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Japan: Sakura Spring

When the cherry blossom paints Japan pink in spring, there’s nowhere as magical as the historic former capitals Kyoto and Nara. Colours joins the merry picnickers to enjoy the beauty of the Japanese spring.

Words by Rob Goss

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You don’t have to delve far behind its modern façade to see how much Japan still runs in step with the seasons. Look at the food, where menus change as frequently as the foliage, from the chilled noodles of summer to steaming hotpots in winter.

Businesses operate on an unerring seasonal clock, too, whether that means ditching conservative work dress codes for casual short-sleeve shirts at the exact onset of summer or going out for the not-to-be-missed final after-work drinking session with colleagues before New Year. Cast your gaze wider, and you’ll see the seasons have come to influence everything from art to poetry, architecture to religion, and none more so than spring.

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Both the academic and business years begin anew on April 1, just after March sees Japan heave a collective sigh of relief as the country sheds its winter layers, welcoming the returning warmth and celebrating the spectacular pink wave of cherry blossoms that accompanies it.

Japan doesn’t quite obsess about the cherry blossom – or sakura – but it certainly comes close. The blooming buds are tracked by phone apps and on the daily TV news so everyone can time their cherry blossom viewing parties to coincide as closely as possible with the fleeting full bloom. And everyone enjoys o-hanami (flower viewing) parties, with groups of workmates, schoolmates, friends and families taking to blossom-drenched parks, riverbanks, and temples and shrines across the land for celebrations that vary from lazy afternoons under the sakura to day-long, sake-fuelled picnics.

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In Tokyo, parks like Ueno Koen are overrun with merry picnickers, a carpet of blue tarpaulin sheets contrasting the pink and white blossoms above, while sites like the Chidorigafuchi moat at the Imperial Palace provide a calmer venue, an explosion of weeping blossoms drooping and reflecting on the water. Nothing, however, can quite match the traditional settings that Kyoto and Nara provide for the blossom.

Spring in Kyoto
Like Tokyo, Kyoto has its sakura-scented, picnic-filled parks, with locations like Maruyama Koen – a short walk from the old wooden teahouses of the famed Gion geisha district – as well as World Heritage-designated temples and shrines that take on seasonal tones in spring; none better than the dry landscaped garden at Ryoan-ji (www.ryoanji.jp), where one blossom drapes branches over the wall behind the temple’s raked sand garden and its cryptic arrangement of rocky islands.

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Out in western Kyoto, the o-hanami festivities unfold in Arashiyama with parties under the area’s blossom-clad riverbank. But as stunning as sakura is, there’s even more to Arashiyama than blossom; the area has a blend of nature and tradition that makes it the perfect place to explore in the spring sunshine. Hire a bicycle at Arashiyama Station – or splurge for an hour in a rickshaw – and you can wind your way through some of Kyoto’s most atmospheric sites, pedalling to the 14th-century Tenryu-ji (www.tenryuji.com), where in spring the landscaped temple garden – designed using the traditional concept of borrowed scenery by incorporating the surrounding mountains and foliage into a succession of scenic points – is accented by various shades of pink.

In fact, scenic is a theme that runs through Arashiyama, and immediately after Tenryu-ji is one of Kyoto’s most iconic and scenic sites, a bamboo grove with towering shoots that filter the light a gentle green, and which works its way to the equally impressive Okochi-sanso, a villa where visitors can take in carefully sculpted views of the landscaped garden while relaxing with green tea and traditional wagashi (sweets).

South to Nara
Before Kyoto became Japan’s capital in 794 – a title it kept for most of the next 1,100 years until Tokyo became Japan’s first city in 1868 – Nara was the country’s political, spiritual and cultural centre; a city sometimes referred to as the birthplace of Japanese civilisation. Only 40 minutes by train from Kyoto, visiting Nara at any time of year feels like taking one step even further back into Japan’s past than Kyoto; Nara’s heart is dominated not by modernity but rather by a collection of World Heritage-designated sites that skirt the central Nara Park.

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With some 1,600 sakura trees, the park is another of Japan’s stunning spring sights at the end of March, but year round the park’s sprawling mass of greenery is an impressive experience, its semi-tame deer (who happily accept the deer snacks available from vendors around the park) having become the symbol of Nara. It’s also the perfect starting point for a day exploring old Nara, with its western side leading to Kofuku-ji (www.kohfukuji.com) and its 600-year-old five-storey pagoda, and its eastern side to Kasuga Shrine (www. kasugataisha.or.jp), where the complex’s main building is decorated with some 3,000 bronze lanterns.

The only thing that tops that is the 8thcentury Todai-ji (www.todaiji.or.jp) on the northern edge of the park, unmissable from afar because of the imposing Nandai-mon gateway that leads on to Todai-ji’s giant main building (one of the largest wooden buildings in the world) inside which is one of Japan’s most remarkable Buddhist relics: a 15m-tall bronze statue of Buddha that weighs 550 tons and dates (like much of Nara) to the 750s. It’s mesmerising at any time of year, but there’s something extra-special about spring in Nara and Kyoto; after all, a little blossom adds a lot of allure to anything.

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From Colours February 2017

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5 Senses – Sight
KIMONO FOREST

Arashiyama in western Kyoto is famed for the eerily filtered light and gentle creaking of its bamboo grove, but in recent years another forest, of sorts, has also appeared in the area. Encased in almost 600 transparent tubes that mimic the bamboo grove, the Kimono Forest in Arashiyama Station is a novel display of 32 traditional kimono fabric designs – many featuring seasonal motifs such as the cherry blossom – which, when illuminated at night, is among the most atmospheric and romantic of Kyoto sights.