Mt. Yoshino (吉野山）
There’s no doubt about it. Mt. Yoshino is the most famous place in Japan for Yamazakura (mountain cherry blossoms), so expect huge crowds every day of the week, rain or shine, during the first few weeks of April. The beauty is well worth the elbow jostling though.
The hike: From the station, follow the crowds to the cable car station. This must be the short cable car in the world, as I swear you only gain about 50 meters of altitude, so I don’t recommend wasting your money. Instead, take the easy, paved path that switches back up to the main ridge (or take a taxi if you’re feeling lazy). Now, this hike is almost entirely on a paved road. I know it doesn’t sound much like hiking, but it really is beautiful. I only wish they would ban vehicular traffic! Anyway, turn left once you hit the main road, and go past all the souvenir stalls until reaching the first set of temples. The entire mountain is one big World Heritage site, and there’s so much to see. You have a lot of choices, depending on what you’re in the mood for. Personally, I’d recommend walking along the road as far as it will take you – to a place called Kinpu Shrine (金峰神社). From this shrine, there’s a proper hiking trail that starts to the right. At first it looks just like a regular forest road, but soon turns into a quiet scenic mountain path. This is what I call the “real” Yoshino, because hardly any people make it up this far. It’s also the start of the long Omine Pilgrimage route, and if you keep going for about 25km or so, you’ll reach Sanjogatake (山上ケ岳). Your goal on this hike is to make it to Aonegamine (青根ケ峰), the highest point of Mt. Yoshino. It’ll take about 2-1/2 to 3 hours from the train station to reach this point. Although there’s no view from the top, it is a refreshingly quiet place to contemplate life. There are also some “hidden” cherry blossoms on the other side of the ridge which are quite nice. The trail loops around back to Kimpu Shrine. and the trails are really well marked in English & Japanese. After completing the loop, head back down to reality and the crowds. The cherry blossoms are wonderful, but I must warn you that these are special types of trees which form leaves before the flowers! In addition, because of the altitude change, the blossoms will be at varying stages. If the blossoms have finished at the bottom of the mountain, then they’re probably just beginning at the top (and vice versa).
When to go: This hike can be done year round, but it’s most popular (and beautiful) during the cherry blossom season of early to mid April.
Access: From Abenobashi station (in Tennoji), take either a Limited Express or Express train on the Kintetsu line to Yoshino station (吉野). The limited express train costs more, but saves about a half an hour of train time. This train departs twice an hour, at 10 past and 40 past. The Express train is cheaper but takes about 90 minutes or so. It also departs twice an hour, but at 20 past and 50 past. Click here for a complete schedule.
Level of difficulty: 2 out of 5 (elevation change ~400m)