Magical mystery discoveries in Nara

Emperor Jimmu, the first Emperor of Japan, is quoted in the the Kojiki (“Record of Ancient Matters”) as exclaiming his admiration for this area when invading, saying “What a beautiful piece of land!” While standing on the edge of a cliff of Odaigahara Plateau, I too was moved to shout out: “This is heaven right here on earth!”

Nigatsu-do, Todai-ji Water-drawing ceremony

When it was founded in the 8th century, Todai-ji was the nation’s largest Buddhist center. The magnificent Great Buddha statue was waiting for me at the famous Daibustuden in Todai-ji, which remains a vast site even today. I was particularly moved by the Shuni-e (water-drawing ceremony) held annually on March 12th at Nigatsu-do. The water-drawing ceremony is a mysterious and majestic fire festival. Monks carry large pine torches and run along the Nigatsu-do balcony. Sparks pour down on the assembled crowds as the torches strike the handrails. These sparks signify blessings. This water-drawing ceremony conceals some of Japan’s profound mysteries, with many intriguing aspects, such as legends involving ghosts and the flowing of holy water all the way from a distant temple close to the Sea of Japan during preparations for the ceremony. The climax of this water-drawing ceremony marks the beginning of the Japanese springtime.

Access: Take the City Tour Bus from JR Yamatoji Line/Kintetsu Nara Line “Nara Station”, get off at “Daibutsuden Kasuga Taisha-mae” and walk 5 minutes; or walk approximately 20 minutes from Kintetsu Nara Station

Jurin-in Temple Jizo-Bosatsu (Jizo Bodhisattva)

There are many wonderful temples located within the relatively small confines of Nara City. At Jurin-in temple, I encountered a stone image of Jizo-Bosatsu with a very mild facial expression. Jizo-Bosatsu is popular as a guardian deity for children. I was particularly impressed by the offerings of a box filled with sand dedicated to victims of the tsunami in Japan’s Tohoku region.

Access: From JR Nara Station, take the Nara Kotsu City Tour Bus on the inner route and get off at Tanaka-cho, then walk northeast for 3 minutes
From Kintetsu Nara Station, take the Nara Kotsu Bus in the direction of Tenri and get off at Fukuchi-in, then walk southwest for 3 minutes

Yagyu Ittoseki

The martial arts village of Yagyu in the northeast of Nara is known from “Yagyu Shinkage Ryu”, which was diligently practiced by famous samurai such as Yagyu Jubei with the aim of becoming strong. Today, this is a rural area rich with nature, so I was genuinely surprised to find the Yagyu no Ittoseki stone here. Legend has it that the mysterious slash in this stone, which stands some 7 meters tall, indicates the results of samurai battles.

Access: From JR/Kintetsu Nara Station, take the Nara Kotsu Bus bound for “Yagyu/Ojinakamura” (journey lasts approximately 50 minutes)

Yakushiji Temple Genjosanzo-e Taisai Festival

Genjo Sanzo is a protagonist of the famous Chinese classical novel entitled “Journey to the West”. This is a tale of Genjo Sanzo’s journey from China to India in order obtain sacred texts, in which he battles with monsters with help from Songoku, the ghost of his monkey servant. Some 1,300 years ago, various cultures came into Nara via the Silk Road. Processions of masked people can be seen at the Genjosanzo-e Taisai Festival, which is held at Yakushiji Temple on May 5th every year, reminding me of ancient times in which Nara was connected via the Silk Road all the way to Europe.

Access: From Kintetsu Yamatosaidaiji Station, take the local train bound for Tenri or Kashiharajingu-mae, and get off at Nishinokyo Station. Yakushiji Temple is immediately next to the station.

Koriyama Tomi Shrine

I have a great interest in food in ritual. I had heard about a ceremony held on February 1st to predict results for the coming year’s harvest. I am very interested in these kinds of events, so I headed out to the old, small Tomi Shrine, which is about a 2km walk westward from Kintetsu Nishinokyo Station, which is next to the famous Yakushiji Temple. The Kayu-uranai event predicts the year-round performance of crops with lightly cooked kayu, a thin rice porridge. Apparently, crops can be forecast by looking at the quantity of rice grains and red beans cooked in bundles of bamboo sticks.

Tawaramoto Karako-Kagi Site

I visited the Karako-Kagi Site at Tawaramoto in the middle of the Nara Basin. The site is encircled by a moat, and a multistoried structure has been restored within the ruins. Since the founding in the third century of Yamato, the first Japanese nation state, this site has been a powerful cultural center. The scenery around the lookout tower against the backdrop of a beautiful sunset made me feel as though I had traveled back to ancient times.

Access: Take the Kintetsu Kashihara Line and get off at Tawaramoto Station. Tawaramoto is 2km eastward from the station.

Omiwa Shrine Haru no Omiwa-sai Festival

Omiwa Shrine, at the foot of Mt. Miwa, is a famous example of mysterious Nara. The god of this shrine is Onamuchi-no-kami, who is an active god of Izumo in Japanese myths, while Mt. Miwa itself is an object of worship. Onamuchi-no-kami apparently has the body of a snake. The duck photographed at the time of the Haru no Omiwa-sai Festival was perhaps bringing a snake’s favorite food as a gift to offer to the Onamuchi-no-kami. It is a great mystery to me how the god of Izumo, so far away, is enshrined at Mt. Miwa in the middle of Nara.

Access: Take the Kintetsu Osaka Line to Yamato-Yagi Station and change to the JR Sakurai Line. Change at JR Sakurai Station (after a journey of 7 minutes) until you get to JR Miwa Station, then get off and walk for 5 minutes.

Yamazoe village Chouju Rock and Nabekura Valley

The Yamazoe area in the eastern part of the Nara Basin is close to the Iga area, which is famous as a ninja base. Although Yamazoe is difficult to access, it is a place where the old Nara remains alive. The symbol of Yamazoe village is the huge spherical Chouju Rock, which is 7 meters wide and is thought to weigh 600 tons. Curiously, I was quite surprised to find that this rock has a “cross belt” thought to represent the equator, and meridians.
The angular black rocks in Nabekura Valley in Yamazoe village are said to signify the galaxy. Mysteriously, these rocks have names taken from stars in the galaxy. It seems that this is also a reflection of the ancient Taoist culture. Further into the deep forest, one can find iwakura, rocks in which Japan’s gods are said to reside. Straw ropes decorated with paper folded into zig-zag shapes, called shimenawa, indicate the sacred nature of the place.

Access: Take the bus from Kintetsu Tenri Station bound for the Yamazoe National Highway, and get off at the Yamazoe National Highway (journey lasts approximately 60 minutes)

Asuka village Kameishi

Asuka is the part of Nara where culture of Buddhism, etc. first entered the region. Although Asuka is now an idyllic countryside spot, there are many mysterious stones to be found here including the saruishi (monkey stone), the so-called “devil’s chopping board”, kameishi (tortoise stone), nimeniseki (two faced stone), and ishibutai (stone stage). I suddenly stumbled upon the kameishi in the middle of a quiet residential area. I was enchanted by the turtle face of this enormous 10 ton stone, and I spent some time there. According to legend, the kameishi used to face north but then turned to an eastward direction and now faces the southwest. Legend says that if it ever turns due west toward the Taima region, the whole Nara Basin will turn into a sea of mud. It seems this stone does have a spirit, after all…

Asuka Village Kaya Forest and Tsunakakeshinji

Heading from Asuka’s famous Ishibutai Kofun site upstream along the Asuka River, I arrive at the Kaya-no Mori of Oku-Asuka. The beautiful rice terraces of Oku-Asuka are reminiscent of ancient Japan. I came to see the ancient mystery that is “Tsunakakeshinji”. Every year, on January 11th, and another nearby day, two rituals are held in which an ozuna rope is hung at the entrance of Inabuchi at the top of Asuka River, and a mezuna rope is hung at the entrance of the village, Kaya-no Mori. These sacred straw ropes symbolize men and women respectively, and the fact that neither ground nor seeds alone can produce crops. This made me think about the importance of people in this dynamic.

Access: From Osaka, take the train from Kintetsu Abenobashi Station bound for Yoshino and get off at Asuka Station (journey lasts 45 minutes)
From Kyoto, take the train from Kintetsu Kyoto Station bound for Kashiharajingu-mae, change at Kashiharajingu-mae to the Yoshino Line bound for Yoshino, and get off at Asuka Station (journey lasts approximately 1 hour)

Yoshino Saigyo-an

Saigyo was one of Japan’s renowned poets of the 12th century. He spent his life traveling and loved cherry trees, living in a retreat deep in the mountains of Yoshino, the most famous place for cherry trees in the whole of Japan. Nearby there was also a spring called Kokeshimizu, and the abundant blooming cherry trees blooming deep in these mountains was a beautiful sight. Saigyo followed the ascetic way of life befitting a sage of the Orient by living in seclusion deep in the mountains. Visiting Saigyo-an in the midst of a storm, I was able to get a sense of how Saigyo might have felt.

Access: From Osaka, take the train from Kintetsu Abenobashi to Yoshino (journey by limited express lasts approximately 1 hour 20 minutes)
From Kyoto, take the train from Kintetsu Kyoto→Kashiharajingu-mae→Yoshino (journey by limited express lasts approximately 1 hour 40 minutes)

Nara has a certain soul-shaking element that cannot be found in the culturally refined Kyoto – a transcendental feeling, perhaps. The unique spirit of the land known as Nara seems to permeate its entire history, from the primitive BC era through the period in which the Yamato nation-state was formed from the 3rd century, the 7th century period in which Heijo-kyo was designed with reference to the Chinese capital of Chang’an, and right down to today. Through this trip I have discovered Nara to be a place where people can connect with the spirit of natural elements such as rocks, land, water, fire, plants and animals. I think this has given me a chance to reconnect with something that has perhaps been lost by modern people: the power of the earth. Nara is heavenly. Thank you, Nara!

“NARA” in 2 volumes (to be published in March 2013)

・Photograph collection: Ancient Echoes (approx. 190 pages in full color)
・Introduction of local craft industries with a text compilation (approx. 130 pages in full color)

To be distributed free of charge from Nara Prefecture to libraries in many countries.
We will consider requests from overseas public organizations and travel businesses, etc. Representatives should contact the publisher at the following address, clearly stating corporation name, contact address (e-mail address), website, purpose of use, and so on.


22 Imamikado-cho NARA, 630-8374 JAPAN

FAX: 0742-27-1890