Yagyu no sato (柳生の里) is a small village in Nara prefecture, Japan. Passing through it in a car or by very infrequent bus, you would probably notice nothing particularly different to any other sleepy rural Japanese town. However, this town was the center of Yagyu-han, the ancestral home of the Yagyu family, the masters of one of the most famous schools of Japanese swordsmanship.
Yagyu Sekishusai Muneyoshi (sometimes Munetoshi) was already a renowned bugeisha (martial artist) when – via the skilled spear-wielding monk Hōzōin In’ei – he was introduced to one of the legends of Japanese swordsmanship – Kamiizumi Ise-no-kami Nobutsuna. Following a legendary duel in which Sekishusai lost to one of Kamiizumi’s students armed with a fukuro-shinai, Sekishusai himself became a follower of Kamiizumi, eventually reaching the depths of his system of swordsmanship. Sekishusai’s fifth son, Munenori, went on to become an official sword instructor for the Tokugawa Bakufu (shogunate) and taught three successive Shogun. In his lifetime his stipend and position considerably rose, assuring both his families success and their notoriety.
The Yagyu family would continue to teach swordsmanship to the Tokugawa and their officials right up until the end of the feudal period (in fact, I personally practised Shinkage-ryu with a descendant of the Tokugawa Shoguns in Tokyo in 2001), and members of the family continue to practise and pass on the tradition to this very day.
The Yagyu family do not own the current village, of-course, but there are plenty of things for the discerning kendo tourist to see.
* Hotokuji (芳徳寺): the family temple was built in 1638 and houses statues of Sekishusai, Munenori, and also Takuan Soho. Inside there is a small museum and you can look Yagyu related historical items (all information in Japanese though). Around the back is the family graveyard: an amazing place to come if you are interested in Japanese swordsmanship.
* Itto seki (一刀石): This is a giant rock that his been split in two.. allegedly by the sword work of Sekishusai. He had been walking through the woods when he thought he was being attacked by Tengu. He dextrously turned around and cut down through what he thought was the enemy. Instead, it was the rock. Its hard to imagine how big the rock is until you actually go there!
* Former Yagyu-han chief retainers mansion (旧柳生藩家老屋敷): This is a museum with some Yagyu related articles. You can also buy tenugui here!
* Yagyu Mazakizaka Kenzen Dojo (柳生正木坂剣禅道場): A modern kendo dojo with the frontage of an old temple from Kyoto. It has nothing to do with the Yagyu family per-se but sits just outside Hotokuji and provides and amazing place to practise budo. You can hire this place out as for keiko and gasshuku.
There are more things to see in the town, but not that much. The location is pretty remote, but it IS well worth visiting it as it is a sort of pilgrimage site. If you are going by bus you have to be very careful to time it just right — leave Nara city as early as you can, and come back in the afternoon. Its too far to take a taxi (you have been warned!).
I’ve been there only once (at the time of writing back in 2008.. since then I’ve been scored of times), but I have promised myself to go down there and visit it again at least once a year. If you live in Japan then I highly recommend that you go at least once. If you are a visitor to the area that is serious about kendo and swordsmanship then I’d say it’s worth the effort to make the visit. If you don’t you will probably regret it.
Some of the pictures below date from 2005.
Please check out some more pictures of Masakizaka kenzen dojo from Aussie ex-pat Andy who visited there in late 2013.
Videos about Yagyu Shinkage-ryu
Yagyu Koichi sensei, the headmaster of the orthodox branch of Yagyu shinkage ryu:
A demonstration of the art from 2014 in the Nippon Budokan:
Yahoo Map: here (Japanese)
Tourist Map: here (with English)
Address: Nara-cho, Nara City, Nara Prefecture
Phone number: 0742-94-0002.
Access: There is very limited bus access, but it can be done. Check the tourist offices in Nara city.
Times: No idea. To be safe go in the early morning/afternoon.
Cost: Most things have a nominal entrance fee. Parking should be easily found.