4 Reasons to Visit Nara Yoshino than Kyoto: Yoshino Travel Guide

In this article, I am going to suggest why you should consider visiting Nara Yoshino over Kyoto. While planning your Japan trip itinerary, you may have Nara city on your list, known for its historical significance as an ancient capital of Japan. However, have you thought about venturing to Yoshino? Many visitors tend to focus solely on Nara city, but I strongly recommend exploring Yoshino, located just about 2 hours by train from Nara city centre.

The Most Famous Cherry Blossom

During my Master of Fine Arts degree studies, I researched Japanese traditional colours and their history. Most Japanese traditional colours derive from the country’s natural environment and cultural phenomena, spanning over 1500 years. During this research, I came across Yoshino in Japanese historical events and poems. In 2012, I decided to visit for the first time. Unfortunately, it was not cherry blossom season, but autumn proved to be excellent for photography and furthering my research into colour themes in Japan.

In Mount Yoshino, approximately 30,000 cherry trees, mainly Shiroyamazakura, are densely packed into four locations. It is called ‘ichimesenbon’ in the sense of ‘the splendour that can be seen by a thousand eyes,’ and it is divided into Shimo-senbon (lower area), Naka-senbon (middle area), Kami-senbon (upper area), and Oku-senbon (deep-wood area), respectively. ‘Senbon’ means 1000 trees. The highlight is the expansive view from Hanayakura, spanning from Yoshimizu-jinja Shrine to Nyoirin-ji Temple.

Importantly, there are small differences in blossom timing between low and high altitudes, starting from lower altitudes and progressing to higher ones. Thus, you can enjoy ‘hanami’ (cherry blossom viewing) for a longer period in this area.

Not Only Cherries But Also Cultural Traditions

When I arrived, my first impression of Yoshino was just like visiting a little very ordinary small town somewhere in Japan. But Yoshino is packed with many attractions! Strolling down the main narrow road (only one car can pass, well, one very small car!), you will find it full of magnificent ancient religious sites and shrines that are quite old and not over-maintained like Kyoto (not solely dedicated to tourists), but well-preserved in their ritual origins.
And the gorgeous autumn colours!! It just takes your breath away!

One Of The Oldest Mountain Practice: Shugendo

Yoshino is quite famous as a place for mountain worship and ascetic practices of Shugendo. Mt. Yoshino is a sacred mountain that extends from Mt. Omine to Kumano Sanzan, located on the northern side of the ascetic practice path, Omine Okugake-michi.

I have found a useful explanation about the Yoshino area from the Yoshino local council website and translated it into English for reference. I have also already written about Yoshino’s religious history in the Kimpusan-ji article here

What is the Shugendo?

Yoshino is a place where many events that had a significant impact on the history of our country occurred, and it is no exaggeration to say that the power of Shugen in Yoshino was the driving force behind most of these events. Shugendo is a religion unique to Japan that was formed by blending the innate worship of nature with foreign elements such as Buddhism, Taoism, and Onmyodo. It is said that the “shu” of Shugen refers to the practice of ascetic training, and the “gen” refers to the acquisition of experience. In other words, by venturing into the mountains and engaging in arduous ascetic practices, practitioners train to acquire abilities that ordinary people cannot possess, believing that everything they see, including shrines and temples, are gods and Buddhas. It can be described as an extremely intense and popular faith that seeks to reclaim the instinctive spiritual power that humans possessed in ancient times by venerating all the plants and creatures of the mountains and rivers.

The origin of Shugendo:

Yoshino is said to be the birthplace of Shugendo. Before the Asuka period, the Nara Basin, where the capital was located, had a basin climate with little rainfall and no large rivers, making it a harsh environment for agricultural people. However, once you cross the low mountain range called the Ryumon Massif that stretches from east to west on the south side of the basin, a large river (Yoshino River) flows, and further south, the Omine mountains, which are the source of water, spread out in layers. Masu. The ancient people who saw this landscape, that is, Yoshino, must have been impressed by the fact that it was a land rich in water. It seems that Yoshino was considered a place worshiped by the gods. Among them, ancient people noticed that just south of the Yoshino River, there was a small conical mountain with water sources running north, south, east, and west. This mountain was named Ame-no-Mikumari-mine (Peak of Heaven’s Moisture) and was worshiped as the mountain of the god who gives water or controls the weather. Yoshino’s faith may have begun when shamans who believed that praying to this mountain could acquire spiritual power began building hermitages in the middle of the mountain. There is a theory that as the times changed, the routes into the mountains and the objects of worship changed, and it became the Shugendo that is still known today.

The founder of Shugendo:

The founder of Shugendo is said to be Kozumi En. He was also known as Engyosha and later bestowed with the bodhisattva title of Shinhen Daibodhisattva by Emperor Kokaku. It is believed that he was born in what is now Kayahara no Sato, Gose City, Nara Prefecture, and that he began practising Buddhism from a young age. After training at Mt. Katsuragi, he embarked on ascetic practices in mountains across the country. Numerous legends have been passed down, including one that recounts his 33 ascetic journeys through the mountains from Kumano to Yoshino, and another about his 1,000-day meditation in a basket on Mt. Omine, where he was said to have attained enlightenment and perceived Zao Daigongen, the principal deity of salvation for the third generation.

The principal deity of Yoshino Shugen:

The principal deity of Yoshino Shugen is the Gongenbutsu known as Kongo Zao Gongen, which En no Gyoja is said to have perceived on Mt. Omine. It is believed that this deity takes the form of three Buddhas: Shakyamuni Buddha, Thousand-armed Kanzeon Bodhisattva, and Maitreya Bodhisattva, each depicted with fierce and wrathful expressions. Even today, many people worship this deity as a savior across the three generations of past, present, and future.

Legend has it that when En no Gyoja discovered this statue, he carved its likeness into a mountain cherry tree and presented it as an offering. The cherry tree is regarded as the sacred tree of Zao Gongen, and since the Heian period, visitors to Yoshino have been planting cherry blossom seedlings in the area. There exists a tradition of a tree donation campaign to plant trees at this sacred site, leading to Mt. Yoshino being renowned as a mountain adorned with cherry blossoms.

Translated by Google: 吉野ビジターズビューロー
Photo credit: 吉野ビジターズビューロー
Shugendo Play in Kinpusenji Temple in 2012

“No Woman Admitted” Nyonin kinsei Area?!

As you traverse through Mt. Yoshino and delve deeper into the mountains, you’ll encounter an area known as “nyonin kinsei” (prohibited for women). This zone prohibits women from entering the sacred mountain area for ritualistic reasons. While this practice may be perceived as male chauvinistic by some, it is rooted in both Shugendo and Shinto beliefs. It signifies a respect for the sanctity of the space and also acknowledges traditional taboos surrounding menstruation and the postpartum period.

Another theory suggests that the mountain itself is revered as a goddess, and the prohibition of women aims to prevent any potential jealousy from the deity. This restriction is also believed to occasionally impede the ascetic practices of Shugendo.

Although I’ve personally visited the Women’s Barrier at Dorogawa Hot Spring and Mt. Omine Mountain instead of Yoshino, I vividly remember encountering a massive gate exuding a weighty atmosphere. Upon reaching this point, I couldn’t shake the feeling of being unwelcome. Despite my reluctance to take even a single step forward, I was deeply moved by the sacred ambiance enveloping the area.

“No Woman Admitted” : Regulation of this holly mountain Ominesan prohibits any woman from climbing farher through this gate according to the religious traditon – Ominesanji Temple

I took these photos from below while we were walking through the mountainside;

I think there might be a very adverse reaction from feminist groups. Well, I am a feminist and I strongly believe in gender equality and oppose discrimination in everyday life. However, I have no issue with the ongoing religious practices like this.

5 Must Visit Temples And Shrines In Yoshino

When you walk through the town of Mt. Yoshino and its surroundings, you will see temples and shrines that you cannot identify as either temples or shrines.

As I mentioned above, Japan restructured its religious system after the Meiji period. Shrines and temples were distinguished from each other by new Shinto and Buddhist laws. However, before that, both Shinto gods and Buddhist deities were worshipped by people on almost the same principles.

So, when you enter, you are not sure what the place is like; ‘Okay, is this a shrine or temple or…what?’

There are many places like this, especially in the Yoshino area. Well, technically everywhere in Japan, but I must say, it’s particularly noticeable in Yoshino. I particularly noticed the harmonization of both Shinto and Buddhist beliefs at the Notendaijin temple (or Shrine?!) where it is supposed to have a great blessing for the upper neck and brain. Well, it’s a very strange and extraordinary place too. However, I strongly believe that for this place, it doesn’t matter exactly what it is. The specific religious terms here are not that important. At least the God seemed not to care anyway.

1. Kinpusenji Temple (金峰山寺)

The main building of Kinpusen-ji Temple, known as Zao-do Hall, is truly remarkable. It’s not just any building – it’s a national treasure and even holds the prestigious title of being a World Heritage Site. Inside, besides the three primary statues of Zao Gongen, there are numerous other statues to behold. This hall stands out with its single-story structure, topped by a cypress bark roof and featuring a raised floor. Its grandeur is undeniable, towering at a height of 33.9 metres, with beams stretching 25.8 metres long and spaced 27.3 metres apart. Legend has it that Kinpusen-ji Temple was established by En no Gyoja during the Hakuho era. Today, it serves as the main temple of the Kinpusen Shugen sect, considered the heart of Shugendo practice. The current Zao-do Hall was reconstructed in 1592, supported by an impressive array of 68 pillars, some of which are crafted from azalea and pear trees.

2. Yoshino Mikumari Shrine (吉野水分神社)

A significant site designated as a World Heritage Shrine, it honours six deities, including Ame-no-Mikumari no Okami, who oversees the management of water resources, and Tamayori-hime-no-Mikoto (a revered statue classified as a national treasure). Commonly referred to as Komori-no-miya, it holds deep reverence as the protector deity of childbirth, ensuring safe deliveries and the well-being of children.

With a history steeped in legend, the shrine gained prominence when Toyotomi Hideyoshi, seeking offspring, received the blessing of a son, Hideyori, following his prayers. In 1604, Hideyori, in honour of his father’s wish, oversaw the reconstruction of the shrine, adopting the Momoyama architectural style, which is evident in its current form. Notably, the shrine complex, including the main hall, tower gate, and corridors, showcases exquisite craftsmanship and architectural beauty, earning them the distinction of being designated as important cultural properties of the nation.

3. Yoshimizu Shrine (吉水神社)

Originally serving as the sub-temple of Kinpusen-ji Temple, it was known as Kissui-in. However, during the early Meiji era, amidst the Haibutsu-kishaku movement, it underwent a transformation into a shrine. The significance of this site traces back to 1336 when Emperor Go-Daigo, fleeing from confinement at Kazan-in in Kyoto, sought refuge in Yoshino. Here, he took up residence at Kissui-in. Notably, it also housed Minamoto no Yoshitsune for a period and served as the headquarters of Taiko Hideyoshi.

Shoin, a historic building within the complex, holds the distinction of being considered Japan’s oldest residential structure and has been honoured with the designation of an important cultural property.

4. Kinpu Shrine (金峰神社)

Nestled serenely in Okusenbon, Mt. Yoshino, lies the World Heritage Site, Engishikinai Taisha Meishin Taisha. This ancient shrine venerates Kanayamahikonokami, the deity of the landowners spanning from Mt. Yoshino to Kamigatake, Mt. Omine. Revered since antiquity, this deity is believed to safeguard life from wilting and is worshipped as the guardian of the Kinmine lord and the divine ruler of gold mining territories.

Throughout the Middle Ages, it has been renowned as a Shugendo training ground. The worship hall was relocated from the former Yoshino Shrine. A short distance from the shrine stands the Hidden Tower of Yoshitsune, a historical site where Minamoto no Yoshitsune sought refuge from his pursuers. Also known as the Tower of Knife, legend has it that when cornered, Yoshitsune kicked open the roof to make his daring escape.

5. Notendaijin Ryuoin (脳天大神 龍王院)

Situated amidst the expansive grounds of Kinpusen-ji Temple, this shrine is a descent of about 450 rugged stone steps from Zao-do Hall. Legend has it that it houses a remarkable statue of a snake with its head cleft open.

A unique custom surrounds this shrine: the offering of raw eggs in reverence to the snake deity. Visitors can purchase a pack of raw eggs for 500 yen at the shrine office, inscribe their name and prayer upon them, and present them as an offering. Subsequently, at the shrine office, these eggs can be boiled and consumed free of charge, allowing worshippers to partake in this ancient ritual.

Yoshino Town Is Full Of Own Charms

Yoshino’s main street is like a slice off the top of the mountain, with only one narrow road that can accommodate just one small car at a time. There are numerous restaurants, souvenier shops, Japanese cafes, and ryokans lining both sides of this main road. It’s a delight to stroll down this street and explore what they offer, especially during cherry blossom time and the autumn season. We discovered a few friendly shops and Japanese sweets cafes along the way.

This map shows and you can get a very small local bus.

Charming Traditional Ryokans (Inns)

In Yoshino, there are so many choices for Ryokans (inns). You can search online for options within your budget, but most of these traditional ryokans come with dinner and breakfast included. I prefer to stay in the same place if I’ve had a positive experience before, so I can only recommend one ryokan that serves delicious dinners and traditional Japanese breakfasts. Yoshinoso Yukawaya always offers a warm welcome, just like coming home. I’m from Japan, but I don’t have a place to call “home” anymore, so every time I visit Japan, I come to this ryokan to say “I’m home”!!

Yukawaya has been featured on the Japanese TV show, photo credit: Youkawaya Facebook

Delicious Dinner And Japanese Breakfast

The Japanese ryokan style often involves dining in your room. Yukawaya follows this tradition, but if you’re in a large group, you may dine in a larger room, as we did for breakfast. Nevertheless, we thoroughly enjoyed Yukawaya’s dinner. I’ll review it later, especially in another article, so stay tuned!

This is Yokawaya’s dinner
This sashimi was a part of dinner course, I don’t remember how many dishes were!
This is Yukawaya’s breakfast, there was rice and miso soup of course!

How To Get To Yoshino

There are many different ways to get there, by train, car, or bus. The best way to get there is by train. I made the mistake of driving a car from Nara city, and it took longer than the train and got stuck in busy traffic in the evening. It was a nightmare. There are also express during peak season, check the Google Map.

By Train:

From KyotoApprox.1 hour 40 minutes by Kintetsu Limited Express (change at Kashihara Jingu-mae)
From OsakaApprox. 2 hours 55 minutes by Kintetsu Limited Express (transfer at Yamato Yagi/Kashihara Jingu-mae)
From NagoyaAppro. 2 hours 55 minutes by Kintetsu Limited Express (transfer at Yamato Yagi/Kashihara Jingu-mae)
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