For about 30 days during the months of March and April, Kyoto—Japan's former capital city and its current cultural and historical hub—blushes pastel pink for miles as its most famous botanical, the cherry tree, comes into bloom. Cherry blossoms (known as sakura in Japanese) herald the first sign of spring, and tourists from around the world descend on the cozy city to experience nature's stunning transition.
But while parks, shrines and temples flooded with cascading pink and white cherry trees serve as popular sites for flower festivals, one of the best ways to experience sakura is by eating it. And during sakura season, one will find the blossom woven into just about everything in Kyoto, a city where hyper-seasonal, local ingredient-driven cuisine outshines the food you'll find even in Tokyo.
Snack on Sakura Pickles in Nishiki Market
Stroll through Nishiki Market—a narrow, densely packed lane lined with more than 100 shops and discover various vendors proffering everything from strawberry-stuffed mochi to grilled fish on a stick. During spring, drop by Masugo, a popular local pickle maker that's been in business since 1930 and has earned a following for its seasonal conserves. Here, one can not only pick up last year's cherry blossoms preserved in salt and plum vinegar, but foot-long daikon radish soured in a sakura-laced brine.
Sample Wagashi in a Traditional Tea Ceremony
Though America's matcha trend has just recently taken off, the beverage carries ancient roots that date back to traditional Japanese tea ceremonies, which originated in Kyoto around the 16th century. Head over to Hoshinoya, one of the city's most stunning ryokan-inspired hotels, where you can partake in a traditional outdoor tea ceremony overlooking the emerald-green Katsura River. Your bowl of matcha whisked into a froth is served alongside wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets) from one of Kyoto's oldest confectioners, Kameya Yoshinaga. The shop has been producing desserts since 1803, sourcing spring water from a nearby well for wagashi flavored with white bean and mountain sprouts, red bean and Okinawa black sugar, and pickled sakura blossom with red bean.
Take Part in a Sakura-Focused Kaiseki Dinner
Thanks to small dining rooms and a culture of introduction-only dining, it can be challenging to book many of Japan's top restaurants, and decade-old Ogata, named after owner Toshiro Ogata, is no exception. But because of its ethos centered on simplicity and the celebration of top-grade ingredients, Ogata is the kaiseki haunt many deem the city's best. During sakura season, Ogata-san weaves cherry blossoms into both savory and sweet courses: While in the past he's served steamed fish anointed with sakura mochi, this year he's finishing his meal with a dessert titled Night Cherry Blossom—wagashi made from sweetened red bean mixed with gelatin that's flecked with domyoji (broken grains of glutinous rice) and served over a sakura leaf.
Try Cherry Blossom Shave Ice & Sake
Aside from serving as home turf to kaiseki, Kyoto is also ground zero for kakigōri, Japan's beloved shave ice dessert. While it can be challenging to find sakura-flavored kakigōri outside warmer summer months, Ozu, the café offshoot of Tatsuuma-Honke Brewing Company, a nearly 400-year-old sake brewery, is serving its own version. Dusted with a pastel-pink topping made from dried blossoms and leaves, Ozu's kakigōri comes piled mountain-high, layered with hōjicha (roast green tea), sakura jelly, amazake (a sweet fermented rice drink) and ice cream flavored with sakekasu (the grains left over from sake production). Accompany it with a bottle of sake that's garnished with a single sakura flower, which subtly imbues its fragrance into the drink.
Kat Odell, a freelance food and travel writer, is the author of Day Drinking. Follow her on Instagram at @kat_odell.
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