovely day, with a bright sky and birdsong to gladden the heart, when those who prided themselves on their skill - Princes, senior nobles, and all - drew their rhymes and began composing Chinese verses. As usual, Genji's very voice announcing, "I have received the character 'spring,'" resembled no other. The Secretary Captain came next. He was nervous about how he might look, after Genji, but he maintained a pleasing composure, and his voice rang out with impressive dignity. Most of the rest appeared tense and self-conscious. Naturally, those belonging to the lesser ranks were even more in awe of the genius of His Majesty and the Heir Apparent, which stood out even then, when so many others excelled at that sort of thing. They advanced in dread across the immaculate expanse of the broad court, only to make a painful labor of their simple task. His Majesty was touched by the seasoned performances from the shabby old Doctors, and he derived great pleasure from them, too.


He had of course arranged the dances perfectly. The one about the warbler in spring was charming as sunset approached, and after it the Heir Apparent, who remembered Genji under the autumn leaves, gave him his own blossom headdress and urged him to dance again. Genji, who could not refuse, rose and with casual ease went through the part where the dancer tosses his sleeves. The effect was incomparable. The Minister of the Left forgot all his displeasure and wept.


Hanezu Odori Zuishin-in Temple Kyoto

The Zuishin-in stage was set up by the temple steps in front of the plum blossom garden. Wooden benches were spread out and there was a sizeable crowd with people standing at the back.


The performance had three dances. Firstly, the girls dressed in pink and peach with sprigs of plum blossom in their hats and hands, dancing in honour of Ono no Komachi.


shirabyoushi dance Kyoto

I was thrilled to see the shirabyoushi-style dance, with their slow, considered movements and the accompanying koto and haunting flute. Shirabyoushi were female entertainers in the Heian era, and the koto floor harp is very much associated with the Heian Imperial Court.


There was a fantastic dragon story where a warrior killed four onstage dragons. It was a wonderful spectacle, and I thought of the viewers of long ago who might well have been spell-bound.


I loved the dances so much I stayed for the next performance!


matcha and a sweet Kyoto

Afterwards I lingered in the plum garden breathing in the delicious scent. I didn't want to leave and so I sat on a bright red seat in the tea garden and enjoyed frothy whisked matcha and a sweet painted with a bright pink plum blossom.


On my way back into Kyoto I stopped off at a konbini to ensure I had my ticket for the Kitano Odori.




Tea Ceremony, the Butterfly Dance, and Miyako Odori

My day began walking through the quiet lanes of Kyoto to Kitano Tenmangu, past people on bikes, many with small children seated with them too. I met Mai's sister and we walked into a very small teahouse in the shrine grounds, to go to tea ceremony which Mai was hosting.


On the wall was a picture of the butterfly dance just as it is in Genji.


I love the sound of the quietly murmuring ladies who excitedly make their way to tea ceremony.


 

cherry blossom Kyoto a travel journal

We came out to a dazzling day, with beautiful, clear light piercing the bursting cherry blossoms. I made my way to Kennin-ji, and walked the temple precinct until it was time to join the queue to enter the Gion Kaburenjo.


We entered and initially were surrounded by paintings of maiko, and displays of the gorgeous blue kimono that is synonymous with the Miyako Odori.


Miyako Odori Kyoto

We were filed past the sunlit garden, and up the stairs of the old wooden building and along a corridor. Suddenly, I was in the room moving towards my seat at the front, surrounded by bustle and commotion. I glanced up and couldn't all at once comprehend the beauty of the maiko who stood close by.


She wore a sky blue kimono and pink cherry blossom hanakanzashi in her hair with sparkling mirrors. And beside her sat a geiko in black kimono looking most serious, making tea beside a white candle. It was very atmospheric.


Haruo Shirane writes about a likely antecedent of the maiko kanzashi hair ornaments:


In the ancient period, the green leaves and colourful flowers that appear in spring were believed to be full of a life force. Songs describing the thickening of the tree leaves and the blooming of the flowers were a means to praise and tap into that life force.

Flowers, leaves, and branches of trees were broken off and placed in the hair (an action called kazasu) so that the life force could be transferred to the body. This early belief eventually led, in the 8th century, to the custom at banquets of decorating the hair with a branch or flower – usually that of willow, plum, bush clover, or pink.

Haruo Shirane, Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons: Nature, Literature, and the Arts


Gion Kaburenjo theatre

Matcha tea was served in a small bowl with an okashi on a small plate - which we could keep!


I took a look at the outside of the beautiful theatre by walking through the lovely garden, and then I took my seat near the hanamichi walkway on the stage.


Miyako Odori Gion Kaburenjo

Musicians in black played shamisen and sang. Then there was a flurry of geiko and maiko taking the stage in their vivid blue kimono, holding cherry blossoms.


The stage backdrops were very beautifully painted with wonderful scenes of temples and seascapes.


I was delighted to realise that I was watching a scene from Genji being performed, when I heard the musicians sing of Murasaki Shikibu.


Lady Rokujou wore a kimono with an obi sash that was woven with Genji-kou incense game symbols. It was the early passage in the book where Aoi-no-Ue, Genji's wife, is killed by the jealous spirit of Lady Rokujou.


The Tale of Genji

We saw banished Genji arrive on the shores of Akashi and meet his Akashi lady.

The ladies were dressed in beautiful juunihitoe.


The finale soared with beauty: geiko and maiko filled the stage in kimono and juunihitoe; cherry blossoms and candles were suspended from the top of the stage. The 1-hour performance went very quickly!


After the performance I walked through Higashiyama towards Maruyama Park, which was overflowing with cherry blossoms and relaxed people, colourful paper lanterns, tables for beer, and snack stalls sizzling and cooking - just like in the Gion Matsuri Yoiyama last summer.


Teruhide Kato Gion cherry blossoms Kyoto

I went to the cherry blossom Gion Shirakawa lane with its river and restaurants, and thought of Chieko being told that she was found there (in Kawabata's The Old Capital).


Cherry blossoms mean so much to the citizens of Kyoto.












[At Heian Shrine]

The groves of red weeping cherry trees that dressed the garden were one of the splendid sights of Kyoto. "Surely there is nothing that represents spring in the old capital better than these flowers."

As Chieko entered the shrine garden the colour of the weeping cherries blossomed deep in her heart. "Again this year I've greeted the spring in the capital." She stopped and gazed all about.

Kawabata Yasunari, The Old Capital


 

The Tranquil Spaces of Sen no Rikyuu, Finding Peace in Daitokuji, and the Kitano Odori


cherry blossom Kyoto temple

Some time ago, Mai had taken me to see the lane where the Urasenke Konnichian teahouse of Sen no Rikyuu is located. I'd long wanted to see it again so I was delighted to discover it was near to where I was staying!


I walked through a beautiful temple precinct to reach it. But I stopped for a while because the temple pagoda looked gorgeous festooned in white cherry blossoms!


Sen no Rikyuu Konnichian teahouse

Stepping beyond the temple into the quiet lane of the Urasenke teahouse and school was lovely. I gazed at the beautiful chawan in the windows of the tea-ware shops.


And then I made my way through the small streets to Daitokuji, again full of memories for the tea ceremony at Gyokurinin which Mai so wonderfully took me to all those years ago.


Oubai-in had only just opened, and it was astonishingly quiet and peaceful. Cherry blossoms are not a feature of this small sub-temple, but a thick carpet of vivid green moss is.


Oubai-in Daitokuji Kyoto

I sat on the warm temple veranda for a long time, taking in the light and shadows of this beautifully textured garden. As I traced the soft grey shadows that fell across the mossy floor from the branches of thin trees, I felt more and more relaxed.


And as I comprehended the shadow lines criss-crossing the garden floor, I became aware of the sense of dappled light on the central moon stones - but the effect was caused by patches of pale lichens.


The garden embraces striated shadow and dappled light. It is brilliantly echoed by the striped tsubaki camellias.


I absorbed the peace and tranquility. Sitting on the warm tatami, gazing out at the garden, it was peace like nothing else.


It was only later that I discovered that the garden was designed by Sen no Rikyuu, and I recognised the interplay of light and shadow in the chashitsu tearoom. There was a little tatami tearoom here where I had matcha and a sweet.


Oubai-in Kyoto camellia

As I balanced at the entrance to the temple to put my shoes on, there was a little camellia in a pot. Unassuming, but perfectly beautiful, cast in stripes of shadows. It seemed to sum up this quiet place.



I walked up to Kazariya, Ichiwa, and the abura mochi-toasting, and walked through to beautiful Imamiya shrine, with the illustrations of Heian nobles inside the top of one structure. I loved this place. Kyoto is always full of surprises!


More fragrant

because of the one

who saw and picked them,

these flowers,

precious, transient-


Orite mishi

hito no nioi ni

omooete

tsune yori oshiki

haru no hana kana

ka o ba shinobite


Izumi Shikibu, The Ink Dark Moon


Kitano Odori theatre

By late afternoon, I was walking down the quiet lanes to Kitano Tenmangu. I've written before about how much I love this shrine. Simply, something magical seems to happen at Kitano Tenmangu every time I visit.


I'd long been curious about the Kamishichiken Kaburenjo, and so I was very excited to join the queue to the theatre, especially as maiko were arriving for the performance!


The theatre is absolutely beautiful, with a low vermilion bridge that takes you across pools of koi. Lanterns gently swing in the breezes around the pools which extend into the outside garden. This serves as a waiting area in the intermission.


I was ushered through to the room where the geiko sat in black next to a white candle whisking tea for the guest at the head of the row. I was able to sit and quietly study her movements, gazing as she carefully folded the fukusa cloth and drew her finger across it, then used it to wipe the top of the natsume with a こ ('ko') shape.


The scene before me made a deep impression. It felt timeless, and was as beautiful as a moving painting.

I enjoyed the tea and the sweet, and added the plate to my small collection :)


The Kitano Odori performance was gorgeous.


Kamishichiken

Afterwards, I walked through the lamplit theatre and through the quiet lamplit lanes back to my accommodation, stopping off at cafe-with-a vibe Sarasa, still open at night :)


Kyoto in the Rain

The next three days were for meetings with our dear friends and suppliers, choosing beautiful Kyoto products which we are honoured to offer in our Zusetsu store.


I was especially thrilled to receive the tenugui printed with my design of a Heian era Lady dressed in her many-layered kimono.


Zusetsu My Heian Lady tenugui

Mugen was beautiful in the evening rain as it softly fell on the blue rooftop tiles.


Kagizen sakura mochi

Tea and Sakura Mochi

Tea and sakura mochi in Kagizen, sitting in the window by the garden.
















Arashiyama and Genji

Tome gave me directions to catch the bus from near Nijou Castle to Arashiyama. I arrived early in the morning and it was quiet as I walked up through the towering bamboo forest, head full of thoughts of Princess Kaguya and her bamboo forester foster father!


Nonomiya shrine Arashiyama

I reached Nonomiya Shrine, famous in The Tale of Genji for Lady Rokujou's final farewell to Prince Genji. Ladies dressed in juunihitoe were prominent on the wooden plaques at the shrine, praying for good fortunes.


Just as fictional Genji trod these rural lanes, so did a real-life model for Prince Genji: Minamoto no Tōru. Just as Genji has a mountain villa in this area of Arashiyama, so did Minamoto no Tōru. The Seiryoji Temple loomed out of the street as I approached, and this was the location for his mountain villa called Seikakan.


I stood under the cherry blossoms attempting to consider this!



Genji sent Lord Koremitsu there to make sure everything was in good order, since it was Koremitsu who always attended him on his secret outings.

'The setting is very pretty', Koremitsu reported, 'and it is just as though one looked out from there over the sea.' It struck Genji that the place would not be at all unsuitable for her [the Lady Akashi]. The temple he was building was south of Daikakuji, and its halls, for example the one beside the waterfall, rivaled in grace those of Daikakuji itself. Meanwhile, in a lovely grove of pines down by the river, a very simple, unpretentious house presented all the charm of a mountain village. Genji saw even to its interior furnishings.

The Tale of Genji


Seiryouji Temple Arashiyama

At the top of the bamboo forest is Nison-in, where you enter past the ticket booth and walk up a long flight of stone steps draped in white cherry blossom. At the top there is a view through a temple gate, of cherry blossoms and tachibana.


Nison-in gate Arashiyama Kyoto

Shoes off and up onto the temple walkway, around to the side where two people quietly sat looking across to a gravel-raked karasansui garden. A bamboo water feature made a 'klop' sound, every time it filled with water, before righting itself and filling with water again. I glanced up the mountainside to my right past cherry blossoms. Peace. Quiet. Time stilled.


I wanted to linger in this place. I walked up a steep flight of ancient stones to see the memorial to Emperor Saga. Emperor Saga! And from this high point I looked out across his beloved city, all Kyoto unfurled and beautiful.


I walked down the hillside and called in to the little teahouse by the gate for matcha tea and a sweet :)


I walked up to the Saga Toriimoto Preserved Street, with its quiet nature and pretty houses, and then headed towards Daikakuji along rural roads where there were vegetable patches dug into the flat land. Beyond, the forested mountains were splashed with cherry blossom in full bloom.


Daikakuji Osawa Pond and sakura

Daikakuji. I was not expecting that! Daikakuji has been on my to-go list since my earliest visit to Kyoto, but this was the first time I had made it there. And what an impression it made on me!


I had long wanted to see the Heian Osawa pond, home to the moon-viewing boating parties of Genji:


The dragon-prow and roc-prow barges were adorned magnificently in continental style, and the boys weilding the steering oars wore twin tresses as in China. The astonished women were thrilled and delighted to see them launched on so broad a lake, and they felt as though transported to an unknown land. When they came under the great rocks of the island's little cove, they marveled to find the least stone standing as though in a painting. The trees near and far, their branches merging in veils of brocade into the mist, drew their gaze toward their distant goal, where willows trailed bright green fronds and blossoms cast ineffable perfumes upon the air. The cherries that were gone elsewhere smiled here in all their beauty, and the wisteria twined about the galleries opened into deep-hued clusters, flower by flower.

The Tale of Genji


Tale of Genji art

I walked around the Osawa lake, and cherry blossoms bloomed everywhere. It was glorious!

Then I made my way to the entrance to the temple, and was astonished to be met by a dark wooden palanquin bearing imperial crests, surrounded by beautiful fusuma art replicating the birds on the water nearby.


Heian ox-cart palanquin

I could imagine the palanquin that bore the Heian ladies, their perfumed many-layered sleeves draping artfully out from behind the reed screens, as they travelled by ox cart to a festival.


Daikakuji Kyoto walkway

Daikakuji is a beautiful temple, originally built as an incredibly beautiful villa for Emperor Saga, the son of the founder of Kyoto, Emperor Kanmu. The temple as it is now has beautiful connecting walkways where you can almost hear the swish of the court ladies' juunihitoe.


I finished the day by going to the Genji Exhibition at Saga Arashiyama Bunkakan.










 

Every time I go to Kyoto I am astonished all over again by the exquisite nature of its beauty. It holds so many secrets.


At 5am I trundled my suitcases across to the JR station to catch the haruka to Kansai Airport. It was still dark and I looked ahead along the empty street to the inky sky and the shadowy higashiyama mountains beyond.


I glanced back at illuminated Kyoto Tower and tears flashed in my eyes. I love this city. It has given me a myriad adventures and truly astonishingly beautiful moments with very lovely people. Under my breath I say 'またね’ (mata ne! 'See you!') - never 'sayonara' (goodbye).


 

I hope you have enjoyed reading my diary blog of my time amongst the Kyoto sakura. If you would like to read more about the spring geisha dances, I have a second blog that will be published soon! :)

Cathy x


Miyako Odori poster


Sources

Tanizaki Junichirou, translated by Edward Seidensticker, The Makioka Sisters, (Vintage), p.90.

Kawabata Yasunari, translated by J. Martin Holman, The Old Capital, (Counterpoint), p.6.

Poem 9 by Ono no Komachi, translated by Peter MacMillan, One Hundred Poets One Poem Each, (Penguin Classics), p.13.

Izumi Shikibu poems, translated by Jane Hirshfield with Mariko Aratani, The Ink Dark Moon, (Vintage), p.111.

Ono no Komachi poems, translated by Jane Hirshfield with Mariko Aratani, The Ink Dark Moon, (Vintage), p.59.

Murasaki Shikibu, translated by Royall Tyler, The Tale of Genji, (Penguin Classics), p.155; p.334, p.441.

Sei Shonagon, translated by Meredith McKinney, The Pillow Book, (Penguin Classics), p.40.

Haruo Shirane, Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons: Nature, Literature, and the Arts, (Columbia University Press), pp.135-136.


Genji art photos are from the Saga Arashiyama Bunkakan Genji Exhibition.

The photo of the Miyako Odori Genji dance is from the Miyako Odori performance brochure.


Tokuriki Tomikichiro, The Cherry Blossoms of Omuro at Kyoto in Spring. Cathy's private collection.

Teruhide Kato, detail of Symphony in Pink. See our Zusetsu ART store.


Guides to Discovering Kyoto


1 Comment


Anne McKenzie
Anne McKenzie
Apr 18

Cathy,


What amazing powers of observation and description you have, I was transported by this blog, thank you!


Anne

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