The common way to experience the sights of Nara would be to wander about to all of the historical buildings and sculptures to relive the prosperous past of the former capital or to frolic around with the deer that can be found all around town. While these are great activities to partake in, there are an abundance of spots to give visitors a deeper culturally Japanese experience in the Nara area.
For example, a 40 to 50-minute bus trip north from Nara city leads to Yagyu no Sato (the Village of Yagyu), which is known as the home of the famous swordsmen of Japan – the Yagyu clan. Nara is also known as the birthplace of Japanese rice wine, a liquor that happens to be gaining traction around the world.
Kyoto, like Nara, was also a prosperous former capital of Japan and experiences an almost unchanging popularity as a tourist destination. The city of Nara is often seen to take second billing to Kyoto due to its close location and similarities. However, while tourists flock to Kyoto in droves, Nara offers a much calmer cultural experience to be had in Japan, which is why it has its own cult following.
For a selection of cultural experiences that can be had as you soak up the atmosphere the old capital and former heart of Japan has to offer, keep on reading!
Stroll around and breathe in the past glory of the great Yagyu Clan swordsmen
Samurai often come to minds of many people when the subject of Japanese culture is brought up. The Yagyu Clan were known as the samurai amongst samurai back in their heyday and their style of swordsmanship, the Yagyu Shinkage-ryu still exists to this day as a prominent Japanese style of sword fighting. They left their roots in this mountain village north of Nara city proper which still features the family temples where the Yagyu Clan lay resting, and the remains of the house where the minister for the clan lived. These, and many other sites in the area, ooze with stories of the past waiting to be embraced by visitors who happen to stop by.
Zen meditation and sword-fighting experiences can be had in Houtoku-ji Temple, the family temple for generations of the Yagyu Clan. Samurai fanatics are sure to jump at the chance to swing a sword in the style of the Yagyu Shinkage-ryu.
Deep inside the Amano-iwatate Shrine, a 10-minute walk from Houtoku-ji Temple, lies a large rectangular stone standing at about 7 metres tall and split vertically into two. This was said to be the training grounds for the Yagyu Clan with legend claiming that the almost superhuman slicing capabilities of Sekishusai Yagyu the swordsman cut through this rock after mistaking it for tengu (a long-nosed Japanese goblin).
Walking a further 15 minutes on the main road of Yagyu will lead to the former residence of the Yagyu minister. It is definitely worth a visit for a glimpse into what it was like to live as part of the clan during their time of prosperity. This suggested trail is approximately five kilometres long and will take a lazy hour and a half to stroll around.
There are regular tours available to visit the remnants of the Yagyu Clan, or visitors are also welcome to head on over without a guide using public transport. Visit the tourist information centre near the JR Nara station for more information on visiting the area.
Have a geisha and maiko experience in the former geisha quarter of Gariin
Located in the northern district of Nara city, Gariin was once known as a prosperous geisha quarter. Now Tsuruya, owned by the geisha Kikuno, is the only remaining establishment offering such experiences. Kikuno runs the Tsuruya tea house (URL: http://tsuruya.kikuno.net/) and has also started an initiative to bring the geisha quarters back to Gariin. Her aim is to spread the beauty of the geisha, and breathe life into the hearts of others through old Japanese hospitality as well as train a new generation of geisha and maiko with her efforts not only limited to the confines of Nara prefecture.
Kikuno’s Tsuruya offers three different types of lunches to choose from and is popular for allowing visitors to casually visit a tea house that would normally require more formalities. When dinner rolls around, the tea house features course menus starting at a reasonable 5,000 yen with the option of summoning a geisha or maiko. Even local Japanese people find it difficult to casually step foot into tea houses like these, and the fact that all are welcome makes it all the better. Drop by Tsuruya for a fascinating taste of Japanese culture.
Try your hand at cooking Japanese cuisine
With the popularity of Japanese cuisine growing all around the world, the desire to also learn how to cook these dishes also appears to be on the rise. To meet these demands, the NARAIgoto EENA HOUSE (URL: http://www.naraigoto.org/), which offers various cultural experiences such as shodo (calligraphy) and tea ceremonies, has put together a “Japanese home-style cooking” program.
Visitors from overseas are taught how to cook different Japanese home-style dishes in this program.
Cooking lessons take place for two hours starting at 5pm and participants are able to enjoy the meals they have cooked themselves afterwards. Those who are interested in other various cultural experiences during their visits to Nara are encouraged to contact the centre for more information.
Nara – the birthplace of Japanese rice wine, Sake
It is a little-known fact that Nara is said to be the birthplace of the Japanese rice wine brewing techniques established in the mid-15th century. These techniques form the basis for how rice wines are brewed today. As such, Nara is the perfect place to wander about tasting the different rice wines available.
Nara Izumi Yusai (URL: http://www.naraizumi.jp/) is a great place to taste and enjoy Japanese rice wine in Nara. This shop has an impressive line up of over 120 different rice wines from 29 different brewers, and all of these can be tasted on the premises before purchase. Tastings start at a reasonable 200 yen per glass and the establishment also offers set menus for hardcore Japanese rice wine lovers. This store is found in an area of Nara filled with traditional buildings and is definitely worth dropping by on a stroll around the area.
【Written by Kazuya Baba – Australia based writer】