“Known as the village of master swordsmen, Yagyu is the birthplace of Yagyu Shinkage School of swordsmanship… Long ago, Japan was a land engulfed in war where the principal objective was slaying ones’ enemies by sword. From this war-torn wold, the mast swordsman Yagyu Muneyoshi was born. He created the school of Yagyu Shinkage where he taught life-saving swordplay as well as the importance of mastering your mind to master yourself.”– Yagyu Kaido trail guidebook
A number of years ago I started an series of articles called “Kendo Places” in which I visited kendo related locations in Japan and shared pics and information. Nowadays, with a crazy job, an almost three year old daughter, and what have you, I am unable to venture out and about as I used to (and I assume it will be this way for few years). Anyway, the place where I visited when I first arrived in the Kansai area back in 2005 was Yagyu:
Yagyu no sato 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.– Article written by yours truly in 2008
Over the last 15+ years I’ve visited the village on numerous occasions, for gasshuku, embu, and sometimes just to show friends around. One thing I still had to do, however, was walk the old kaido (trail) to the village that would’ve been used by locals (villagers and samurai) to travel to the more populous regions of Nara, Osaka, and Kyoto. It is said that many kenshi also walked the path to seek training with the sword-masters located in the village. I had to do the hike, but when?
Hearing that a kendo friend of mine – Jack – was leaving Kyoto to move back to the U.K. at the end of the year, I had found my excuse. Happily, he was up for it, and so – on the 20th of September 2020 – we went for it.
The modern path runs from the outskirts of Nara city proper through the valley between Kasuga-yama and Takamado-yama before crossing Ninniku-yama into Yagyu village. From there it goes through and down Kasagi-yama before arriving at Kasagi, in Kyoto prefecture (in Japanese “yama” refers not only to mountains proper, but hills). It is designated as part of the Tokai Nature Trail as well as one of the “hundred historical trails” by the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs.
It’s origins are said to lie in the early Kamakura period (1185-1333) and it was commonly used until the beginning of the Meiji period (1868-1912). Roads built connecting part of the area were built in the late 1880s and early 1890s, and the nearest train station – Kasagi station – started running in November 1897 (it is still the nearest train station today). Proper roads into the area, as well as a bus service, didn’t start until the late 1920s.
Getting to Yagyu
Ok, so by far the easiest ways to get to Yagyu village is to go by car or take the bus from Nara city. Buses are infrequent, but it can be done relatively easily. Today’s article is about using the Kaido, however, so let me go into that.
The whole hike, from Nara city to Kasagi station, is a whopping 32kms, split into three sections:
1. Takisaka-no-michi (12km; difficulty: moderate) 2. Kengo-no-michi (9km; difficult: hard) 3. Yagyu-Kasagi-no-michi (11km; difficulty: easy*)
Jack and I met just before 7am in front of the Kintetsu Nara station on a drizzly Sunday morning before setting off. We had brought a bunch of homemade onigiri and some chocolate with us which was just as well as there was pretty much nowhere to buy food along the way, even in the villages we passed through (though the ubiquitous drink vending machines were available).
A 20 minute leisurely walk brought us to the starting point of the first trail and off we went.
btw, over the course of the hike we met almost nobody. There were some people visiting Yagyu village itself, and we saw some people struggling around Kasagi-yama, but apart from that pretty much nobody, except for the odd villager going about their business (one was dressed in full body tights and made-up to look like a demon…).
The first part of the trail was wonderfully quiet. It had threatened to rain, but none appeared, so the footing was good. A cobblestone path “formed of irregularly pattered stones lines the way and is believed to be a relic of a road repair operation undertaken when the head of the Yagyu clan was promoted to Daimyo and became the kendo instructor to the shogunate family” (from the guidebook). Along the route you could see some very old buddhist images carved into the rocks. I didn’t take so many pictures or go out of my way to see everything that could be seen, as I was enjoying the walk (and the conversation).
An interesting rock sculpture was that of “Kubikiri-jizo.” It is said to have been carved in the Kamakura period but it is of interest mostly because of the story of how its neck was cut. The story goes that Araki Mataemon, a noted Shinkage-ryu swordsman who lived between 1599-1638) used it for Tameshigiri practice. Why you would use stone to practice cutting is irrelevant!
The walk never gets steep, and opens up to a tiny village before going back into the mountains again for the second half of the trail. The winding trail slopes down gently through the the empty mountain forest before you finally come out at a larger road, a village, and Enjoji temple. We had literally saw not a single soul for hours.
Enjoji is a very old temple, said to have been founded in the 8th century. We didn’t go in, however, but sat outside eating onigiri and relaxing our legs. The end of the first trail, you can get a bus directly here from Nara Kintetsu station if you want to skip this first section (I wouldn’t though).
2. Kengo (“sword-master” trail):
After a short rest we headed off again. At only 9km, this second trail was meant to be the easiest – and it was. Most of the path is through open paddy fields and scouting round small hamlets. There was one steep ascent (the steepest of the entire kaido) but it wasn’t long and didn’t take too much effort.
There was a couple of shrines and statues, but nothing really fascinating to look at on this course. Still, it was probably the most relaxing part of the journey. We saw snakes, grasshoppers, frogs, cranes, and various creepiest and crawlies before walking down into Yagyu village itself.
We left the front of Nara Kintetsu station at 7am, it was now 12:15pm.
Jack had never been to the village before, so it was my job to show him around, and that is what I did. First we checked out Masakisaka dojo. Built in 1963, it is a beautiful building, partly constructed using sections of other older ones. Post-war, it was here where the ZNKR used to gather some of the most promising kendo teachers in Japan to instruct them what and how to teach kendo to younger generations. It is also a highly popular gasshuku location, and kendo clubs and groups come from all over Japan and hold training camps. I have been to about four gasshuku here I think (one of which I ran).
Next on the tour was Hotokuzen-ji, a Rinzai zen temple constructed in 1638 by Yagyu Munenori to commemorate his father, Sekishusai (Muneyoshi). The family cemetery was moved to a location behind the temple a few years later (see below). The temple burned down in 1711 and was rebuilt in 1714. Luckily, some wooden statues of Munenori and Takuan Soho, commissioned in 1651 and 57 respectively by Munenori’s son, Munefu, were saved, and can still currently be seen in the temple today. The temple also has a very small (and new) museum area, which has objects related to the Yagyu family, including some very important Yagyu Shinkage-ryu documents.
A short walk around the side of the temple and into the forest, you can find the Yagyu family grave. This is – at least for me – the most important area of interest in the village. The first time I came here I was struck by coming “face to face” with kenshi of the past, and it is something I still feel when I come here or visit graves of other historical figures. The location, amongst trees in the quiet of the mountain, is atmospheric. Light shining down through the trees from above (as is always the case when I visit at least!) makes it almost spiritual. Jack and I sat in the quiet for bit here, perhaps partly because we were tired, but also partly because we were soaking in the history.
The gravesite itself is small, and it is the resting place of a number of famous swordsmen, as well as important ancestors of the Yagyu family (and of course, Yagyu Shinkage-ryu). The following image was taken from the little information leaflet given out at Hotokuzenji. I have highlighted the people of interest.
Yagyu Sekishusai (Muneyoshi): A noted exponent of the sword and spear, Sekishusai would take part in many battles in the tumultuous warring states period. He learned Shinkage-ryu from Kamiizumi Ise-no-kami and developed his own style, Yagyu Shinkage-ryu. His renown as a swordsman brought him before Tokugawa Ieyasu where he so impressed the future shogun that he was asked to teach Shinkage-ryu to the Tokugawa. Citing old age, he sent his son Munenori to serve instead.
Yagyu Munenori: It was with Munenori where the Yagyu clans fortune was set and their future made. He taught swordsmanship to three successive generations of shogun, and was raised to the rank of daimyo status. He published one of the most famous kenjutsu treatise from the Edo period – the Heiho Kadensho – in 1632.
Yagyu Jubei: Munenori’s son and noted for his skill with a sword, Jubei has become as sort of mysterious character in popular Japanese culture due to his “disappearance” from official records for a decade (he is more often than not shown to have the use of one eye – the other patched over with a tsuba; this is said to have been due to an accident when practising kenjutsu with his father, but contemporary illustrations show him with two eyes). Numerous stories have emerged about spying for the Tokugawa, but nothing concrete is known. He took over as head of the Yagyu family on his fathers death, but died suddenly in 1650 again, cause unknown. He published the kenjutsu treatise “Tsuki no sho.”
Yagyu Munefuyu: brother of Jubei and page to Tokugawa Iemitsu, he became head of the family after his brothers death. After his fathers death, following his wishes, the Yagyu family’s wealth and land was split between Jubei and Munefuyu, which resulted in the new head of the family – Jubei – being considered a hatamoto rather than a daimyo. After Jubei’s death (who was heirless), Munefuyu eventually managed not only to restore the family to rank of daimyo but considerably increase its status within the shogunate for what would be generations to come. After his death in 1675 his remains were split, with part being buried in Edo, and another at Hotokuzen-ji. It seems to be at this time when the ancestral Yagyu family grave was moved behind the temple.
In the corner of the gravesite there is also a commemorative stone to Kamiizumi Ise-no-Kami Nobutsuna. Kamiizumi is one of Japans most legendary swordsmen. I won’t write a full bio today, just mention that it was he who transmitted Shinkage-ryu to Sekishusai when he stayed in Yagyu for six months or so in 1563/4.
After visiting the temple and the gravesite, Jack and I wandered into the forest to find Itto-seki, an eight meter tall boulder that sits quietly in the forest with a massive crack through it. The story goes that Sekishusai while walking in the area (there is a temple and other large boulders in the site) thought he was being attacked by a Tengu – a sort of crow/goblin like mythical creature known for their kenjutsu skills. Sekishusai turned round quickly and cut down what he thought was the tengu. It was in fact this massive boulder (another story goes that Sekishusai studied kenjutsu under a tengu who lived in the forest for three years, and one time – when he though he had cut down the tengu and won – it was only the boulder). What the truth of the matter is no one knows, but the fable is good one! I have come to this site many many times, and was surprised this time to find a small bucket with a couple of toy katana lying in the area*. Of course, Jack and I took some video of us cutting the rock!
* it seems that the reason is probably because of the popularity of a recent manga/anime which features the legend. I had no idea until I spoke to a student about this hike. Of course, I had being coming here and “cutting” this boulder of well over a decade…
After this we roamed out of the forest and back into the village to see a preserved samurai house that used to belong to a senior Yagyu clan member. I must be honest and say it isn’t so interesting (one time is enough) but it is the only place in the village where you can buy a Yagyu tenugui, so we went to get some.
All in all, we spent under about 2 and 1/4 hours in the village wandering around, chatting, and soaking in the atmosphere.
It was about 14:15-ish or so by this time, and our legs were still ok, so we decided to head towards the nearest station on the last trail. It looked short (1.5 hours according to the brochure) and it seemed relatively easy, so off we went.
There was basically nothing to see on this leg of the journey and the “easy” part turned out to be not-so-easy. What we didn’t realise was that we were at a high-ish elevation and to get to Kasagi station we would have a long – and steep – decent down Kasagi-yama. Perhaps this wouldn’t have been so bad normally, but we had just walked over 20kms+ over 7 or so hours and we started to get tired. It was a long slog to get down the path and our knees started to hurt.
Anyway, we managed it down and arrived at Kasagi village at 4pm. We were tired but happy. What we were also not ready for was the fact that we had to wait 40mins for the next train back to Nara (only one train/hour here!) and there was no convenience stores. We found a beer vending machine, sat down in front of the station, and drank deeply in silence.
My recommendation is to walk from Nara city to Yagyu using trails 1 and 2, then return back to Nara after visiting the village on the bus from Yagyu (or the reverse: bus to Yagyu, visit the village, then walk back to Nara). I would personally avoid trail #3 because not only is there nothing much to see, but Kasagi-yama is steep, whether ascending or descending (*the brochure said it is “easy”). If you choose this route be sure and check the return bus times, as there are not many options. I’d also recommend that you wear trousers rather than shorts, due to foliage, insects, and the possibility of snake bites.
Also, be sure and print out and take the official guidebook with you, and be aware that it can be difficult at times to know which way you should be heading. Look out for the brown signposts (one can be seen in a gallery above) and be sure you know the kanji for YAGYU (柳生). When we went there was literary nobody around to point us in the right direction.
Lastly, at the moment it is almost certainly practically impossible for most kenshi 24/7 readers to travel over to Japan… but please put it on your to-do list when you do come over… you won’t regret it!