The Yamanobe-no-Michi trail passes through some of Nara’s most historic areas. It is a part of Japan’s oldest road, the Shinkaido, originating in Tokyo. It is dotted with shrines, temples and ancient tombs. Along the way are many cafes, rest stops and fruit stands in the summer.
Less than 15 minutes from JR Nara Station, the Yamanobe-no-Michi is an ideal way to experience traditional Japan and meet the friendly locals. The whole route from Tenri to Sakurai takes three to four hours including stops along the way. If you start in the morning, you can enjoy a traditional lunch of Miwa somen around Ohmiwa Jinja Shrine.
From Tenri Station, signs clearly mark the route towards Isonokami Jingu Shrine, where the trail begins. On the way, there are shops, some offering bicycle rental, and other places of interest such as Tenrikyo Headquarters.
From Isonokami Jingu Shrine, one of Japan's oldest Shinto shrines, the ancient path leads through rolling farmlands and orchards towards Sakurai. Along the way cafes, rest stops and farm stands, add to the pleasant atmosphere.
Criss-crossing the countryside, where the way of life has continued mostly unchanged for hundreds of years, you’ll come across small farm stands, selling produce on the honour system: take what you want and put the correct money in the box. Locals often set up stalls selling drinks and homemade snacks, especially in summer, when the path is busy with hikers.
The trail passes through Miwa, an area famous for fine wheat noodles called somen. Served cold in summer with a refreshing dashi-based dipping sauce and hot in winter in a delicate soup, somen is a must-try. Locals say the secret to the great taste is the natural spring water used in the making process. Inside Chogakuji Temple, you can try Miwa somen while overlooking the lovely temple garden.
For somen from a noodle manufacturer known throughout Japan, stop in at Miwa Chaya. They serve fine, quality somen made on the premises. Here, you can see the making process or even sign up for a class. Getting the noodles fine and even is a lot more difficult than it looks.
After passing Miwa Chaya, you’ll soon see an imposing black torii gate, marking the entrance to Ohmiwa Jinja Shrine. The mountain behind it is Mt. Miwa, which is the main focus of worship at the shrine. The god inside the mountain, Omononushi-no-Kami, is a deity of farming, which might explain the lush, fertile fields all around.
Ohmiwa Jinja Shrine is a beautiful complex in a sacred cedar forest. It is revered by sake makers, who come from all over Japan to pray for good sake vintages. The shrine is surrounded by traditional Miwa somen restaurants and sake breweries. A short walk from here is Gassan Sword Workshop & Museum, a studio and exhibition space celebrating one of Japan’s most famous sword making families.
For a late lunch or afternoon tea, try Somen Morisho near the shrine. It’s worth a visit just to see the rustic farmhouse where you can buy local produce and crafts. In winter, dishes are cooked outside on an open fire. In summer, the terrace garden is a good place to cool down with an icy drink.
From Miwa Station, you can take a direct train back to JR Nara Station, though the service is infrequent. A better option is to continue on to Sakurai Station, with more trains, shops and cafes. On the way to Sakurai Station, you’ll pass by the attractive Edo period facade of Imanishi Sake Brewery, the oldest existing brewery in the area, still run by the same family. You can visit the brewery and try several varieties of sake.
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