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The Sakura Loved by the Imperial Family

Omuro Sakura
in Ninna-ji Temple

On the west side of Kyoto City lies one of the World Heritage Sites that Kyoto can be truly proud of -Ninna-ji Temple.

Photo courtesy of Ninna-ji Temple

Commissioned by Emperor Koko (830-887), construction of Ninna-ji Temple began in 886. Unfortunately, Emperor Koko passed away in the following year, before the temple's completion. The following Emperor Uda (867-931) succeeded his father's will and this massive temple complex was completed. Originally named ''Nishiyama Gogan-ji Temple,'' the name bestowed by the former Emperor Koko before his death, it was later renamed Ninna-ji, referring to the name of the era at that time.

When Emperor Uda retired, he became a Buddhist priest and built a residence in the precinct of Ninna-ji Temple, naming it Omuro. Since a retired emperor lived here, Ninna-ji Temple is also named ''Omuro Gosho'' or the Omuro Imperial Palace. Following Emperor Uda, the successive head priests of Ninna-ji Temple were all from the imperial family or relatives for nearly 1000 years until the beginning of the Meiji period (1868-1912). Such kind of temples are called Monzeki.

Naturally, Ninna-ji Temple was especially respected and influential among the Buddhist temples in Kyoto as it was where retired imperial members lived. Since the Meiji period, however, this tradition ceased. The temple prospered predominantly from the mid-Heian (794-1185) to Kamakura period (1185-1333), but the terrible Onin Civil War (1467-1477) devastated the city and everything at Ninna-ji Temple burnt down. Later, the Tokugawa Shogunate, contributed to restore the temple complex.

Photo courtesy of Ninna-ji Temple

There are several varieties of sakura trees growing in the grounds of Ninna-ji Temple. First, Somei Yoshino starts and Shidare weeping trees follow, and then, late varieties slowly open their buds. This late kind of sakura are famously known as Omuro Sakura. About 200 lower height trees welcome people on the west side of the Naka-mon Gate. Since the trees grow only to around 2 meters high, people can enjoy pretty sakura blossoms up close.

The combination of cherry blossoms and the symbolic five-style pagoda (about 36 meters tall; Important Cultural Property) is a must-see view. The pagoda was constructed in 1644 under the commission of the Tokugawa Shogunate. The interior enshrines a statue of Dainichi Nyorai and other Buddhas.

Such splendid sakura beauty in the elegant imperial palace ambience is absolutely a ''Kyoto'' scene. A number of famous poets, writers and literati were fascinated by the sakura of Ninna-ji Temple and praised them in their works.

© Moritz Marutschke

At Ninna-ji Temple,
Cloud of sakura appears
from the ground
- Shundei

Ninna-ji Temple: Open: 9:00-17:00; 500 yen each to enter the Goten Palace building and the Reihokan Museum; www.ninnaji.jp *During the Sakura Festival period, an admission fee to enter the temple grounds will be charged while it is free of charge at other times.

Interview with Soki Shimamoto, the owner of Flower House Omuro
Meet the mystery
of Omuro Sakura

As its name signifies, Omuro flower shop has been settled right in front of the main gate of Ninna-ji Temple for over 60 years. Soki Shimamoto, the fourth-generation owner of Omuro shares its history, his memories, and some secrets about the sakura in Omuro Ninnaji Temple.

KVG: What is special about Omuro Sakura?

Shimamoto: Ninna-ji Temple is well known for its pretty Omuro Sakura cherry blossoms in spring. The cherry trees in Ninna-ji Temple start to bloom the latest in Kyoto City, so tourists who couldn't arrive early enough to capture what's considered the best time for sakura can still enjoy beautiful ones here.

Omuro Sakura is not the name of a specific variety of cherry tree. Cherry trees that grow in this area around Ninna-ji Temple are called ''Omuro Sakura'' collectively, while actually we have several different varieties of cherry. About 90 percent of the trees at Ninna-ji Temple are the Ariake Sakura species.

It is very mysterious but even though the variety of cherry trees are different, all trees stop growing at around 2 meters high. The reason is still unknown, but there are a few theories. The most common one is that the soil must has a particular characteristic which doesn't allow the trees to grow bigger.

The other claims that people in olden times somehow invented a low-height cherry tree out of respect for the emperor; Ninna-ji Temple is a Monzeki (a temple whose head priest came from among the imperial family members) and so cherry trees were made to grow lower so that the successive head priest with their imperial lineage didn't have to look up to enjoy sakura.

''Kyo-Sakura'' Bonsai series (4,900 yen-13,000 yen): Displayed and sold at Flower House Omuro, on their website and Ninnaji Temple from the end of March through April.

KVG: Do you have any special memories from your childhood?

Shimamoto: I have three brothers and Ninnaji Temple was our playground when we were young. I went to a university nearby, so Ninna-ji Temple and this neighborhood is my ''home'', really. When I was young, I didn't understand that the Ninna-ji is such an important temple and we did all kinds of things there, including some little naughty things (laugh)... As I grew older, I found out how precious Ninna-ji is in Japanese history and that it actually is one of World Heritage sites in Kyoto. Wow, my playground was a World Heritage…!

Actually, Ninna-ji Temple has more to offer other than Omuro Sakura. I recommend to visit the temple around the 20th of April which is the time when the Mitsuba Tsutsuji azalea and green maple leaves are very charming. The pale pink of cherry blossom and the green of maple leaves create a wonderful match.

My recommendation is to visit Ninna-ji Temple in the morning (temple door opens at 9:00), and later, walk up or take a taxi to the Haradanien Garden. Haradani-en is a private property whose large compound will be filled with about 100 weeping cherry trees. It might be very crowded too, however, believe me, even viewing the garden from outside is worth it. From Haradani-en, continue walking to Kinkaku-ji Temple. You can reverse the route to take you from Kinkaku-ji Temple to Ninna-ji Temple, as well.

Soki Shimamoto, the 4th-generation owner of Flower House Omuro, presents innovative items and ideas to the world.

KVG: What do you think attracts people to sakura?

Shimamoto: First of all, it's because sakura is simply beautiful. It attracts all people, regardless of whether they are Japanese or non-Japanese. However, I feel that the popularity of sakura among foreigners is growing year by year.

My father invented Sakura Bonsai about 20 years ago. I have added other sakura species to the Bonsai series and now our Mini Kobachi (small pot) series covers almost all sakura species that one can find at Kyoto's major tourist sites.

The difficult part of Bonsai is that the many people can't bring a plant back into their countries due to quarantine regulations. So, I came up with the idea of ''Bonsai Seed Set.'' At present, we have three kinds of seed sets: maple, cherry and pine tree. It takes several years to grow a tree from a seed, but I do believe it give us a special feeling to see the plant grow day by day under our care.

Adequate sunlight and water are the two major keys to growing sakura. Sakura will not start blooming unless it experiences temperatures of under 8 degrees for approx. 30 days. Our products all have detailed English guidance, so it should not be that difficult to try.

KVG: What is your goal as a flower shop?

Shimamoto: We have just finished renovating our shop this spring. Now our new shop is not only a flower shop but also has a cafe space that anybody can enjoy. I am planning some workshops at which both Japanese and non-Japanese people can learn together about Japanese culture.

For example, my wife is a sommelier, so we can provide a workshop to learn how to savor Kyoto's local sake with sake cups made in Kyoto. I hope I can connect many people with Kyoto's special items, interests and spirit. Please come and visit our shop and cafe and enjoy Omuro Sakura and Japanese culture with us.

Flower House Omuro: Open: 9:00-17:00; kyoto-omuro.jp

Must-visit Cherry Blossom Viewing Spots in Kyoto Day & Night
Enjoy the beautiful scenery of cherry trees in Kyoto and illuminated scenes featuring a spring of marvelous scents!

Riverside of Kamogawa
Start walking from anywhere you feel like between Gojo and Kitayama beside the river. Enjoy a pleasant spring walk with awesome views along the Kamo River.

Nakaragi-no-Michi Path
Splendid deep pink cherry blossom tunnel along the upper stream of Kamo River (on the west side of Kyoto Botanical Garden).

The Path of Philosophy
Stretching two kilometers along the canal from Ginkaku-ji Temple to Eikan-do Temple and Nanzen-ji Temple, this world-famous walking route is lined with cherry trees.

Heian Shrine & Okazaki Canal
About 300 weeping cherry trees bloom inside the stunning, Chinese-style gardens of this famous shrine; Open: 8:30-17:00; 600 yen (to enter the Shin-en Garden); www.heianjingu.or.jp; Also, the nearby Okazaki Canal which runs along the southern part of the shrine has a beautiful cherry blossom view and fun boat ride.

Keage Incline
The old Incline route which connected Kyoto and Lake Biwa creates a dream-like beautiful cherry tunnel along the old railway tracks from the end of March to early April.

Nakanoshima Park Area
Hundreds of trees bloom along the river and in the many other green areas of this district. The trees are lit up from late March to early April (sunset-22:00).

Maruyama Park
There are about 850 trees in this park. The park's magnificent central shidare-zakura (weeping cherry tree) is specially lit up from sunset to 24:00 during the height of the season.

Nijo Castle
UNESCO World Heritage. There are a number of cherry trees in the grounds of this magnificent historical setting to view either during the day or at night; 8:45-17:00; 600 yen; Lit-up until April 15 (18:00-21:00; 600 yen); www2.city.kyoto.lg.jp/bunshi/nijojo

Hirano Shrine
This shrine has about 500 trees with platforms for daytime and night-time viewing. Many stalls for eating and drinking will be open; 9:00-22:00; Lit-up until mid-April; www.hiranojinja.com

To-ji Temple
One of Kyoto's UNESCO World Heritage sites; With the five-story pagoda as a backdrop, the double flower weeping cherry tree will display its gorgeous appearance; 9:00-16:30; 500 yen; Litup until April 15; (18:30-21:30; 500 yen); www.toji.or.jp

Along the Shirakawa Stream and Takasegawa Canal
The most beautiful sections are lined with shops and restaurants that are lit-up at night.

Cherry Blossom Viewing Parties

April 1-15
Heian Shrine

Tea ceremonies will be held in the exquisite garden teahouse; 600 yen to enter (additional 800 yen for tea); 9:00-16:00; www.heianjingu.or.jp

April 1-22
Daigo-ji Temple

The gorgeous procession, Taiko Hanami Gyoretsu (April 8) recreates the atmosphere of the famous large cherry viewing party Hideyoshi Toyotomi used to hold on this site in the late 16th century; The procession starts at 13:00; Admission free; Subway Tozai Line, Daigo Stn.; www.daigoji.or.jp

April 8-22
Kurama Temple

Located on Mount Kurama, this temple has been praised for its beautiful mountain cherry blossoms since the Heian period (794-1185); 300 yen; 9:00-16:30; www.kuramadera.or.jp

April 9
Nijo Castle

A special tea ceremony will be held in the Seiryu-en Garden of the castle, which is usually closed to the public; Two kinds of tea and a light meal will be offered; 3,500 yen (includes a gift plate); 10:00-15:00; www2.city.kyoto.lg.jp/bunshi/nijojo

Until April 20
Hirano Shrine

In this popular cherry blossom viewing spot, people dress in traditional costumes and parade through the precinct (April 10); A night time lightup is also held until 20th; www.hiranojinja.com