Himeji was quite an experience in itself. To those who have been following my blog regularly, you've probably noticed that I tended to travel in western Japan. Why is that? Everyone travels in the Kansai region. Everyone. And in this time period, at the height of the cherry blossom season, it's safe to say Japan probably had its greatest influx of tourists. I wanted to see and do things off the beaten path. Not too many people know about the onsens of Beppu, the pilgrimage in Shikoku, or the chicken at Irori Sanzoku.
In any case, I kept an open mind on my journey to Himeji. Despite encountering more tourists in one day than I had seen since my arrival, and speaking English more often than Japanese, it was still a rather pleasant experience.
Himeji Castle remains one of the greatest cultural heritage sites in Japan. Take one look at the castle and the surrounding area and it's clear why. No other castle comes close to the preservation and design we see in Himeji. It's one of the few castles that wasn't completely burned to the ground.
I was lucky I happened to arrive so early - by the time I entered the castle and began my ascent to the top floor, it was already jam-packed with people waiting in line. The crowds on the grounds facing the castle were equally as large, with hanami parties everywhere.
Access Take the Sanyo Shinkansen to Himeji Station. It should be a stop for all Kodama, all Hikari, and most Nozomi trains. About thirty minutes from Osaka, about an hour from Hiroshima.
Once you arrive at Himeji Station, walk due north for about 15 minutes. The castle is easy to spot, and chances are most foot traffic is headed that direction anyway.
Yoshinoyama was a little bit of a letdown. At its height, it's quite clear that this is the place to be for cherry blossoms. Unfortunately, they must have peaked a few days prior to my appearance; some of the leaves were already browning.
Nevertheless, people were everywhere to witness the spectacular blooming. On the train over to Yoshino Station, I encountered a man looking nearly as confused as I was, observing each station we were passing to make sure we were on the right line. I struck up a conversation and it was immediately obvious that half the people in this car were headed for the mountain; it was his first visit as well.
Some advice about Yoshinoyama - during cherry blossom season, they should offer a few buses in addition to the ropeway to ascend the mountain. Take the bus if you're not walking; the ropeway still drops you off far below the main viewing areas, while the bus places you in a prime position to climb or descend. Same price - ¥350.
In addition, buy sakura food. Sakura salted pedals for tea. Blocks of jelly. Sakura soft cream (delicious). Don't know what you're looking for?
サクラ さくら Sakura
There are plenty of restaurants on the mountain, and there should be food stalls during the spring. This is my kind of place for cherry blossom viewing - there plenty of hanami, sure, but it's also a great place to be adventurous and explore the surrounding area. The mountain is pretty spread out.
Access Take the Kintetsu line to Yoshinoguchi and switch trains to Yoshino.
Maruyama Koen, Kyoto (円山公園)
I didn't spend too much time in Kyoto. Why? It was packed, for one. Second, I came to see a sight at the best of the best times. The temples and museums will always be there in the summer.
Gion is well known for its Geisha and Meiko population, but at the height of the cherry blossoms season, most of the attention is turned to Maruyama Park in the east. This park features one of the best and largest shidarezakura (しだれざくら) in Kyoto. It also happens to be lit up at night for the best viewing. Hanami parties are frequent, and the city offers an outdoor yakiniku restaurant in sight of the tree.
Access - from the front of Kyoto Station, go to platform D2 and take the #206 bus to Gion stop. It's about a 20 minute drive. Walk East for just a few minutes and you'll find the park.