When I first came to Japan, I would ride my bicycle up a long river path, past calm waters with ducks, small fish, and blue herons. In all of that natural beauty, my eyes would often be distracted by the stones on the bank of the river. Not just any stones, but oddly-shaped stacked four, five, or sometimes six stones high. This custom of methodically stacking stones was the inspiration for one of Nara’s most original products, the “tumi-isi”.
Designed and manufactured in Nara’s Higashi Yoshino Village, Tumi-Isi are pieces of wood cut into random shapes that you can stack like those stones. Though every piece is different in shape and size, they have a variety of flat surfaces that make them a little easier to stack. Part of the beauty of Tumi-Isi is that there is no correct way to use them or play with them. Adults find themselves unable to stop trying to stack them in different combination, and children find even more creative ways of using them. For me, it’s a nice break from staring at a screen and checking my mail. It is a chance to re-connect with myself and unwind after a long day. Since they’re so fun and relaxing, I often see them in cafes, restaurants, and bookshops for customers to use as they like.Tumi-Isi are made by local woodworkers using local Yoshino wood, a tribute to the forestry industry that has continued in this region for over 500 years. In these stressful times, taking a few moments and stacking stones can be very relaxing. If you’re stuck at home and can’t come to Nara, Tumi-Isi are a small piece of Nara that you and your close ones can hold in your hands.
If you’re interested, be sure to check out their official store, and there are many imitation products with a similar name around the world.
While Yoshino is a beautiful area throughout the entire year, it is perhaps most famous for its cherry blossoms that bloom every spring on Mt. Yoshino. There are so many that it feels like a fantasy world. As we climb up and down paths surrounded by these flowers, a cool breeze might blow a wave of petals off the branches and around our heads. As we climb higher, we might get a great view of the flowers and trees on the mountains around us as well, which always makes me feel like I am walking through the clouds.
If you visit large parks, riversides, or other places at this time of year, you are likely to see many people picnicking around these beautiful flowers. When I first came to Japan as a student, one of my favorite experiences was gathering at a park with my school club and enjoying the cherry blossoms. There were so many people who had come to the park, that we ended making many new friends. Cherry blossoms have a unique power in that way. They help us relax a little, take a break from our busy every day lives, and enjoy the moment.
With the cherry blossoms in full bloom, this is the perfect time of year to enjoy Mt. Yoshino. In addition to walking through these pink clouds, we have a tour that will let you feel the history of this mountain in its many temples and shrines. Just ride the Kintetsu Yoshino Line to the end of the line, and step into our blooming world of wonder.
No. 330 – An Introduction to Yoshinoyama (Uphill Course)
The first of March marked the beginning of amago fishing season in many of the mountain streams of Japan. Amago, or “red-spotted masu trout” are a specialty of mountain streams. Though they stand out with their distinctive red spots and pretty blue and silver colors, they are a very defensive fish, and love to hide in deep areas crowded with rocks. Fisherman have to climb pretty far up the tributaries, to the hard to reach places just to be in the right area. Once they are there, they have to be careful not to be seen or heard by these clever fish, as they will swim away at first sight.In Japanese, amago are nicknamed the “queens of the freshwater streams”, but that doesn’t stop people from enjoying their delicious taste. Salting and barbecuing them on skewers is the most common way of eating them, but the locals have many other delicious ways of bringing the unique flavor of amago. Their name comes from the word “ame-go”, which some older people still call them. “Ame” means rain, and the “ame-go” name came from how there were always so many of these fish during the rainy months of May and June.
Fishing is a fantastic way to enjoy the nature of Japan. There are many mountains in eastern and southern Nara Prefecture where you can find these fish. However, instead of looking on your own, I recommend finding a local fisherman who is willing to take you, as they surely know both the good fishing spots and the best way to cook up what you catch.
Soy sauce is one of the fundamental ingredients in Japanese cuisine. It is so common in Japan that it is easily over-looked. It often plays a supporting role, like with sashimi or boiled vegetables. However, a high-quality soy sauce, or just the right one, can make all of the difference in how a dish tastes. In my area, locals are very particular about which soy sauce they use in their kitchen, and are often unwilling to change styles or brands.
Have you ever wondered how soy sauce is made? As you might expect, it starts with soy beans, and includes flour, sugar, and a yeast called “koji-kin”. Though it is a long and complicated process, there are videos online that show you how to make it at home. Many of us will be spending more time at home for a little longer, so maybe learning from these videos and trying your hand at making soy sauce might be a lot of fun? If you ever come to Nara, we also have some experiences where you can visit soy sauce brewers, and see first-hand how they make this essential part of Japanese cuisine. You can meet the brewers themselves, and learn anything and everything you wanted to know about soy sauce. After the scents and sounds of brewing, you will finish the program by tasting some of the soy sauce, and can experience this fundamental ingredient with all five senses.
Knowing how something is made and where it comes from helps us appreciate things a lot more. In this case of soy sauce, it is seemingly everywhere, so just knowing a little more about this strong, black ingredient is likely to make your day a little more interesting.
How to Make Soy Sauce at Home
No. 462 See Organic Soy Sauce Made by a Woman Brewer Master
No. 181 Tasting Tour: Soy Sauce and Tofu in Gose
This year’s warm winter has brought a little less predictability to our weather, as we swing back and forth between warm, comfortable days and freezing temperatures. Having to readjust with every change is hard on our bodies, especially as the season goes on. The locals in Yoshino have a lot of ways to stay warm, and one of them is “rooted” in a somewhat surprising place.
Once you know it, you notice that the kudzu vine is all of over the place. It isn’t the most beautiful plant, but locals in Yoshino find its value below the surface. There is a long history in Yoshino of grinding the roots of kudzu plants into a powder, and making desserts and drinks with it. While the cool desserts are refreshing in the summer, in the winter time, I have come to enjoy mixing this powder with hot water to make a drink called “kuzu-yu”.
First boil some hot water. Open a pouch of kuzu-yu powder and pour it into a small bowl. Add the hot water, quickly stir it up, and voila! You have found the local secret for making it through a tough winter. It has a thick consistency, but is still thin enough that you can drink it straight without a spoon. Though it is usually a pearly white color, it comes in a variety of flavors, and sometimes those flavors have a different color. The pack I bought today had the original flavor (kudzu root and sugar), ginger, matcha tea, and azuki bean.
There are many shops in Nara that sell products made from the kudzu root, especially in the Yoshino area. It is not as sweet as chocolate cake, I think you’ll find that kuzu-yu warms your heart just as well. If you’re worried about staying strong through the end of this cold season, it might be worth borrowing a little local wisdom and get the hot water boiling.
Just a short walk from both Kintetsu Nara Station and JR Nara Station, the area of Naramachi is known for its many traditional machiya-style buildings, narrow streets, and the calm air of the olden days. However, along these streets and within these buildings, there are very many new, creative, and fun places that add brilliant shades of color to what is already a beautiful town. One of those places is Mia’s Bread.Just like how visitors who want a genuine experience of Japan will come all the way to Nara, locals who want genuine bread come to Mia’s Bread. With high-quality ingredients popular among the health conscious, this shop offers a wide range of breads, from loaves to bagels to pitas to baguettes to sandwiches. The sandwiches are jam-packed with vibrant vegetables, with the greens, pinks, yellows, and oranges catching anyone’s eye. The soups and salads are also very popular, which is evident by the need of a reservation for people who wish to have lunch there. With so many delicious flavors and aromas, brilliant shades of color, superbly textured breads, and local conversation, Mia’s Bread is a place we can take our time and enjoy with our five senses.There are many delicious and traditional foods in Naramachi, and I of course recommend those as well. However, if you’ve had enough rice or noodles or mochi on this trip, I suggest taking a page from the locals, and checking out this delicious bread shop.
Visitors to Nara are likely to notice the word “Yamato” popping up here and there. For example, like in the name of a train station like Kintetsu Yamato Saidai-ji Station, or in the name of a product like Yamato vegetables. There is even a delivery service that uses this name. Though it is rarely explained, there is a reason we see the word “Yamato” more often in Nara than in other places.
The characters in Yamato mean “great” and “harmony”. This word for harmony, “wa”, is a homonym of the word that mainland China used to refer to the yet unnamed people of Japan. Yamato has been used to refer to both Japanese people as a whole, as well as this local Nara region as early as the 3rd century. It was in this land that the first emperor of Japan ascended to the throne, and then on this land was home to the capital of Japan and its palaces many times. From the 7th century to the late 19th century, Japan was divided into provinces, and present-day Nara Prefecture was known as the Yamato Province until just over 150 years ago.
So when we see “Yamato” today, what does it mean exactly? It might be used as a reference to Japan or Japanese people, but in Nara, it usually means this local area. Even with the new name of Nara Prefecture, many foods and products of this area go back centuries to a time when this was still the Yamato Province. Adding Yamato to the name of something, or to a place or even train station, is a tribute to the long, nuanced history of this land.
Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to learn about the many eleven-faced Kannon statues of Nara. Scattered across the prefecture, these ancient, beautiful works showing the Goddess of Mercy have conveyed the thoughts and emotions of master sculptors for centuries, and captivated their countless visitors. I was excited to see that one of these statues is located and on display at Shorin-ji Temple, a small temple in Sakurai City and near where I live.
I turned off the main highway and followed the signs through a quiet residential area until I reached a small dirt parking lot. Drivers pay the parking fee on an honor system, informing the staff at the temple that we parked down below. I climbed the steep hill to the entrance of the temple grounds and it garden. Red berries of glabrous sarcandra herb and Christmas berry plants were a wonderful compliment to my wide view of the Yamato basin. As this temple is off the beaten path, I was one of only a few visitors this morning, and could take my time and enjoy its fresh air.
I entered the main hall of the temple and said a prayer. The inside was quiet and dark, and yet vibrant with colorful decorations and large statues. However, the main purpose of my visit was to see the eleven-faced Kannon, so I continued out of the main hall and up to the weathered flight of stairs. The stairs took me farther up the mountain, through past more berries and herbs, and flowers that hadn’t yet bloomed this year. I reached the room at the top, removed my slippers, and had to use more effort than I expected to open up the heavy sliding door.
Behind the glass, the eleven-faced Kannon towered over me with a calm elegance that only comes with time. It is an incredibly beautiful piece of art and history that I was lucky to encounter. Though I couldn’t take any photos, I was able to purchase some charming postcards before I left, showing warm drawings of the statue and the beautiful temple.
There are many famous temples and statues in Nara City and all across Nara prefecture, but I think I found a good one here in Sakurai City. If you make your way down south in Nara, please consider visiting this quiet, special temple.
The sacred deer of Nara Park are one of the symbols and main attractions of Nara. Everyday, hundreds of tourists interact with these special animals, feeding them deer senbei crackers, taking photos with them, and watching out for their antlers and droppings. It was one of the highlights when my family visited from America.
As I live in a small, mountain village, and many other visitors live far away from Nara City, sadly, we can’t visit Nara Park all that often. However, I recently discovered two fantastic books of photos in my local library. The photos were taken by a great photographer named Kazuto Sato, and his books are called Deer Park and Deer Land. I highly recommend you check them out! In his photos, he captures the daily, seasonal, and unique life of deer in Nara. Here are some examples.
They live. They eat, they play, they love, they live. His photos remind me of the similarities between living creatures, and why we are all special. The deer of Nara Park are more than a tourist attraction. They are a sacred, beautiful reminder that even if we don’t speak the same language or eat the same things, we can still co-exist, be kind to one another, and create memories together. Even if I can’t see these deer in person everyday, these wonderful photos still warm my heart from afar.
We offer some great programs in and around Nara Park. Here is one where you can see them eat breakfast, and then have breakfast of your own! I think this is a great program for first time visitors or veterans to Nara.
No. 374 Morning Walk in Nara Park and Breakfast
Most people spend no more than a few minutes total brushing their teeth every day. Maybe a minute after each meal, right? It’s a simple practice that leaves our teeth and mouths cleaner and refreshed, and the experience usually ends there. But where do our toothbrushes come from? How are they designed and made? What kind of thought and effort goes into making these small pieces of plastic that we only use for a few minutes every day?
Producing a modern toothbrush actually requires some of Japan’s most cutting-edge technology and equipment, along with the decades of knowledge that have brought us to this point. The fine bristles are cut and situated with exact precision, to effectively clean our teeth and gums.
Though Nara is famous for its 1,300 years of history, it also has one of the most modern toothbrush factories in Tawaramoto Town. The Tanabe toothbrush factory offers participants a chance to tour its cutting-edge facility. In this hour-long tour, you will learn about the history of toothbrushes, enter a cleanroom, and see its leading technology at work firsthand. Finally, you’ll get the chance to make your own “One Tuft” toothbrush, which has recently become very popular. While you will certainly learn a lot and have fun in this hour, you will also be able to take home a toothbrush for yourself and one as a gift for someone special. You will also take home a little more knowledge and experience to make those few minutes of daily tooth brushing just a little more interesting.
Make Your Own Toothbrush at a Cutting-Edge Factory