Asuka's Scarecrow Festival
With rice fields all over the country slowly turning gold, rice terraces offer unique views that will bring old Japan to mind.
Take Asuka, for instance. Once Japan's powerful capital, nowadays this small town is popular among history lovers thanks to its ancient murals and other historic sites.
What's more, Asuka is home to some beautiful rice terraces which host a scarecrow contest every year.
Visitors can see the farmers' creations in action (or rather inaction) as they are exhibited in the rice fields for several weeks. This year's contest has already started and will continue until November.
Inhabited since ancient times, Asuka served as the capital of the Yamato state from the mid-6th century and for about 200 years. A landmark that may be of interest to history lovers is the Takamatsuzuka Tomb (or Kofun) inside which intricate frescoes dating back to this period have been found and preserved.
Another place of interest is Ishibutai Kofun, a massive stone structure that is thought to be the tomb of Soga no Umako, member of a powerful clan. Upon visiting Ishibutai Kofun I remember thinking how amazing it is that this fairly simple building is synchronous with Haghia Sophia and St. Martin's Church yet somehow the Japanese have managed to more than catch up with the West architecturally. Nowadays the country is home to some of the best, not to mention safest, samples of contemporary architecture.
Back in Asuka, these ancient tombs are surrounded by rice fields, which by early October will have taken their shinning yellow colour. Rent a bike near the train station and take your time cycling toward the terraces. Stop to see the ancient landmarks, get on your way again. In the distance you will not be able to tell what those colourful bits littering the paddies are but getting closer you will start to make out the shapes. Last year I stumbled upon a scarecrow that looked a lot like Michael Jackson, albeit in Japanese festival clothes. I was surprised by the level of detail, the sheer number of scarecrows exhibited and the variety that is not hindered by the fact that there is a unifying theme.
If timed correctly, the end of your visit to the rice terraces will be around sunset. As you cycle away you will see the soft light touch the paddy fields before the sun disappears behind the mountains. There is little traffic in Asuka so the sounds of nature will be that little detail that makes all the difference. Try to take it all in and commit this scene to memory, it is the essence of autumn.
Asuka is on the Kintetsu Yoshino Line, so access from Nara, Kyoto and Osaka is very easy. Once there you can rent a bike from one of the shops near the station. Alternatively you can use the Kame Loop Bus, which serves all the main sights and runs twice every hour during the weekend. If you opt for the bus, you are better off purchasing a day pass (~700 yen).