The centre of innovation in Japan for over a thousand years, some of the most essential elements of Japanese culture originated in Nara. From Sake to Sumo, we have the inventive citizens of Nara to thank for adapting and refining these traditions.
Although sake wasn’t invented in Nara, it was first refined here, making what was once a thick, cloudy brew mostly used for ceremonies into a pleasant drink. At Shoryakuji Temple, the monks have made Shobushu sake since the Muromachi period, pioneering new techniques. They still hold a sake tasting festival every November.
Katsuragi is said to be the birthplace of sumo around 2,000 years ago, when a local, Taima no Kehaya, boasted of his strength and called for challengers. Emperor Suinin ordered a match with another famed strong man and Taima no Kehaya was killed by a powerful kick. The sport of sumo, thankfully no longer fatal, was born.
Takayama has been famous for making tea whisks and accessories for 500 years. Even now, about 90% of all tea whisks used in Japan are made in this area. The whisks are made from bamboo from the surrounding mountains.
Although tea and the art of tea making came from China, Japanese tea masters developed their own unique styles. There are many different schools of tea ceremony, and each requires slightly different equipment. There are over 100 different variations of tea whisk, and a master maker must know which style is needed for each school and ceremony. At Tanimura Tango, you can see a master at work.
There is a legend that the famous monk Kobo Daishi brought the recipe for a medicine known as Daranisuke, back from China. The simple herbal concoction was popular with Shugendo ascetic practitioners as it aided digestion and helped keep them awake.
You can still buy it all over Nara in small black pellet form. Great for indigestion and hangovers, Fujii Risaburo Yakubo in Yoshino has been making the medicine for 1300 years.
Since Nara has a long history of sake making, they found a way to use the sake lees, a byproduct of the production. Full of umami, it acts as a preservative and pickling agent. Small vegetables are pickled for up to three years. Sliced finely, the vegetables become translucent and carry an aroma of sake.
At souvenir shops around Nara, you will see the beautiful boxes of Narazuke pickles, many in unusual shapes. Commonly used vegetables include uri, a cucumber-like gourd, baby watermelon, ginger, and daikon. The baby watermelon is the most visually striking, but for taste, many people like ginger. After a visit to Hasedera Temple, drop by Shirozakeya to sample a range of Narazuke.