The ultimate “Hanami” (cherry blossom viewing) travel guide to Nara’s Yoshino area

Among the delicate beauty of the cherry blossoms

(c)EISUKE YAMAMOTO

I am currently standing in the middle of the cherry blossoms in full bloom. It’s a mysterious world bathed in pale pink light. The light of the sun shines sparkling onto the earth through the translucent cherry blossom petals. On the branches of the trees, there are many birds fluttering about. Flower petals are being scattered in the spring wind forming a shower of falling cherry blossom petals.

(c)EISUKE YAMAMOTO

This is Mt. Yoshino in the center of Nara Prefecture. Here, the unique Japanese mountain religion of Shugendo originated as a fusion of sacred mountain worship, Buddhism and Taoism. It is one of the sites that make up the World Heritage “Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range” which includes all the famous temples and shrines here, and in spring takes on the endearing image of 30,000 white mountain cherry trees in full bloom. The region is divided into four areas, starting from the foot of the mountain in order they are Shimosenbon, Nakasenbon, Kamisenbon and Okusenbon. The flowers begin blooming from the bottom of the mountain and continue to bloom in turn up the mountain over a period of one month until the whole area is in full bloom.

Typically from April 10th to 12th every year beneath the cherry blossoms the Hanakueshiki Festival is held, where flowers are offered to the main object of worship Zao-gongen at the World Heritage Listed Shugendo head temple of Kimpusen-ji Temple in the center of Mt. Yoshino. On the 11th which is when the parade is held, having learned the phrase “Flower viewing at Yoshino is best in the morning”, I arrived at Yoshino Station on the Kintetsu line at 8am. In the chilly air of the morning, I walked the 3 minutes to the ropeway station and ascended to Yoshinoyama Station at the top of the mountain. Upon leaving the station, I am greeted by the cherry blossoms in full bloom.

With the crowds yet to arrive, as I climb the approach to the temple lined with restaurants and souvenir shops, before long the “Kane no Torii” gate comes into view, which serves as the entrance to the holy grounds. Passing under the gate, I am finally at the entrance to Kimpusen-ji Temple. This is the area known as Nakasenbon. Deciding to thoroughly observe the Hanakueshiki parade when it arrives at its end here at this temple later, I first aim to climb further up to Chikurin-in Temple in the Kamisenbon area where the parade begins.

Not far from Kimpusen-ji Temple is Yoshimizu-jinja Shrine, which is also World Heritage Listed. In the 14th century, Emperor Go-Daigo fled here from Kyoto during a period of political conflict, and temporarily established this as his residence, where you can sense the undertone of the Emperor’s tragedy to this day.

The view of Mt. Yoshino from Yoshimizu-jinja Shrine here is absolutely stunning. Known as Hitomesenbon, it is a perfect viewpoint where you can take a thousand cherry blossoms in full bloom into your field of vision at once.

After Yoshimizu-jinja Shrine, I head for Chikurin-in Temple. Straying from the temple approach, the path becomes quite rugged, but the cherry blossoms in full bloom lift my spirits. Arriving at the temple gate to Chikurin-in Temple, there are many Shugendo pilgrims in mountain priest robes gathered here. This Chikurin-in Temple is famous within Yoshino for opening its priests’ quarters for guests to stay in. Apparently to stay here during the flower viewing period, it is necessary to book several months in advance. It also features a fantastic garden called Gumpoen which was sculpted by the master of the tea ceremony, Sennorikyuu, and while walking around the beautiful pond inside you can enjoy admiring the famous weeping cherry trees.

Access to Mt. Yoshino

From the neighboring major cities to Kintetsu Yoshino Station
From Osaka: There is a direct train from Osaka-Abenobashi Station on the Kintetsu Minami-Osaka line to Yoshino Station. If you take the limited express it takes around 1 hour and 15 minutes.
From Kyoto: From Kyoto Station head to Kashiharajingu-mae Station on the Kintetsu Kyoto line, and change at that station to the Kintetsu Yoshino line to get to Yoshino Station. If you take the limited expresses on each line it takes around 1 hour and 40 minutes.
From Nagoya: From Kintetsu Nagoya Station, take the Kintetsu Meihan Limited Express (Ko-Tokkyu) for Yamato-Yagi Station, and then change to the Kintetsu Kashihara line for Kashiharajingu-mae Station. Finally change here to the Kintetsu Yoshino line for Yoshino Station. This takes around 2 hours and 40 minutes.

From Yoshino Station to Yoshinoyama Station
Head to Senbonguchi Station on the Yoshino Cable (ropeway), which is approximately 3 minutes’ walk from Yoshino Station on the Kintetsu Yoshino line. Ascending the cable to Yoshinoyama Station (the summit station) takes around 3 minutes.

Yoshimizu-jinja Shrine

Address:579 Yoshinoyama, Yoshino-cho, Yoshino-gun, Nara
Telephone:0746-32-3024
Access:Around 15 minutes’ walk from Yoshinoyama station on the Yoshino Cable.

Chikurin-in Temple

Address:2142 Yoshinoyama, Yoshino-cho, Yoshino-gun, Nara
Telephone:0746-32-8081
Access:Around 20 minutes’ walk from Yoshinoyama Station on the Yoshino Cable.

Amidst the cherry blossoms appears a scene from a Middle Ages picture scroll

Shortly after arriving at Chikurin-in Temple, the Hanakueshiki parade begins to depart. Among the parade of mountain priests (Shugendo pilgrims), there are also specters of the mountains such as red, blue and black demons, warrior servants (yakko), pages and monks mixed in as well. While the sound of the conch echoes through the air, the group slowly makes its way down the mountain from Chikurin-in toward Zao-do in the main building of Kimpusen-ji. Watching the parade pass by in a shower of falling flower petals feels just like a fleeting dream.

As I look up, suddenly from beyond the shiny falling flower petals, I thought I saw a stern faced old man come down. It’s En no Gyouja. It’s said that in the 6th century, he was a sorcerer who trained on the steep mountains and gained supernatural powers that allowed him to fly freely through the sky. Searching out the gods of the supreme, he met the Buddha Zao Gongen here in Yoshino, and founded Shugendo. It is also said that En no Gyouja carved Zao Gongen on a cherry tree. Since then, cherry trees have been planted all over Mt. Yoshino as sacred trees. That’s because Yoshino cherry blossoms are sacred trees where the gods reside.

The parade finally arrives at the Zao-do hall of Kimpusen-ji Temple. It’s a massive wooden structure which is the next biggest after the Great Buddha of Nara’s Todai-ji Temple. Even in the middle of the day, the hall is quite dim. Beyond the light of the candles, you can see the massive figure of Zao Gongen who is full of raging power with his body covered in blue muscles. Eventually, the ceremony, which lets Zao Gongen know that this year the Yoshino cherry blossoms have bloomed again, begins. This is a fire ceremony known as “Saitogomaku”.

After the ceremony, I decide to try one of the stores lining the temple approach. Firstly I eat Yoshino’s famous “Kaki-no-ha zushi”. This is sushi consisting of mackerel pressed into rice, wrapped in persimmon leaves. It’s slightly sweet and sour and very delicious. Apparently this is the way the mountain priests preserved their food. There were many other interesting shops. Here’s a chemist. The frog statue at the front of the store is fantastic. It even sells digestive medicine called Daranisuke. Digestive medicine was indispensable for the pilgrims training on the mountain who had limited supplies of food. Shugendo also happens to feature Taoist Chinese herbal medicine culture from China.

Kimpusen-ji Temple

Address:2500 Yoshinoyama, Yoshino-cho, Yoshino-gun, Nara
Telephone:0746-32-8371
Access:Around 10 minutes’ walk from Yoshinoyama Station on the Yoshino Cable.

Dates when you can inspect the normally hidden Buddhist images and Zao Gongen for 2014
March 29th to June 8th, November 1st to November 30th
*At Kimpusen-ji Temple, a range of training experiences for the general public are offered from daily training for men and women up to hard pilgrimage routes on Omineokugake (6 days, men only) which is the mountain range that connects Yoshino with Kumano. For more details, please see the links.

While looking down below at the cherry blossoms in full bloom, we head even further into the mountains

Avoiding the congested Nakasenbon area where Kimpusen-ji is, I head up the winding cherry blossom path in one go, and arrive once more at the Kamisenbon area. Flower viewers have picked out their favorite cherry tree to lay a sheet underneath, and are in the middle of enjoying their own parties. After climbing the path, there is a viewpoint on the top of Mt. Yoshino from which you can look out at the landscape below. It’s known as Hanayakura Lookout. Here, the panoramic view of the cherry blossoms with Zao-do in the center is terrific.

Nearby is the beautiful World Heritage Listed Yoshino Mikumari-jinja Shrine. It’s an old shrine famous for having the God of children enshrined here, and sells artful charms which help you raise good children. The weeping cherry tree in the garden enclosed by the main shrine building is in full bloom now.

Here begins the hiking path. The Japanese cedar forest stretches out from here and at the deepest point is the World Heritage Listed Kimpu-jinja Shrine. Having climbed almost 10km up the mountain from the ropeway station, we have finally come to Okusenbon. The true pilgrimage route of Shugendo actually begins here from Kimpu-jinja Shrine. Starting from the entrance of this shrine is the difficult main pilgrimage route called “Okugake” that passes over the major peaks of the Omine mountain range – Mt. Sanjogatake, Mt. Misen and Mt. Shakagatake and leads to Kumano.

Inside the dense cedar forest, taking the mountain path from Kimpu-jinja Shrine, suddenly entering into my field of vision I come to a point which looks over the deep mountains of Yoshino. Just below that is a small hermitage. It is the Saigyo-an hermitage, where the poet Saigyo who wrote a poem declaring “I love the cherry blossoms so much that I want to die beneath the flowers in full bloom” once resided. Nearby is a watering hole known as Kokeshimizu Spring, which was selected as one of Japan’s 100 remarkable water list. The cherry blossoms in this area typically bloom at the end of April, so today they are still yet to start flowering.

Turning back down the path I used to ascend, once again I pass underneath the “Kane no Torii” gate that separates the holy ground from the everyday world, and descend Mt. Yoshino. When the pilgrims of Shugendo pass through this gate to enter the mountains, they temporarily leave this world and head for Kumano. Believing the mountain path to be like a mother’s womb, they complete their pilgrimage and arrive at the place of rebirth, Kumano. The cherry blossoms of Yoshino truly exist in the realm between life and death.

This area which was selected for World Heritage Listing is a kind of paradise for Japanese people, a kind of Eden. The mountain religion of Shugendo was created here as a mystic hyper culture fusing Buddhist culture and Taoism from abroad, as well as Japanese Shinto. The world of Yoshino’s cherry blossoms is positioned between the Nara and Kyoto representing the culture of the mortal world, and Kumano from the spiritual world which overflows with primordial energy. Perhaps the true special feature of Japanese culture is that it knows how to absorb the energy of the next world while being in this one. That is what came into my mind while I was among the cherry blossoms of Yoshino in full bloom.

Yoshino Mikumari-jinja Shrine

Address:1612 Yoshinoyama, Yoshino-cho, Yoshino-gun, Nara
Telephone:0746-32-3012
Access:Around 1 hour and 30 minutes’ walk from Yoshinoyama Station on the Yoshino Cable.

Kimpu-jinja Shrine

Address:1292 Yoshinoyama, Yoshino-cho, Yoshino-gun, Nara
Telephone:0746-32-8081
Access:Around 2 hours’ walk from Yoshinoyama Station on the Yoshino Cable.