Walking Japan's Oldest Road: Nara Prefecture's Yamanobe-no-michi
Across the plains south and west of present-day Nara, in an area once known as Yamato, lies evidence of some of the earliest stages of recorded Japanese history. And nowhere, perhaps, are the origins of the country more numerous and varied than along the road known as the Yamanobe-no-michi.
Mentioned in the 8th Century “Nihon Shoki” (the Chronicles of Japan), the Yamanobe-no-michi has come to be known as Japan’s Oldest Road. Take a walk along this ancient path and you’ll soon see why.
Miwa: Sacred Mountain, Ancient Shrine
O-miwa Jinja is said to be Japan’s oldest shrine, predating the land’s first emperor (Jimmu, who according to myth ruled from 660 BC to 585 BC). O-miwa Jinja has no hall for the enshrinement of any deity as the entire mountain behind the shrine, Mt. Miwa, is itself the object of worship. This falls in line with the ancient Shinto belief of worshipping Nature as God, and as such anyone wishing to enter the mountain to pray must first go through a ritual cleansing in the old Shinto tradition.
Behind O-miwa Jinja stands a mitsutorii, a traditional style Shinto gate with not one but three parts. Such torii are extremely rare in Japan, further testifying to O-miwa Jinja’s age. This torii is not viewable except for those who ask in person to be escorted by one of the shrine priests, but there is another one up the path at Hibara Shrine.
From O-miwa Jinja the Yamanobe-no-michi leads north, bringing you quickly to the sacred grounds of Sai Jinja and, behind the shrine to the left, a fountain fed by a natural spring whose waters are said to possess healing properties. For those wishing to walk upon sacred Mt. Miwa, the office where one would apply for permission and the official entrance to the mountain are both within the gates of Sai Jinja.
Fifteen Kilometers & Two Thousand Years of History
From O-miwa and Sai Shrines the Yamanobe-no-michi winds northward, dirt and stone stretches of forested path giving way in places to paved roads leading past working farms and through living villages. In good repair (everywhere) and well-marked (almost everywhere), this ancient road makes for an amazing up-close look at a side of Japan most only see from the window of a train. The large orange-like fruit you may see at several unmanned stands along your way (pay by dropping your money in the box, another bit of Shinto-based Japanese honor) are called hassaku. The gnarled, scraggle-branched trees all over the place become laden with kaki (persimmon) come winter. And the mannequin heads impaled on long skinny stakes? They’re there to keep the birds away, not the tourists.
Not to be missed as the road runs toward Isogami Shrine are the kofun burial mounds. Look for the signs along the side of the path pointing them out because ironically despite their considerable size they are easy to miss; what looks like a big hill covered with trees might actually be the tomb of one of Japan’s early emperors! Of particular note is the 4th Century, 242-meter-long tumulus believed to house the remains of Emperor Sujin (148-29 BC), founder of the Yamato Dynasty, rulers over this eponymously-named region in the centuries leading up to the Nara Era. A short walk east from the main path, up past a series of kaki tree groves, sits the entrance to Sujin’s tomb, which seems both stately and stark. Entry to the burial mound is prohibited but it is possible to hike around the fringes of the site.
The moated village of Takenouchicho, about 1.5 kilometers north of Emperor Jimmu’s tomb, has lost most of its old waterways, constructed to add a sense if not an element of security to the community during the region’s long warring period. A walk among the homes lining the cluster of narrow streets offers a nice side trip just a few hundred meters uphill from the path.
Isogami Shrine marks the northern end of the Yamanobe-no-michi, and is a curious and unique cultural treasure. Long-standing legend tells of a seven-bladed sword named Futsu-no-mitama that saved Emperor Jimmu from a fatal poisonous divine gas during his conquest of the Yamato region. Isogami Jingu was established to enshrine this sword, and from that time forward served as a sort of armory for the Imperial family. Over the years, military generals and other high-ranking officials were said to offer their swords to Isogami, a tale which a 19th Century excavation proved to be true. In 1913 the shrine’s main hall was constructed to house these relics, which had for centuries lain in a sacred underground chamber.
And with this, our walk through history comes to a close.
The historic sites and hidden treasures of the Yamanobe-no-michi are far too numerous to mention and would take a lifetime to find. Take your time. Keep your eyes peeled. Trade words with the locals you encounter. And walk away with your own unique version of this very special slice of Japan.
While the Yamanobe-no-michi is not a one-way street, beginning the tour at Japan’s oldest shrine is a common and perhaps fitting way to approach the hike. From Nara Station take JR’s Sakurai Line south to Miwa Station. From there a short walk back northward along the tracks will bring you to the vendors lining the street leading to O-miwa Jinja’s imposing torii shrine. At the Isogami end of the path turn right onto the main road and left at the traffic light; from there walk straight ahead (even when the road cures left) and pass by the impressive Tenri-kyo Temple and through the long covered shopping arcade that takes you to JR’s Tenri Station.
If along the 15-kilometer Yamanobe-no-michi you decide you’ve had enough, head downhill toward the closest town and the Sakurai Line, to pick up the next train back to Nara or wherever your personal road is taking you.