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Goin’ Japanesque!

Nara’s Tanzan Shrine: Scenic Spot with Autumn Foliage Known as “Nikko of the West”

Tanzan Shrine


Writer’s Photo

Tanzan Shrine is in Sakurai City, central Nara, which is situated on the southernmost tip of Nara Basin. Nestled in Tonomine Mountain, it is a beautiful shrine blessed with rich nature.

Writer’s Photo

The shrine is a highly recommendable tourist spot where you can enjoy seasonal beauties of Japan; cherry blossoms in spring, hydrangeas in early summer and especially, colored leaves in autumn. In mid-autumn, the leaves of about 3,000 trees surrounding the shrine turn red and the area becomes a wonderful viewing spot of autumn leaves.

The exquisite beauty of the scenery here is highly admired and said to match that of Nikko, the very famous scenic spot in eastern Japan.



Writer’s Photo

The closest station to the shrine is JR Sakurai Station, which is reachable by a 30 minute train ride from JR Nara Station. From JR Sakurai Station, buses bound for the shrine are available and take you to the shrine in about 25 minutes. During the best season of colored leaves, the access to the shrine will be even more convenient with the number of bus service increased.


Best Season to Visit Tanzan Shrine

The shrine hosts “Koyo Matsuri,” or Autumn Leaves Festival, from October 9th to December 11th. Some time from around mid-November until early December will be the best viewing season of autumn leaves. Also, the trees at the shrine will be lit up at night from November 12th until 27th. The 13th storied tower at the shrine and colored leaves will be lit up beautifully against the dark night sky and create a fantastic contrast.


Highlights of Tanzan Shrine

Writer’s Photo

The colored leaves seen through the lanterns hanging down from the eave of the shrine hall is impressively beautiful and picturesque as scenes depicted in picture scrolls.

Writer’s Photo

Writer’s Photo

The shrine also has many important cultural properties that are worth checking out.

Especially notable among them is this wooden 13 storied tower in the photo, which is one and only existing structure of its kind in the world. The 13 storied tower, which is hinoki bark thatched and has height of 16.17 meters, stands against burning red leaves in its background, and creates a stunningly beautiful scenery which will surely take your breath away.

The combination of the especially large-sized roofing on the lowest part and the layer of the relatively small-sized roofs narrowly spaced between each other up along the upper rest of the tower makes an impressively elegant figure to look at.


History of Tanzan Shrine

There may be some of you who may wonder why there is a tower within the shrine site. So we will go ahead and provide a little explanation for those among you who are interested. It is deeply related to the history of the shrine.

Tanzan Shrine is dedicated to the soul of Kamatari Fujiwara. Kamatari is an ancient historical figure who destroyed the Soga Family, the dominant political power at the time, in order to implement a political reform to build a state centered on the authority of the emperor. This coup d’état carried out in 645 by Kamatari and Nakano Oeno Oji (later Emperor Tenchi) is commonly known as “Taika No Kaishin (Great Reformation of the Taika Era).”

The origin of Tanzan Shrine dates back to the time when the eldest son of Kamatari moved his father’s tomb from the area called Settsu/Ai to the present location and built the 13 storied tower there. It was originally founded as a Buddhist temple and had long remained so until the Meiji government introduced an anti-Buddhism policy and made the temple into a shrine. The unique atmosphere of the shrine comes from the fact that it consists mainly of the old Buddhist style buildings despite its being devoted to Shinto religion.

According to an interesting episode, Taika No Kaishin coup d’état first started when Kamatari picked up a shoe flown off the foot of Nakano Oeno Oji when he was playing kemari ball game and they befriended each other. In memory of the episode, kemari ball game is still played at the shrine today twice a year in spring and autumn.


Kemari Festival

Writer’s Photo

Writer’s Photo: 2016

Kemari is a game in which eight players keep juggling a deer leathered ball using only their feet and try to keep the ball off the ground (similar to the game of hackey sack). The game is enjoyed solely for the pleasure of juggling the ball without deciding a winner or loser. Players in ancient nobility style outfits cry out three kinds of calls (Yah!/ Ou!/Ari!) as they kick and juggle around the ball. The audience will enjoy the rally and applaud when some skill is shown off.

Spring kemari festival is held on April 29th and the autumn kemari festival on November 3rd.

To give you a little trivia about the game, Seisho Nagon, a prominent ancient female writer, mentions kemari as “very amusing” in her famous book, The Pillow Book (Makurano Sosi).


Watching kemari ball game exactly as it was once played in ancient times, players’ in graceful outfits calling out elegantly with the 13 storied tower and colored leaves creating a fantastic scenery in the background, you will surely feel like you have time travelled back to the time of ancient nobilities. Tanzan Shrine is such a wonderful destination which seems to belong to another world and another time of history. It’s a definitely recommendable tourist spot! Information: Map

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About the author

I am a licensed guide (in English) who was born and raised in Nara. I hope to convey the beauty of Nara and its history, the current Nara as well as the old and new of Kansai Area. Trust me to keep you in the know about Nara and the Kansai Area!

View all articles by Atsuko