Mount Yoshino in Nara Prefecture is a mountain acclaimed nationwide for its cherry blossom.
It’s said that there are as many as thirty thousand cherry trees in this mountain. Areas from the base to the top are called Shimo-senbon (lower 1,000 trees), Naka-senbon (middle 1,000 trees), Kami-senbon (upper 1,000 trees), and Oku-senbon (1,000 trees beyond the Kami-senbon), and cherry flowers bloom in this order in spring, attracting many tourists.
Located in Naka-senbon is Kinpusen-ji, a temple practicing mountain worship. The term “Kinpusen” comes from the former name of the mountainous area from Mount Yoshino to Mount Sanjogatake, and the temple is said to have been erected here in the late 7th century by En no Gyoja, the legendary founder of Shugendo.
It is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site “Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range.”
Kinpusen-ji is famous for its huge Zaodo (the hall for Zao Gongen), which is 34 meters (112 feet) in height and 36 meters (118 feet) in width and length, and the second largest wooden building in Japan behind Daibutsuden at Todai-ji in Nara City. Zaodo is the main hall of the temple, and is dedicated to three statues of Zao Gogen, the most important deity in Shugendo.
Zaodo was burnt down and reconstructed many times, and present one was rebuilt in 1592. The three figures of Zao Gongen is painted blue, 7 meters (23 feet) high and staring fiercely. These statues are undisclosed except for special occasions.
Kinpusen-ji is the head temple of Kinpusen-shugen-honshu, a school of Shugendo. Shugendo is a syncretic mountain religion developed mainly from Shintoism and Buddhism, and its aim is to develop supernatural power through ascetic practice in steep mountains in order to save people.
If you go down a path toward the valley, there is a sub-temple of Kinpusen-ji resembling a Shinto shrine.
Kinpusen-ji holds three major events which attracts visitors. One is Hanakuseshiki in April, which is meant to report the full bloom of the cherry flowers to Zao Gongen enshrined in Zaodo.
Another is Setsubun-e in February, which does been-throwing against actors disguised as evil spirits. And the last one is Renge-e in July, which a man in a frog suit perform a short play, and it’s covered as a summer tradition in the news in the Kansai region every year.
There are many more shrines and temples in Yoshino worth visiting such as Yoshimizu Jinja, Yoshino Mikumari Jinja, and Kinpu Jinja, all three of which are also registered as part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Yoshino is also a historically notable place, because when the Imperial Court split for a while in the 14th century, one of the court (the Southern Imperial Court) was placed here at first.
Where to eat around Kinpusen-ji
If you are considering having lunch around Kinpusen-ji, pick one of the many small bistros lining along the path leading to the top of Mount Yoshino. At Naka-senbon area, if you choose one on the left side, you can enjoy the great spectacle of the valley from the seats.
These restaurants offer same kind of menus that are provided in ordinary bistros, but we recommend trying kaki-no-ha zushi, a version of sushi seen around Nara and Wakayama Prefecture.
In summer, many bistros also serve ayu grilled with salt (ayu is a kind of river fish which can be captured in the Yoshinogawa River running through the Yoshino area.)
Where to stay around Kinpusen-ji
If you are thinking of going to Kami-Senbon and beyond, you’ll need to find accommodations in Mount Yoshino. There are shukubo (inns for worshippers), onsen ryokan and minshuku here, and for inns aimed at everybody including females, there are Kisuya, Sakoya, and Hounoya, for example.
Kisuya is a relatively modern-style ryokan opened in 2016 succeeding a ryokan which existed here.
Sakoya, the oldest existing ryokan in Mount Yoshino, was founded about three centuries ago and was loved by historical intellectuals like Motoori Norinaga and Rai San’yo in the Edo period. Hounoya is a cozy ryokan with open-air baths which a spectacular view can be enjoyable.
Mount Yoshino is famous not only for its cherry flowers but for its historical roles, temples and shrines. You may feel it’s too crowded to enjoy your visit in a cherry blossom season.
In that case, visiting in early summer to enjoy green foliage or in fall to see colored leaves may be worth considering. Though located in the same prefecture, Yoshino is a lot different from Nara City and its surroundings.