If you find yourself in Kyoto during cherry blossom season, you will want to make time to visit Nijo castle for their special night illumination. While there are indeed many beautiful viewing locations around Kyoto, and many other great things to see, this is event is a special cherry blossom festival that will make you feel as if you’ve traveled into a storybook world. As with many of our favorite experiences, we stumbled upon this unique experience entirely by chance.
We arrived by train in Kyoto from our lovely stay in Arima Onsen. It was too late to venture into the heart of Kyoto sightseeing, but our ryokan was near Nijo castle, so we decided to see if we could make it before it closed. Sadly, when Jared and I visited Kyoto in 2007, on our only day to tour Nijo castle, it was closed. We did enjoy walking the exterior which is a nice stroll along the moat. This night, the sun was getting low, but we took our chances.
A Surprising Night at Nijo Castle
Our on-the-fly planning was rewarded in the most spectacular way. As we approached, we noticed the line was long and wrapped from the entrance around one of the sides. We were nervous because we thought we would not be able to get in before 5:00 which we thought was the closing time. Lucky for us, during sakura season they light up the 400 cherry trees inside the castle walls in a special cherry blossom festival evening viewing.
We had seen many beautiful blossoms the day before in Arima, and viewing the blossoms was the primary consideration for the timing of our trip. But we did not expect to view the blossoms at night! The castle itself is a great tourist destination with a rich history from it’s beginning in the Edo period of 1603, and is a UNESCO world heritage site. Some of the areas inside the grounds were closed since it was outside the normal tour time, but the other castle grounds are great to walk around on their own. We were grateful that we had entered with some amount of daylight left so we could see the architecture and take a few photos. The cherry blossom festival had a vibrant atmosphere with women dressed in traditional kimono and men in their equivalent; and flowing along with the throngs of blossom enthusiasts brought such a great energy to the castle.
Magic Blossoms in the Air
As the night descended, we came to a large building overlooking a pond, on which they projected an animated story about a geisha, emperor and a dragon. The story and graphics were captivating, sometimes bunches of petals would blow across the screen and seem to fade right into the actual trees. Bringing together technology, history and nature felt like an immersion in Japanese culture.
Farther down the path we walked into the most magical part of the evening. Lined along the path and extending in to the garden areas, were many, many blooming trees. Each tree was lit with lights that changed from a pink to blue, to purple tint. The changing of the colors seemed to animate the blossoms and bring each tree to life. The colors of the light brought a mystical quality that inspired me to whisper snippets of fantasy stories into Kai and Aria’s ear. “Deep in the magic cherry forest, there was a white hare which no one had glimpsed in 100 years. The emperor deemed that the person to capture this hare would be given a castle of their own…”
As a family, the night felt like an experience that was more than just sightseeing. They gave us another world to imagine as we watched the delicate cherry blossoms fall to the ground like snow, illuminated by an ethereal light. We ended our tour full of excitement and then went on a long walk in search of tasty ramen.