Comfortably Appreciating Tea in Nara

One of the largest barriers for newcomers to tea ceremony is having to sit on a tatami mat with their legs folded under them. That is at least one of my distinct memories from my first tea ceremony. After about 10 minutes, the pain in my knees and ankles gradually worsened until, well, circulation was significantly cut and all I could feel was a slightly painful tingle. It is the traditional way of sitting for a tea ceremony, but unfortunately it can be difficult for some newcomers to the art.   That is why some teachers decide to meet their students half way. By moving the practice to a table top and chairs, students can focus on elements of tea ceremony more important than sitting. Students can learn about the flow, the utensils, and the heart and mind of cha-no-yu. They can learn how the season is reflected in the utensils, decorations, and sweets. They can focus on appreciating the beauty of these items, and the efforts the host must have gone through to prepare them. Doing all this, in a painless way none the less, helps ensure that everyone has a nice time together.   Nara is home to some of the most famous pottery and tea whisks in Japan, and produces lots of tea in its rolling hills, so its connection with tea ceremony goes back to the art’s beginnings. Perhaps one of the ways of keeping this tradition alive and well is to make it more accessible for newcomers, and we have a program that takes a step in that direction. Music Cafe Anges in Kashihara City offers participants the chance to learn about tea ceremony and whisk a bowl themselves in the comfort of a table and a chair. Participants don’t just learn about the process, but also the philosophy of this ancient art. With tea produced in Nara and traditional sweets from a popular local shop, it is a chance to comfortably experience a tea ceremony unique to this place and this time. If you are interested, please check the link below.

No. 516 Experience the Way of Tea – Casually on a Table

Yoshino Ramen Chronicles: Ramen Kawa

It took me three trips to Ramen Kawa in Yoshino Town to finally have a chance to eat it. The chef only makes 50 bowls of ramen a day, and with so many groups of bikers stopping by before lunch time, noon was just a little late. This time, I got there at 11:30.


Visitor be ware, there are no large flashing signs or even cut out sheets of cardboard to point you there. Coming up Hwy 169 from Kami-ichi, turn right at the intersection after you cross the Miyataki Ohashi bridge. Then another quick right down a curved slope, passing some vegetable gardens, and head down the narrow road. You will pass some houses, and maybe a construction site, as you continue for a few minutes. Though there isn’t any sign with the shop name, look for a large wooden house with a green balcony. That’s Ramen Kawa.

Ramen Kawa has only one kind of ramen and a total of two things on the menu. The salt-based ramen is what most people come here for, but you also have the option of adding a bowl of rice topped with tuna to your ramen. The salt-based ramen soup has hints of yuzu, a subtle citrus fruit that displays its bright yellow color every winter. The soft, fat slices of pork, green onions, sot-boiled eggs, bamboo shoots, and napa cabbage mix with the flavorful soup, deliciously filling my stomach without overwhelming it.


Ramen Kawa is very delicious, but it is its location that really sets it apart. Customers can sit and enjoy the flow of the Yoshino River and the abundant nature around them, all while eating delicious ramen or tuna rice bowls. The secrecy of the location, the limited number of bowls per day, and the effort it takes to get there also adds an element of adventure to the experience for me. I think you’ll enjoy it, too. Just make sure you get there early!

Yoshino is still somewhat undiscovered for many visitors to Nara. We offer some very unique experiences in this area that will allow you to learn about and feel the local culture. If you feel like a break from the hustle and bustle of the city, check out some of the experiences below:

No. 162 – Traditional Crafts of Nara:  Making Yoshino Washi Paper by Hand

No. 471 – Staying in a Private Guest House Surrounded by Yoshino Ceder (with a private hot spring bath) and Tea Ceremony

Experiencing the Flavors and Traditions of the Mountains

When it comes to winter food in Kawakami Village, hot pots of daikon radishes and napa cabbage, or warm bowls of sweet azuki red bean soup and mochi are what first come to mind. However, there is another winter specialty that is popular among both locals and visitors to Kawakami Village.

“Yokan” is a Japanese dessert made from mashed beans and gelatin, and often flavored and colored as well. Every winter, Asahikan in Kawakami Village makes its “yuzu yokan” from scratch. They boil the beans in a wood-fire pot, then rinse them and skin them before mashing them up to be used in the dessert. They continue to use a recipe and methods that have been passed down through generations, including picking the yuzu, a citrus fruit, from trees nearby. Flakes of the fruit’s yellow skin add a subtle flavor to the yokan’s sweetness, and a bright element to the already pink-colored dessert. As a 130-year-old traditional Japanese inn, Asahikan offers guests the opportunity to experience what staying in the countryside might have been like in a previous era. With its traditional architecture, including a stunning garden on its second floor, you can walk the same wooden halls and stay in the same tatami rooms as its many visitors have done for over a century.

If you are looking for some outdoor fun as well, we offer an experience in which you can stay at Asahikan, chop some bamboo from its mountain grove, and turn that bamboo into your own lunchbox. You’ll take that lunch with you when you go out to explore the wide variety of moss in our village, and then create your own moss terrarium. Young or old, all ages are welcome!

No. 457 – Local Food Experience in Kawakami Village

 

 

One Moment, First Moment

The first thing I learned about Japanese tea ceremony was the principal of “one moment, one time”. Every ceremony occurs on at a unique time, on a unique day, with unique participants, weather, sensations, and circumstances. It was this principal that drew me into the red sunset during my first tea ceremony atop a mountain in northern California. That one moment and time would serve as my inspiration to study and learn more about this ancient Japanese practice.
On the surface, there are specific rules and a set order. These things took me some time to learn and be comfortable with. Sitting in the traditional seiza position with my knees folded under me also took some time to get used to. However, in learning and practice, I gradually understood the concept of gratitude that is fundamental in the ceremony. The host is grateful for the guests taking their time to join the ceremony, and the guests are grateful for all of the time and effort the host has put into the ceremony as well. More than anything, I was always grateful for the moment and time I was able to spend with everyone on that tatami floor.
We offer some programs that allow you to drink tea in a historic Zen temple. The temple itself was designed specifically for tea ceremony, so this is a great place to learn about this traditional Japanese practice. This program can be enjoyed by anyone, but I think you will enjoy it even more if you study in advance. Whether it is your first moment or your hundredth moment, I am sure you will have a very special, unique experience.

No. 196 Tea Ceremoney at Jiko-in Zen Temple with Private Transfer  

Stepping into Noh in Nara

 

“An empty sky of music, a rain of flowers, strange fragrance on every side; all these are no common things, nor is this cloak that hangs upon the pine tree…”
These are some of the beautiful words spoken in that ancient Noh play, Hagoromo, or The Feather Mantle.

 

It is a traditional story of an interaction between a fisherman and a Tennin, an aerial spirit or celestial dancer. It takes place in an old world that feels both simpler and more susceptible to visits from aerial spirits.

 

Though most of us just read these stories, visitors to Nara will have the chance to learn and feel the power of Noh and what this story is about. Twice in early February, 2020, a Noh experience and workshop will be held at Kasugano International Forum IRAKA in Nara City. First, participants will have the chance to view a performance and learn about the story, the roles in Noh, and the instruments used in the performance. Then in the workshop, participants can try on some of the costumes and play one of the instruments. It is a rare chance to cross into a world that is usually exclusive to performers and professionals, and feel both the power of this story and the sights, sounds, and textures of the traditional Japanese art.  

Lunch and Lumber

Cafe Le Repos isn’t in the first place you’d expect a cafe to be. A few minutes up the Yoshino River from Kintetsu Yamato-Kamiichi Station, we make a tight right turn to head over the river on the Imosebashi Bridge. After crossing the bridge, we see a lumber auction yard, with dozens of large Yoshino cedar logs lined up. To the left is an auto shop, and it’s in a corner of that auto shop that I found the cozy Cafe Le Repos.Despite having just opened a few months ago, they were busy with regular customers chatting away at the center table. The inside of the cafe is a beautiful example of how the wood, grown in mountains up the river and gathered as logs outside, can be used to provide a warm and comfortable dining environment. The owner informed me that the day’s special was sold out, so our only option was the keema curry. It was spicy enough to wake me up, while still being incredibly flavorful. My lunch also included a small cup of somen noodles and radish pickles, which served to balance out the spice of the keema curry. When the owner wasn’t busy in the kitchen, she would casually chat with us or the group of regulars at the large table.Located near the auction yard, saw mills, and auto shop, Cafe Le Repos seems like it’d be a warm lunch escape for the many people working hard outside in the area. However, I also think it’s worthwhile for visitors to the area to make the journey over the Imosebashi Bridge, across the Yoshino River, and relax in a place a little out of the ordinary. Even if it’s your first visit, I hope you can feel as comfortable as one of the locals.

Yoshino Ramen Chronicles: Sato

My first impression of Sato in Yoshino Town was that their menu was so big it could be published. It was contained in two separate bindings, with numerous loose pages added through the years into each one. Sadly (but conveniently) it has since been organized into one neat binding with a dozen or so categories, but still contains its wide range of food from rice bowls and lunch plates to omelettes and pizza. Within in that range are noodle bowls as well, which also come in the huge size that Sato is famous for.Another term for ramen in Japan is Chuka-men, or “Chinese noodles”. I ordered the Chuka-men combination with gyoza, and enjoyed the great scenery while I waited for my food. Sato offers a wide view of the endless mountains of Yoshino cedar, and the calming Yoshino River running below. My food eventually arrived on a tray that seemed like it could cover the entire table, and in addition to my noodles and gyoza, included rice, stewed vegetables, and pickles. My bowl of noodles had a soy sauce based broth with slices of pork, half a hard-boiled egg, green onions, and popular Japanese vegetables like napa cabbage and bamboo shoots. The gyoza was perfect! Crispy, flavorful, and huge! After finishing everything on my tray, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to walk out the door.Signed photos and autographs near the entrance show how popular of a stop Sato is among celebrities who pass through. Sato is also a very popular place among the locals, and even with all that fame, the staff always makes an effort to remember faces and names. Even if it is your one and only visit there, I am sure they will welcome you very warmly! As I mentioned, they still have a giant menu, so I recommend going there multiple times and trying something new every time.
We offer many experiences in Yoshino, and if you have a chance to participate in one, Sato would be a great place to visit as well! Here are some of our experiences.

No. 162 – Traditional Crafts of Nara: Making Yoshino Washi Paper
No. 192 – Adventure Caving
No. 330 – An Introduction to Yoshinoyama

Asuka Village ~ Tracing the Original Landscape and History of Japan

This time, I went to Takamatsuzuka Tomb and Kitora Tomb in Asuka Village.

First, I headed from the National Asuka History Building to Takamatsuzuka Tomb, which is very close to the Takamatsuzuka Mural Building.

 

 

In the Takamatsuzuka Mural Building, a life-size replica of the stone room and murals are displayed, so you can see intricate details of the murals.

 

 

 

 

After seeing the images, I saw the actual Takamatsuzuka Tomb, and then passed through some of Asuka Village’s rice paddies on my way to Kitora Tomb.

 

 

It’s about a 20-minute walk from Takamatsuzuka Tomb to Kitora Tomb. Though it’s just 1.5 kilometers, you can see a very photogenic landscape that resembles an ancient farming village so much that people say that Asuka Village is the original landscape of Japan.

 

 

I walked slowly while taking some photos, and arrived at Kitora Tomb before I realized it.

 

 

 

I arrived at Kitora Tomb and first headed to the Shijin-no-yakata in the Center for Preservation of Kitora Tumulus Mural Paintings.

Just like the Takamatsuzuka Tomb’s mural building, the Shijin-no-yakata displays life-size replicas of the stone room and murals. You can also see detailed images of the murals that depict the “shijin (four gods)”, as well as astronomical charts.

There is also material related to the excavation, inquiry, and research of Kitora Tomb that is on display, and you can learn how archaeological research is done in Japan.

After seeing and learning at the Shijin-no-yakata, I went and saw the actual Kitora Tomb.

A trip in Asuka Village, tracing the history of Japan.

How about giving it a try yourself?

Yoshino Ramen Chronicles: Yottenka

To be honest, ramen isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when most people think about traditional or authentic Japanese food. Even if its origins are from China, the current version of ramen in Japan is something that has evolved over time to reflect the tastes and customs of the people eating it and making it. Or at least, that’s how it feels when I visit Yottenka in Yoshino Town. It’s a small, stand-alone wooden shop, attached to old truck beds, and with a wooden water wheel in front. Inside is the kind of warm atmosphere that is difficult for visitors to Japan to discover on their own. Shelves of comic books, a box of local fruit, a counter facing the kitchen, and a well-worn center table. In addition to standard flavors like miso, soy sauce, and salt ramen, they have a special sesame ramen, a spicy beansprout ramen, and even chilled ramen for hot summer days.When I went there for lunch the other day, I ordered the miso ramen and gyoza set. The noodles seemed to absorb the flavorful miso soup, as did the slice of pork, which slowly softened as I saved it for last. The gyoza came out hot and fresh, smelling of garlic as I dipped each bite into the spicy red oil. I said “gochisosama” to kind old man and exited the shop with a full stomach.

In the parking lot, a flock of chickens wandered from one end to the other, sometimes seemingly a bit lost, and other times letting out a cock-a-doodle-do. Places like this shop are why I enjoy living in the countryside. 

Vegan Cooking in Southern Nara

The city of Uda covers a vast amount of space in southern Nara prefecture, and includes mountains, rice fields, and many other crops. In the heart of its Oh-Uda area is a large souvenir shop, an onsen hot spring bath, and a traditional townscape. There are some unique restaurants and cafes in this townscape, and I had the pleasure of visiting one just the other day. Kyujitsu-Daiya, or “holiday schedule”, is a vegan cafe and restaurant located in that townscape. In addition to not using any animal products, they make the effort to use organic vegetables, and even organic coffee. It is a warm and cozy environment located in a traditional Japanese house, with a number of quiet, unique spots for guests to sit and eat. I sat in a floor seat facing the win dow of a small garden, and after I’d read a few pages in my book, the owner brought out my lunch and explained each item. It included a hamburger patty made from garbanzo beans and lotus root, a sweet potato salad made from apples, tofu okara, and soy milk mayonnaise, a bowl of brown rice, and soup made from homemade miso. It’s the kind of meal that makes you want to take your time and enjoy every bite. After my lunch, I had a hot cup of hot organic coffee while I sat by the window and continued reading. In a more touristy location, I might not have been able to take my time and enjoy such a quiet place. Homemade miso, local vegetables, I felt like I had a nice chance to appreciate the beauty the countryside has to offer, especially in southern Nara.

Here is Kyujitsu-Day’s instagram account. I recommend pairing a visit to Kyujitsu-Daiya with some other sightseeing in the area. Uda City has lots of beautiful landscapes and historic sites. One is Murou-ji Temple, which is famous for its huge pagoda. In the past, we have offered some programs at Murou-ji Temple that allow you to experience some rarely seen sides of this historic site, so please keep an eye out for more!