KYOTO, May 21 — Japan during springtime is famous for their cherry blossoms or sakura. Viewing these beautiful blooms or hanami is must-do activity, often involving picnics beneath the flowering branches.
Yet have you ever heard of yozakura or night sakura?
Yes, viewing cherry blossoms isn’t only for daytime. When natural light fails, many popular hanami places will have night illuminations so visitors can enjoy the sight of these delicate blossoms in the evening.
Carefully-placed lighting to showcase the best blossoms gives it a fairytale touch. Indeed, the yozakura feel like flowers from another world.
To experience yozakura in Kyoto, begin with a walk down the scenic Kiyamachi Street (Kiyamachi-dori). This street runs north to south, between Kiyamachi-Nijo and Kiyamachi-Shichijo on the eastern side of the Takase River.
The river was first dug in 1611 for the purpose of transporting goods such as lumber from Osaka. These were loaded on boats and brought here to be stored in warehouses along the river.
This history gave Kiyamachi-dori its name — kiya means “wood stores”, machi means “a city” (or a city block, in this case) and dori simply refers to the street.
Today Kiyamachi-dori is a one-kilometre strip of bars and restaurants, considered the epicentre of Kyoto nightlife.
But beyond the promise of cheap beer are the rows of cherry trees planted all along the Takase River.
And when their blooms flower in full and are illuminated in the evening, by streetlight and the fiery glow of the restaurants’ red lanterns alike, Kiyamachi-dori becomes a yozakura boulevard.
The Takase River, spliced with arched bridges at irregular intervals, is more of a canal than a proper river.
As such, you can often spot tiny rafts or even entire row boats on the river adorned with flower arrangements during spring. Ducks and other waterbirds frolic in the shallow waters.
There are often some small springtime fairs alongside the street. Performers sing and dance, dressed in both traditional costumes (kimonos and parasols) as well as sillier, more colourful attire. A full-head mask of anime characters adds an element of kawaii (cuteness).
Bonfires are kept going almost the entire night for hanami party-goers to warm themselves (and their drinks).
Logs of cherry wood burn happily with their fragrant smoke, creating memories that are equal parts sight and smell.
From Kiyamachi-dori, it’s an easy walk to Maruyama Park, possibly the most popular spot for hanami in Kyoto.
Part of the fun is having to enter via Yasaka Shrine, itself transformed after sunset into a vibrant night market of sorts, albeit one that focuses solely on Japanese street food and comes complete with a wall of temple lanterns.
The colourful stalls (and, in some cases, colourful stall owners with their bellowing voices inviting visitors to sample their offerings) line both sides of the narrow path leading you further in, towards the park.
There is definitely a theme of grilling food, which suits the chilly spring weather.
There are yakitori (grilled chicken on skewers), takoyaki (octopus balls), yakisoba (buckwheat noodles fried on a griddle), okonomiyaki (savoury Japanese pancakes), ikayaki (grilled squid), jaga bata (grilled potatoes with butter), shioyaki (grilled sea bream on a skewer), taiyaki (fish-shaped pastries filled with adzuki bean paste or chocolate) and more.
Once you enter Maruyama Park proper, you’ll be greeted by some of the best cherry trees in Kyoto... and some of the biggest crowds.
Somehow the sea of bodies seems more manageable in the evening, when everything is darker and calmer. (Not too calm though: some of the livelier hanami goers may already be on their third or fourth beer while couples take advantage of the cover of night to sneak a quick kiss or two.)
The one tree everyone comes to see is the impressive 80-year-old shidarezakura (weeping cherry tree) at the centre of the park.
While other sakura trees are lovely with their fragile blooms lit up at night, this 40-foot shidarezakura stands in a class of its own, proud and majestic.
Of course, you’d notice that most visitors, after snapping pictures with the shidarezakura, then move quickly to the hanami picnic area to indulge in merry-making.
There is a Japanese proverb, hana yori dango (literally “dumplings rather than flowers”), which means most hanami picnickers are keener on the food and drinks than viewing the blossoms.
Night hanami picnics are an entirely novel experience and the atmosphere reminds one of a carnival.
And not unlike a carnival, there are plenty of vendors... should you decide against packing your own picnic. Simply purchase some food or drinks from the vendors and you can grab one of the low tables for your hanami party.
Another popular yozakura site in Kyoto is Nijo Castle. Built in 1603 by the great shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, the castle was later used as an imperial palace.
Today Nijo Castle is a UNESCO world heritage site thanks to its well-preserved architecture so representative of Japan’s Edo Period (1603-1867).
The entire castle is surrounded by a moat and high stone walls. To enter, you pass through the East Gate before encountering the grand Karamon Gate.
Designed in the Chinese style, the Karamon Gate is the entrance to the Ninomaru Palace within. However, in the evenings during sakura season, it is the gate itself that is the star attraction.
An explosion of petals; a graceful crane swooping from left to right; a tremendous dragon unravelling its long, lithe body: the springtime, sakura-inspired light show at the Karamon Gate is a sight to behold.
These surreal visions, especially while you are otherwise enveloped by the blanket of darkness, will fill you with awe.
From the Karamon Gate, stroll along many walking paths lined with different varieties of cherry trees.
There is even a cherry orchard where the cherry trees — almost 400 of them — are of the late blooming variety, meaning the hanami season at Nijo Castle is quite long and lasts till the end of April.
This makes Nijo Castle a very forgiving yozakura destination for visitors late to the game.
As you wander around the castle grounds, you may observe the ghostly silhouette of tree branches against the lit-up walls and roofs. Or be delighted by the twinkling light display of sakura petals falling against a cherry tree trunk.
Admire the sight of a cherry blossom by moonlight and you will realise why so many wait in eager anticipation every year for spring and for the hours after dusk, for the marvels of the night blossoms, for the magic of yozakura.
Kiyamachi Street (Kiyamachi-dori)
The street runs north–south between Kiyamachi-Nijo and Kiyamachi-Shichijo in Kyoto, Japan
Night illumination is from sunset till late, daily; late March till mid-April
Getting there: Take the East Exit from Kyoto Shiyakusho-mae subway station
Maruyamacho, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, Japan
Night illumination from sunset till 1am, daily; late March till mid-April
Getting there: Take Bus 100 or 206 to the Gion bus stop, and enter the park via Yasaka Shrine
541 Nijojocho, Nakagyo Ward, Kyoto, Japan
Night illumination from 6pm-9pm daily; late March till end-April
Admission 400 yen (RM15.40)
Getting there: Take the East Exit from Nijojo-mae subway station