The ritual procession made its way slowly along the narrow road that weaves its way up Yoshino Mountain in Nara prefecture, as local residents and tourists alike looked on, transfixed with delight at witnessing such a propitious event.
It was the peak of the sakura season in Yoshino, an area famous for its cherry trees, and the long line of mountain priests, men in traditional festival attire or goblin costumes, worshippers and children, was headed to Kinpusenji, the most important temple on Mount Yoshino, to tell the gods that the sakura was in full bloom.
Men in short, kimono-like jackets, knee-length slacks and straw sandals made slow-motion gestures that could have been a dance or a religious ritual. At the very end of the procession came the most important members of the ritual – Buddhist monks resplendent in ceremonial robes.
This strangely slow procession, we were told, was a practice of Shugendo, a religion based on mountain worship, which considers sakura trees to be sacred.
We had arrived in Yoshino the previous day and had been staying at Chikurin-in, a Buddhist temple, which used to provide accommodation to practitioners of Shugendo mountain worship, and is now also operating as a ryokan, or Japanese inn. By chance, Chikurin-in was where the annual sakura procession started on its way up the mountain path the next morning.
Yoshino had been on our list of places to see sakura for many years but it was not until this spring that we were finally able to make the trip.
What makes Yoshino so special to sakura lovers is the sheer number of sakura trees – about 30,000 – that extend across the mountain from its base to near its peak. Legend has it that the first sakura trees were planted in Yoshino more than 1,300 years ago.
In case anyone should question the huge number of sakura trees, here each of the mountain’s four geographical sections — – the lower, middle, upper and inner — have the word ‘senbon,’ or “1,000 trees,” in their name.
So, Shimo Senbon means lower 1,000 trees, Naka Senbon is middle 1,000 trees, Kami Senbon is upper 1,000 trees and Oku Senbon means inner 1,000 trees.
This curious naming system comes from the saying that at each part of the mountain, it is possible to see 1,000 sakura trees in just one glance. Clearly, it would take more than a few glances to see all the 30,000 cherry trees throughout Yoshino.
Unlike most other famous sakura-viewing spots where the blossoms fade in about a week, in Yoshino it is possible to enjoy panoramic views of blooming sakura trees for as long as a month.
This is because the sakura flowers start to bloom at the bottom of the mountain first, followed, much later, by the middle and upper parts of the mountain.
Another feature of Yoshino is that the trees are mostly yamazakura, a wild variety of cherry blossom, just as delicate and ephemeral as the more popular Somei Yoshino sakura, beloved by many in Japan, but very different in size and appearance.
While the flowers of the cultivated Somei Yoshino appear first, before the leaves, giving the trees an overall pale pink hue, the similarly light-colored yamazakura bloom at the same time as the leaves appear, creating a more mottled appearance.
We arrived in Yoshino on Kintetsu Railway’s express train on a still wintry day in April and boarded a bus at the station to Naka Senbon, where Chikurin-in is located.
After dropping our luggage at the hotel, we headed out to one of the best sakura-viewing sites in the area – the Kinpusenji Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In any given year, it is difficult to predict exactly when the sakura in different geographical regions will be in full bloom and even with its long sakura season, Yoshino is no exception.
We were fortunate, however, to arrive just as the Naka Senbon area was enjoying the full glory of its sakura trees.
Just a short walk up the mountain is Yoshimizu Shrine, another World Heritage Site where Hideyoshi Toyotomi, one of three warlords who united Japan, held a sumptuous sakura-viewing party in 1594.
By late afternoon, the temperature had plunged, so we retired to our hotel where a hot bath and lavish dinner were waiting for us. Although the bath was not onsen, or hot spring water, it was a rotenburo, or outside bath, on the deck outside our room.
Chikurin-in is by no means luxurious but it is very atmospheric, with its wooden interior giving it a rustic feel, and the service staff are all friendly and kind. The food, while not of the highest standard, was enjoyable enough after an active day.
There is one feature, however, which makes Chikurin-in very special – its garden.
Known as Gunpoen, the garden is said to have been designed by the famous tea master, Sen-no-Rikyu.
Early the next morning, we hired a taxi to take us further up the mountain to view the sakura from different angles.
After returning to the hotel for a hearty breakfast, we decided to take another stroll in the garden so that we could see the surrounding landscape from the hill at the back of the garden.
We were just in time, as it turned out, for the start of the sakura procession, which blocked off the only road leading to Kinpusenji Temple and made it virtually impossible to do another sakura-viewing tour of the mountain.
Reluctantly, we decided to head to the station and back to Kyoto.
We had seen thousands of cherry trees, cultural heritage sites and “goblins” to boot, but it was still difficult to tear ourselves away from Yoshino, which is still all about relatively unspoiled natural beauty, cultural heritage and simple lifestyle. We left with the feeling that a springtime visit to Yoshino could easily become an annual ritual.
Trains depart for Yoshino from Kintetsu Kyoto Station and Abenobashi Station in Osaka. http://www.yoshinoyama-sakura.jp/english/access.htm
Chikurin-in Gunpoen :
2142 Yoshinoyama, Yoshino-cho, Yoshino-gun, Nara Prefecture
Tel : 0746-32-8081
Fax : 0746-32-8088
Website : http://www.chikurin.co.jp/e/home.htm
Rates : From Y13,650~ depending on the season and type of room.