Explore the cradle of Japanese civilisation and Buddhist traditions in the Nara and Wakayama prefectures, just a short way from Osaka and Kyoto.
Sacred peaks guarded by dragon deities, mountain trails walked by pilgrims for centuries, the ancient tombs of emperors and empresses – visiting Nara and Wakayama feels like stepping back into the Japan of historical scrolls and time-worn wood carvings.
The Kansai region of today – comprising the prefectures of Kyoto, Osaka, Shiga, Hyogo, Nara and Wakayama – is well served by trains, buses and ropeways, making it just as easy to enjoy a long weekend here as a weeks-long pilgrimage.
Famed for their ornate shrines and austere temples, the cities of Kyoto and Nara draw visitors from around the world. But one of Kansai’s most important and beautiful religious sites actually lies in Sakurai City, just south of Nara, where you’ll find plenty of spots to enjoy the region’s rich cultural – and culinary – traditions. Start by getting a JR-line train to Miwa station, about 30 minutes from Nara station.
Ohmiwa-jinja Shrine, near Miwa station, is believed to be Japan’s oldest shrine. Rising behind the elegant skyline is sacred Mount Miwa; wooded and mysterious, it is said to be the home of Omononushi-no-okami, one of the mythological creators of Japan. Since the mountain is located within the sacred area of the Ohmiwa-jinja Shrine, no one is allowed to harm the plants on the peak, so if you want to follow the path up the mountain, you’ll need to fill in a form at the shrine office first and be accompanied by a Japanese speaker. After all, you’ve essentially stepped into a sacred sanctuary.
Omononushi-no-okami is (among many things) the god of sake brewing, so it’s recommended to follow your shrine visit with a tour and tasting at a local sake brewery. Imanishi Sake Brewery, on the approach to Ohmiwa-jinja Shrine, has been in operation for more than 360 years. They also run Cafe Miwaza near the station; pick up lunch here, or try ice cream made with Japanese sake, before heading to your next destination.
From Miwa, walk 25 minutes, or take a train, to Sakurai station, changing to the Kintetsu line for Murouguchi-Ono. From here, it’s just a short bus ride to Murouji Temple, a deeply atmospheric temple that blends into the dense forest surrounding it. Murouji Temple is also known as Nyonin Koya, or Koyasan for women. The temples of nearby Koyasan were completely off limits to women until the late 19th century; this is because the Murouji temple, which is part of the same sect, has accepted female worshippers for many years.
The temple was established in the seventh century, but Mount Murou was a sacred place, linked to the dragon god Zennyo Ryuo, long before. Its precinct – which include Japan’s second-oldest five-storied pagoda and smallest outdoor structure, dating back to the ninth century – is quite spread out, leading you on a meditative walk through the ancient forest.
From Murouguchi-Ono take a Kintetsu-line train to Yaginishiguchi station for a stop at this sake brewery. Set in a beautiful historic building in Imai-cho, in Kashihara, it’s a 10-minute walk from the station, on a picturesque street lined with 18th-century merchant houses, distinguished by their white walls and dark wood facades. Book your visit in advance, and not only will you be treated to a tasting of several varieties of sake, you’ll also be able to see the interior of one of these grand historic homes.
A soy sauce brewery may not seem like an obvious place to spend the night, but Maruto Shoyu will win you over. Nara’s oldest soy sauce brewery closed due to shortages after World War II, after more than 250 years. Seventy years later, the grandson of the last owner revived the family business, renovating the historic buildings, restarting brewing and establishing a cafe, restaurant and shop showcasing regional produce.
He also turned some of the brewery, housed in a building that dates back 130 years, into comfortable rooms that are sympathetic to its history. Guests can enjoy an exquisite dinner or lunch focused on locally grown vegetables and, of course, high-quality soy sauce. Maruto Shoyu offers a pick-up and drop-off service from Tawaramoto station, on the Kintetsu line.
After a delicious breakfast at Maruto Shoyu, take a Kintetsu train to Asuka station. If you get an early start, you can see the highlights of Asuka village and Yoshinocho in one day; for a more leisurely exploration, you can focus on just one.
Although an unassuming farming town today, nearly 1,500 years ago Asuka village was a hive of activity. Its cultural importance is so profound that at the end of the sixth century, this village became the first capital of Japan. Its scattered museums and archaeological sites are best explored by bike; you can rent one at Asuka or Kashihara Jingumae stations; alternatively, you can catch the Kame Bus tour if you prefer.
In Asuka village, there are many mysterious kofun – the ancient burial mounds of emperors, empresses and other powerful figures dating from around the seventh century. At Ishibutai Tumulus, you can actually enter a tomb, while the Takamatsuzuka Mural Museum explains the process of construction and excavation.
North of the kofun is Asukadera Temple, Japan’s oldest Buddhist temple. Founded in 596CE, it still houses a statue of Buddha made in 609CE – the oldest one in the country. Asuka village is viewed as the birthplace of Buddhism in Japan, laying the groundwork for the following centuries of Japanese civilisation. Much of the Man’yoshu, the oldest surviving collection of poetry in Japan, was written here; pay a quick visit to the Nara Prefecture Complex of Manyo Culture near Asukadera Temple to learn more.
From Asuka station, take a Kintetsu train to Yoshino station, then hike or take the ropeway further up Mount Yoshino from the town. Stop at Hyotaro to try a local dish that spans Nara and Wakayama, called Kakinoha sushi – pressed, salted mackerel or salmon sushi wrapped in persimmon leaves.
Best known for its spectacular hanami (cherry-blossom viewing) each spring, Yoshinoyama is a sacred place for Shugendo, a religion unique to Japan – founded 1,300 years ago by En no Gyoja – that combines mountain worship (nature worship) with Buddhism, Taoism and Shintoism. Kinpusenji Temple is the head temple of this religion, and its wooden buildings are a designated Unesco World Heritage site. It’s known for its yamabushi, ascetics who wander the mountains, enduring physical and spiritual trials – including meditating under waterfalls – to strengthen and purify their souls.
Spend the rest of your afternoon enjoying the natural beauty of Yoshinoyama, before heading to Chikurin-in Gunpo-en for dinner and an overnight stay. This elegant hot-spring inn, set in the grounds of a temple, has an impressive pedigree – even for Japan.
Head to Yoshinoguchi station after breakfast at Chikurin-in Gunpo-en, then take the Wakayama line to Hashimoto and change to the Nankai-Koya line for a short hop to Kudoyama station. This is the gateway to Koyasan, one of the holiest places in Japan, where more than 100 monasteries radiate out from the head temple of Koyasan Shingon Buddhism. Pick up a takeaway lunch from the picturesque wooden station, then hit the pilgrimage trail.
Twenty minutes’ walk from the station is Jison-in Temple, where you can buy a book to stamp at every temple along the route. You can also buy ema (wooden prayer plaques) and other offerings with an image of a breast attached. While Koyasan was a place where women were forbidden to enter, Jison-in has been accepting women for more than 1,000 years. Over the centuries, the temple became a popular place to pray for women’s health, hence the unusual offerings.
It takes seven to eight hours to complete the 20km (12mi) Choishi-michi, the route marked by 180 stones (ishi) set at intervals of around 109m (358ft) – a unit of measurement called a cho – for its entire length. The trail passes through rice paddies and bamboo groves before plunging into the forest, where pines and cedars have cast welcome shade on weary pilgrims for generations.
If you’re not quite up to eight hours of hiking, you can tackle a section of the route. By taking a Nankai Koya-line train up to Kami-Kosawa station and then joining the Choishi-michi cuts your walking time to roughly five hours; going on to Kii-Hosokawa station drops it to three hours. Whichever route you choose, pause at Yatate-chaya to refuel with tea and a Koyasan specialty, yakimochi (grilled rice cakes), and to say thank you to the deities of travellers at the nearby Ryokujizo statue.
The trail ends at the huge red Daimon, the Great Gate marking the entrance to Koyasan proper. Make your way to Rengejo-in Temple to experience an overnight temple stay (or shukubo). You can join the monks in meditation at 5pm, before enjoying an exquisite shojin-ryori meal (Buddhist vegetarian cuisine) at 6pm. After dinner, stroll around the quiet town to see some of the most important buildings – the Daimon Gate, Danjo Garan Sacred Temple Complex and Kongobu-ji Head Temple – softly illuminated.
Check out after the 6am service and warming traditional breakfast, then make the most of your early start by exploring Koyasan’s most popular sights before the day-trippers arrive.
Half an hour’s walk from Rengejo-in Temple is Ichinohashi, the bridge marking the entrance to Okuno-in Temple – and the border between the secular and spiritual worlds. On one side are buildings and roads; on the other, dense trees and close-clustered stone memorials. In the early hours of the day, you’ll have the temple’s atmospheric grounds almost to yourself.
The area makes up Japan’s largest burial ground, and there are memorials to important figures including Kobo Daishi (founder of Koyasan) and Oda Nobunaga (a renowned Japanese warrior) here. More than 10,000 LED lanterns are dedicated in the Torodo Temple, the worship hall of the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi. Two of the four oil lanterns in the hall have been lit for more than 1,000 years, and he’s said to have been in a state of eternal meditation since he entered in 835CE.
One of the most important religious sites in Koyasan town is Kongobu-ji Temple, the head temple of Koyasan Shingon Buddhism. It’s known for its graceful screen paintings and remarkable rock garden, which is the largest in Japan. Nearby Danjo-garan is regarded as one of the most sacred places in Koyosan, though, as legend has it, Kobo Daishi was the first to begin construction when he founded Koyasan. The vermilion-lacquered Konpon Daito is the most impressive building in the precincts, but the whole site is interesting to explore – especially in autumn, when the bright maple leaves create an arresting scene.
After exploring the temples, head to Kadohama Gomatofu Sohonpo, which specialises in sesame tofu, for an early lunch. Try one of the multi-dish kaiseki courses for a filling, protein-rich lunch.
If you’d like to see another ancient pilgrimage route, follow the 2km (1mi) path from the Daimon Gate to Nyonin-do Hall, the last remaining women’s temple on Koyasan. Though the ban on women entering Koyasan was overturned in the 1870s, full restrictions weren’t lifted until 1905, with the seven Nyonin-do temples around the edges of town the closest female pilgrims could get. From here you can follow the Fudozaka trail for about 50 minutes to reach Gokurakubashi station, or take the bus to Koyasan station, then the ropeway down to Gokurakubashi.
Take the train from Gokurakubashi Station to Kudoyama Station where the sightseeing train Tenku also stops. Then it’s a five- to six-hour round trip from Kudoyama Station on foot, over to Niutsuhime Shrine and back to Kutoyama station. Alternatively, disembark at Kami-Kosawa station and hike to the shrine, then follow the Choishi-michi to Kudoyama (three to four hours in total).
Niutsuhime-jinja Shrine was built 1,700 years ago is dedicated to the goddess who lent Koyasan to Kobo Daishi; its sloping eaves, red-lacquer and half-moon bridges are fine examples of Kasuga shrine architecture. Located in a serene mountain setting, whose Shinto deity is said to have helped Kobo Daishi establish his Buddhist monastery here, Niutsuhime-jinja Shrine is a perfect example of the complex, mysterious and spiritual appeal of Wakayama.
There’s no better way to get acquainted with ancient Japan than by exploring its wonderful prefectures that are steeped in history and tradition.
Countermeasures for COVID-19 are carried out well in all of the areas mentioned in this article.