Category Archives: Japanese culture

Walking Through the Pink Clouds

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)



Soy Sauce with Your Five Senses

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

What Does Yamato Mean?

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.

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.  

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?