Cherry blossom time in Kyoto: where to go and what to eat
Hanami, or watching the cherry blossoms, is a Japanese institution. Here’s our guide to the best restaurants and locations to sit, eat and enjoy sakura season in Japan’s beautiful former imperial capital
New England has its breathtaking autumn landscapes of reds and golds, while Provence boasts fields of lavender as far as the eye can see, but when it comes to seasonal celebrations of the natural world, few can match cherry blossom or sakura season in Kyoto.
Japan’s former imperial capital has more than enough to see in its own right, with no fewer than 17 Unesco World Heritage sites and more than 2,000 temples. But residents of Japan and international visitors alike flock to Kyoto for the short period from late March to mid-April when trees explode in blossom.
Hanami – literally “flower viewing” – is a profoundly Japanese appreciation of fleeting beauty, one taken very seriously across the country. It is as much a time for reflection as it is for photos and celebration. To truly experience the joys of sakura season, people traditionally gather in parks, sitting directly under the trees on plastic sheeting that they have carefully pinned to the ground. Picnics are popular, and iconic Japanese department stores sell beautifully produced special hanami-themed bento boxes to cater for them.
But restaurants also allow for a special sensory combination, often creating menus just for the brief window when the blossoms appear. At The Ritz-Carlton Kyoto, many rooms overlook the Kamogawa, Kyoto’s river with its rows of cherry trees lining the banks. In their Mizuki restaurant, a kaiseki menu is offered featuring dishes that are true works of art.
Chisaki Iba, the engaging sushi chef who speaks perfect English, stands out not only for flawless execution but also for being a woman – still rare in Japanese restaurants. One of the dishes on the kaiseki menu is a sashimi homage to sakura, surely one of the most beautiful and unique culinary creations anywhere. It’s one thing to eat in sight of a cherry tree, but to have a blossom as part of an ice sculpture, itself decked in the best quality fish, is a rare treat indeed.
Itoh Dining Kyoto has been around for more than half a century and specialise in teppanyaki, notably incredibly succulent Kobe beef. Many diners come as much for the views and location in Gion – legendarily home to the city’s geishas – as for the faultless cooking. Its location in an alley means that it can be tricky to find, but once there it’s charming and serene, with huge windows overlooking the creek outside and the cherry blossoms slowly falling into the water below. With set dinners costing from 9,500 yen (HK$668) to 19,000 yen, it’s not cheap, but it’s worth it for the menu and the romance of the experience.
Dining doesn’t have to cost the earth; Kyoto offers countless cheaper options amongst its more than 20,000 restaurants, even before you consider a bento box or making you own picnic from the supermarkets, specialist shops or the brilliant Nishiki food market, a long covered colonnade with temptation at every turn. Whether you’re after perfect croquettes or the best yakitori, roast chestnuts or pickles, you’ll never be short of ideas. There’s even a conveniently located sake specialist so you can pick up something to go with your meal. The only challenge is where to eat. And while it’s true that many Japanese consider it rude to eat in public, during sakura season this seems to be largely forgiven.
If you’re looking for pointers on what to eat and where, there is Curated Kyoto, a bespoke tour company and brainchild of Japanese-New Zealander, Sara Aiko. She designs gastro tours for every taste and budget, and has an encyclopaedic knowledge of her city – and the coolest bars and restaurants.
Yachiyo is a tofu hotpot specialist in a ryokan [traditional Japanese inn] near the Nanzen-Ji temple. The tofu is freshly made every morning and 2,800 yen gets you lunch that includes sesame tofu, tempura, yuba (also known as soy milk skin) and tofu cooked in a fine Hokkaido kelp broth . Despite the slogan “simplicity is the ultimate traditional vegetarian food” Yachiyo is also renowned for its sukiyaki beef.
What makes Yachiyo truly special is the extensive garden and pond surrounding the building. They were created by Jihei Ogawa (1860-1933), one of Japan’s most well-known garden designers who incorporated elements including sakura trees into the landscape. The setting truly comes into its own at night, when the blossom and multicoloured trees are illuminated. Be warned that it’s a popular spot in sakura season so reservations are critical.
Pizza Salvatore Cuomo & Grill is located on the Takase waterway. It has alfresco seating, so you can kick back with some traditional antipasti, Neapolitan pizzas and maybe a bottle of Chianti. The area is the perfect spot to enjoy the blossoms by the waterway, while enjoying the quiet charm of this popular corner of the city.
Back to Japanese cuisine for the final option, this time at one of the city’s newest arrivals in the form of The recently opened Four Seasons hotel is a few minutes away from the centre of town in the historic Higashiyama district, and can be reached by bicycle.
The hotel is built around an 800-year-old pond garden or ikeniwa, formerly owned by a wealthy samurai family. Across the water, a tiny tea house called Shakusui-Tei views of the sakura, koi carp and foliage, but for the best culinary treat with an illuminated night-time view, nothing can top Sushi Wakon.
It’s the latest creation of 36-year-old chef Rei Masuda, a culinary wunderkind described by Jiro Ono – of Jiro Dreams of Sushi fame – as having “truly remarkable seasoning”. He earned two Michelin stars for Sushi Masudai in Tokyo, while in Kyoto he has chef Masashi Yamaguchi to oversee the Edo-style sushi at the 10-seat counter made from an eight-metre long piece of cypress wood.
As you would expect, the sushi is flawless.
34 Nanzenji Fukuchi-cho, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto, 606-8435; tel: +81 (0) 75 771 4148; kyoto-ryokan.co.jp