Yoshino is Japan's most famous place for cherry blossom viewing. Mount Yoshino is the name for the hills spreading south of the town of Yoshino (pop. 10,000), not a mountain peak. Over 30,000 cherry trees covering the hills are a truly resplendent spectacle to behold in spring. It is said that the first cherry trees were planted 1300 years ago.
The region is part of the Yoshino-Kumano National Park and was recognised as a World Heritage Site.
Thanks to its age-old reputation, the Somei Yoshino (染井吉野 ; Prunus × yedoensis) has become the most widespread variety of cherry tree in Japan.
From the 8th century, Yoshino became a place of training for Shugendō practitioners, along with the nearby Mount Ōmine. En no Gyōja, the founder of Shugendō, set up the Kimpusen-ji Temple as the head temple of his new religion.
Yoshino's cherry blossoms were the subject of several waka poems during the Heian period (794-1185), including a particularly celebrated one in the 10th-century poetry anthology Kokin Wakashū (古今和歌集).
Yoshino's relative proximity from Kyōto, combined with the isolation provided its mountains, made it a popular place of refuge for aristocrats who had lost favour with the court. In the early 14th century, Emperor Go-Daigo (1288-1339) was evicted from power by shōgun Ashikaga Takauji and fled to Yoshino to establish a rival court.
Cherry blossoms viewing 花見
The cherries have been divided into four zones, at different altitudes, so that the flowering would be progressive and last longer. When this system was devised many centuries ago, 1000 trees were planted in each of the four sections. This still shows up today in the four section names : Shimo-senbon (下千本 ; lower 1000 trees), Naka-senbon (中千本 ; middle 1000 trees), Kami-senbon (上千本 ; upper 1000 trees) and Oku-senbon (奥千本 ; top 1000 trees).
When to see the cherry blossoms ?
The cherry blossom season is very ephemeral, lasting only a week per year. What's more, the blossoming does not start at the exact same time each year. This makes planning a visit to Yoshino all the more difficult.
When the first blossoms start to open it can take up to a week before the trees have reached a state of full blossom (what the Japanese call mankai - 満開). Fortunately, the Japanese being so obsessed about cherry blossoms, news channels and many news websites follow the progression of cherry blossoming nationwide in great detail, giving the percentage of opening region by region, as well as the specifics for famous places like Yoshino. If you are in Japan from from late March to early April, the thing to do is to keep informed, and prepare your visit to Yoshino a few days after the first blossoms are reported.
Several temples and shrines are located on the slopes of Yoshinoyama. Starting from the Yoshino Ropeway, you will first stumble on Kimpusen-ji and Yoshimizu-jinja in the Naka-senbon (middle section). As you work you way up, you will reach the Chikurin-in Temple (serving also as a ryokan) at the beginning of the Kami-senbon (upper section), then further up, the Mikumari-jinja near the Hanayagura view point, where you will get the best views of the cherry-filled hills. The Oku-senbon (top section) has fewer cherry trees, but the Takagiyama Observation Deck offers panoramic views on the whole region.
Kimpusen-ji Temple 金峯山寺
Founded in the 8th century, Kimpusen-ji (lit. "Golden Peak Temple") is the headquarters of the ascetic Shugendō faith.
The compound is centered on the Zaō-dō Hall (蔵王堂), which is Japan's third largest wooden structure, after the Goei-dō Hall of Higashi Hongan-ji in Kyōto and the Daibutsu-den Hall at Tōdai-ji in Nara. It is sometimes referred to as Sange Zaō-dō (山下蔵王堂) to avoid confusion with the other major, and homonymous, Shugendō temple on top of Ōmine-san, which is in turn called Sanjō Zaō-dō (山上蔵王堂). The Niō-mon Gate (二王門) and Zaō-dō were both designated National Treasures of Japan.
Yoshimizu-jinja Shrine 吉水神社
This Shintō shrine used to be attached to Kimpusen-ji Temple until 1868, when the Meiji government enacted the Shinbutsu bunri law forcing the separation between Buddhist and Shintoist institutions.
The Yoshimizu Shrine served as a refuge for general Minamoto Yoshitsune (1159-1189), brother of the first Kamakura-based shōgun. One and a half century later, the deposed Emperor Go-Daigo established a short-lived, rival Southern Court in Yoshino. He is said to have used Yoshimizu-jinja as his quarters.
How to get there
From Nara (1h15min, ￥860), you will need to take first the JR Sakurai line to Kōriyama (郡山), change to the Kintetsu Kushihara line to Kushihara-jingū-mae (橿原神宮前), and transfer one last time to the Kintetsu Yoshino line. From Kyōto (2h10min, ￥1,200) take the Kintetsu Kyōto line, and transfer at Kushihara-jingū-mae to the Kintetsu Yoshino line. From Ōsaka, the easiest way to to leave from Ōsaka-Abenobashi Station (大阪阿部野橋), adjacent to Tennōji Station, from where you can get a direct train to Yoshino on the Kintetsu line.
During the cherry blossom season a shuttle bus operates between Kintestu Yoshino Station and the top of Yoshinoyama, near Kinbu-jinja Shrine, stopping also midway next to Chikurin-in Temple.