As mentioned previously in my “Plum Blossoms in Kyoto” post, I’ve promised to write down a list of recommended plum blossom spots here in Kyoto. Since there aren’t exactly a lot of plum blossom spots as compared to the mighty cherry blossoms, I could only list down 3 locations. Unlike my “5 Favourite Photography Spots in Kyoto” post, the rankings here will be in order, with #1 being my top recommendation. So here it goes…
1. Jonangu Shrine
Hands down, this is the best location for me when it comes to plum blossoms. Most of you might not know anything about this place or have never even heard about it before. Well, I don’t blame you. It’s rather underrated and mostly overlooked due to its location and its less-than-famous name in travel guides and travel websites.
Jonangu Shrine is located south of Kyoto station, probably around 30 mins subway ride (approx. 10 mins) and on foot (approx. 20 mins). You can also opt to take a bus from the shrine to Takeda station but hey, it’s nice to take long walks once in a while, right?
Anyway, the site of Jonangu was once said to be the part of a huge imperial palace of retired Emperor Shirakawa, with his mausoleum actually located nearby. Amazing, isn’t it?
Jonangu Shrine now of course, is more popular for its wonderful plum blossom garden that has about 150 weeping plum trees and numerous varieties of camellias. The man-made hill on which these trees are planted create a beautiful and interesting landscape, making it a paradise for nature photographers. It is best to visit around late February or early March to see the plum blossoms.
Take note that it might get slightly crowded, especially during weekends, so it’s always best to go early in the morning.
From JR Kyoto Station’s Shinkansen Hachijo Gate
– 10 minutes by taxi (about ¥1200)
– 15 minutes by R’EX (Kyoto Rakunan Express) bus
(Departs every 20 minutes; Fare: adults ¥300, children ¥100)
From Takeda Station on the Kyoto City Subway Karasuma Line
– 3 minutes by taxi or 15 minutes on foot
From Takeda Station on the Kintetsu Kyoto Line
– 3 minutes by taxi or 15 minutes on foot
Plum Blossom Garden
February 18th – March 22nd
9 am – 4.30 pm (Last entry is at 4pm)
Adult – ¥600
Elementary/Middle School Students – ¥400
2. Kitano Tenmangu Shrine
Much more popular than Jonangu Shrine, Kitano Tenmangu Shrine is said by many visitors to be the best location to look for plum blossoms. This historic shrine boasts a huge plum grove of about 2000 plum tree blossoms. Yes, that’s right. That’s more than 10 times the number of trees in Jonangu Shrine. The garden is quite huge in size too, but so too is the number of visitors. So please be prepared for the huge crowd!
If you’re planning to visit Kitano Tenmangu Shrine for its plum blossoms, I would recommend you to come on the 25th of February. Every year, the shrine holds an event called the ume matsuri, which means “plum festival”. You will be surprised to know that on this day too, there is a Tenjin-san flea market going on. It is an outdoor street market within the shrine’s grounds and outside of it. A number of goods are sold such as handcrafts, kimono fabrics, jewelry, wooden crafts, Buddha statues, traditional Japanese dolls, lucky charms, home décor accessories, and so on.
Anyway, on this day, one of the main events along with viewing the plum blossoms is the special outdoor tea ceremony, called baikasai. In this ceremony, you will be served hot matcha tea and traditional Japanese sweets by several Geiko and Maiko. As you probably have known, Geiko and Maiko are traditional Kyoto idols known worldwide for their grace and beauty. This is therefore a very rare opportunity for visitors to see them up close and maybe exchange a few words!
As with any other locations that I have recommended in my blog, it is always best to go early in the morning, or you can also go late in the afternoon, right before it closes its gates to visitors.
From JR Kyoto Station
– 30 minutes by Kyoto City bus 50 or 101 (¥230)
Early February – late March
10 am – 4 pm
Adult – ¥700 (includes traditional sweet & matcha tea)
Elementary/Middle School Students – ¥350 (includes traditional sweet & matcha tea)
Every 25th of February
10 am – 3 pm
¥1500 (includes traditional sweet & matcha tea)
25th of every month
6 am – 9 pm
¥1500 (includes traditional sweet & matcha tea)
3. Kyoto Imperial Park
This location is for those who prioritises peace and serenity, while at the same also getting to enjoy the plum blossoms.
The 1300 meter long and 700 meter wide park also serves as recreational space for both tourists and residents, featuring attractive, broad gravel paths and lawns. The park is even bigger in size as compared to the other locations in this list, and has a huge area set aside just for tree groves, which include cherry trees, plum trees and even maple trees too! Though each tree in the park had its admirers, there was really only a small scattering of people around, and so you can enjoy the blooms in a more relaxed and pleasant manner.
Admission is free and the palace grounds are open to the public all year round, so you can actually take morning or afternoon strolls here while admiring the blossoms!
From JR Kyoto Station on the Kyoto City Subway Karasuma Line
– 7 minutes by subway (alight at Marutamachi station)
– 10 minutes by subway (alight at Imadegawa station)
Kyoto Imperial Park
No closing hours
Discover the Hidden Gem of the Oki Islands
What comes to mind when you talk about famous islands in Japan? Most likely it will be Matsushima (Miyagi Prefecture) or probably Miyajima (Hiroshima Prefecture) or maybe even Okunoshima (or also known as the “Rabbit Island” in Hiroshima Prefecture). However, have you ever heard about the Oki Islands?
An Archipelago Consisting of 4 Large Islands & 180 Small Islands
Formed by volcanic activity about 5 ~ 6 million years ago, the Oki Islands is an archipelago, located off Shimane Prefecture in Western Japan. It consists of four large islands (Dogo, Nishinoshima, Nakanoshima and Chiburijima) and numerous smaller islands which are mostly uninhabited. Nishinoshima, in particular, is the second largest island of the Oki Islands and is also one of the few populated islands in the region, home to about 3400 people.
Becoming part of the UNESCO Global Geoparks Network (GGN) since 2013, Nishinoshima has been progressively growing and building itself and is slowly making a name for it, as a great tourist attraction. “It is a great place to hike along the picturesque coastline, wander through little fishing villages, sample some fresh seafood and relax at your home-away-from-home accommodation”, said Nicola Jones-Kuchimura, a tourist office staff working at the Nishinoshima Tourism Association. “This is Japan, but not the Japan that most people think of. You can really experience Japan here!” admitted the 38-year-old.
Born and raised in New Zealand, Nicola moved to Shimane Prefecture with her husband and has been living in Nishinoshima Town for 6 years. Fluent in English and Japanese, she has been working really hard in the tourism industry and always has her hands full with promoting the island as a tourist attraction. Also as the only English-speaking staff member in Nishinoshima Town, she is very busy dealing with English-speaking visitors.
However, the decline in population on the island has proved to have a slight impact on the tourism industry. Nicola mentioned that “Sadly, the population of the islands is dropping and so is the number of Japanese tourists, so it may be hard for this place to be a top destination, but I think it will be a remain as a hidden treasure for the lucky few who chose to discover these islands.” Despite the falling number of visitors, she still remains optimistic. “Personally, I don’t want too many visitors as quiet, relaxed island life is what many people come here to enjoy”.
Love for Nature
If you are a nature lover, you will definitely love this island. There are several incredible rock formations which were created slowly over millions of years using the hardest materials. A definitely must-see location of the Oki Islands has got to be the massive sea-eroded cliffs and strangely-shaped rocks of the Kuniga Coast.
This dynamic landscape includes such sites as Tsutenkyo, a large rock arch coloured with dramatic red, white and grey rock which contrasts against the aquamarine sea, and the astonishing Matengai, a sea cliff which stands at a lofty 257m. This spectacular rugged coastline is softened by pastoral vistas of cattle and horses which graze peacefully upon the mountaintops.
No Shortage of Outdoor Activities to Enjoy
Hiking, cycling, sea kayaking, scuba diving, snorkelling, wharf fishing, etc…The list just keeps on going on and on. For all the adventure seekers out there reading this article, this island has got what it takes to offer you all that, no matter how short or long your stay is.
When questioned about the different kinds of activities Nishinoshima has got to offer, Nicola gave me a lengthy reply by pointing out that “Visitors enjoy renting a bicycle or car to explore the island, snorkelling or swimming at the beach or on the coast in the summer, guided kayaking tours, fishing, hiking on the Kuniga Coast on Mt. Takuhi, making jewellery from abalone shell dyeing fabric with red clay from the islands and much more.”
And when asked if there are any new activities to be added to the current list (of things to do in Nishinoshima), she added, “The tourism office is preparing new tours for 2017 – 2018 which include bird-watching, star-gazing and flower-hiking.” So outdoor goers, please take note!
Recommended Times to Visit
“I think this depends on what you want to do, but anytime from April – October is a good time. If you want to swim or snorkel (bring your own gear!) then July – August is the best.” said Nicola. It is probably best to avoid visiting the Oki Islands during the summer break, especially during weekends and the Obon Holiday, which takes place in mid-August. “But it is also the time of year when many Japanese people take their summer break to visit relatives or enjoy summer in Oki, so the ferry can be very crowded…” she added. Winter is also not the best time visit due to strong winds and choppy waters, which may delay or postpone your ferry departure time.
How to Get There
From Itami Airport in Osaka, you can take a (60 minutes) flight through JAL (Japan Airlines) to Oki Airport. From there, take the local bus (10 minutes) to Saigo Port, and then take the ferry to Beppu Port. The ferry ride will take around 30 minutes or 1 hour, depending on whether you take the fast ferry or the normal ferry.
By Train / Bus
If you plan to get there by train, you will have to take the Shinkansen (50 minutes) from Shin-Osaka station and transfer to the Limited Express Yakumo (156 minutes) at Okayama station, all the way to Matsue station. From there, it will be a 45-minute bus / train ride to Shichirui Port or Sakaiminato Port, where you can take either the fast ferry (60 minutes) or normal ferry (120 minutes) to Beppu Port. However, please take note that unlike the bus, the JR trains from Matsue station do not go to Shichirui Port.
The ‘Golden Pavilion’ Covered in White
As mentioned in my previous post, “Snowy Streets of Kyoto“, snow in Kyoto is just not that common, but when it does, the view is breathtaking!
You must also be wondering…
“So what do locals do when it does snow heavily in Kyoto?”
Well, they visit Kinkakuji (also known as, ‘The Golden Pavilion’). I’m not trying to say that ALL or MOST of the locals here visit the temple when it snows. However, that is what I observe, from the multiples times that I had visited the temple. Some of my Japanese friends even told me that they envied me and that I was very lucky to have seen it with my own pair of eyes.
So yes, snow is uncommon in Kyoto, but to see Kinkakuji covered in snow is just a rare but beautiful sight.
If you’re into photography, I can assure you that this will be really worth your time and money to take several shots of it in the snow.
Just be careful, though. There will be huge crowds of locals and tourists rushing to take photographs and selfies at Kinkakuji during winter, especially when it snows heavily.
My best advice?
Be the first to enter the temple when it opens at 9 in the morning, to beat the crowd.
Snow in Kyoto is not that common. But when it does snow, it’s incredibly beautiful. The photos below were taken last winter, on the 15th of January, when it snowed rather heavily for a day or two. I was so delighted that I woke up early, went to Keage Incline (because I just love this place) and walked around the area for a couple of hours by myself, with my Nikon D90.
Walking along the snowy streets of Kyoto was like going down a pathway filled with bliss and peacefulness. Needless to say, this was one of my best days in 2017.
“It’s a long story, bro”
Usually, when I meet new people in school or at work, most of them will ask me the same, exact question: “So Asyraf, how did you start photography as a hobby?”
And every single time that question is asked, I give the same answer with a wide grin, “It’s a long story, bro”.
So yes, I’m going to tell you exactly how I started taking up photography as a hobby.
Started in the Year 2011
It was 6 years ago. I think it was in January, I guess? By then, I was already a Year 1 Ngee Ann Polytechnic student (in Singapore) who was about to complete my 2nd semester. At that point of time, I knew that my cumulative GPA for that year would be considered ‘really good’ (not trying to brag here, but that’s not the point), and hence, I thought that I should join one of the many interesting clubs/societies that the school has. I remember looking through the long lists of clubs and societies, and I was super excited. There were just too many that I was spoilt for choice. If I remember correctly, I think that I singled out 3 different clubs: Bowling, floorball and photography club.
Bowling: Went for their training for a few weeks and then quit due to some reasons with the coach.
Floorball: Went for the trials and I was like “Ohh, this is gonna tire me out after just a few weeks in”. Their training was really intense. And I know, that deep down inside, my lack in stamina was just gonna hit me real hard if I were to train with them every week.
Photography Club: Looked great. Seemed fun and enjoyable. More importantly, I could actually earn some money from some of their photography projects. What’s there to lose?
I discussed my choices with my secondary school buddy who also got into the same polytechnic as me and we decided to join the photography club. But before we joined, we thought that it would be best to purchase our very own DSLR. I remember asking my parents to buy one for me. I told them that I was planning to join the photography club in school with my friend and promised them that I would not quit the club after joining it.
Nikon D90 – My 1st DSLR
I was so overjoyed when they gave me the green light. On that very day, my parents and I went to Courts to get myself a camera. I realised that I didn’t know much about cameras, so one of the staff recommended me the Nikon D90, which became my first ever DSLR, and I’m still using the D90 till today!
However, my friend and I never did attend any of the club meetings or anything. We never did join the club at all. We planned to go for one of the meetings but it just never happened. After we gave up trying to join or even participate in any of the club activities, I find myself not using my D90 at all, until…
Japan Trip 2011
The 1st time that I could test the camera out (especially outdoors) turned out to be the most vital part of my journey as a beginner in photography. And that 1st time happened during my 1st ever visit to Japan in 2011. Yes, it’s the same one that I mentioned in my previous post.
I had a really amazing time, testing out all the camera modes and settings. Ohh let me tell you this, especially if you (yes, you!) are an amateur photographer, the early stages of learning photography involves A LOT OF TRIAL AND ERROR. It’s normal. The more you do it, the better. I’m pretty sure you know the phrase “Learning through mistakes”, right? Yeah, well this phrase applies 100% to photography. It’s only through mistakes that you know how to change which settings to get the best shot. That’s how it is, and there’s no other better alternative to mastering photography.
Anyway, it was also from that trip to Japan that I realised just how much I love nature and landscape photography. Mountains in the backdrop, cherry blossoms with pink bokeh background, city skyline at nighttime…
…it’s all so BEAUTIFUL.
I was so fascinated by nature and landscape photography, and I still am now. So yes, maybe this will explain why you’ll see a lot more of these kinds of photos in this blog 😉