The green areas around Nara Prefecture represent an attempt by nature to retain its dominion despite the constant encroaching by the major cities that most tourists visit in the Kansai Region. In the outskirts there are still village areas which have likely remained unchanged for most of the century. For those that want to see the Kansai’s leafy soul, visit Asuka Mura in the outskirts of Nara.
It is worth visiting the village twice, once to experience its tranquility and once during its annual scarecrow competition, held in late September, which is one of the few times in a year where Asuka Mura does have a must-see event. If you are imagining poorly rendered straw men, then you will be pleasantly surprised by the craftsmanship of the villagers. The scarecrows on display have history, culture and real effort put into them. Everything from child’s games to legendary beasts from Japanese folklore are represented in straw-stuffed form.
Naturally for an area with such a deep connection to folklore, the area has some mysterious sights that, unlike the scarecrow festival, can be enjoyed all year round. By far the most interesting is the turtle-shaped rock that is found by the side of one of the roads. According to local legend, the rock must be kept facing any direction except the west as should it ever face that direction Japan will be reduced to a sea of mud.
Equally mysterious are the water-gathering, circular stone structures found at Asuka-dera. As this temple was constructed by Korean artisans, the exact purpose has been lost to history although the most likely explanation is that they were for ceremonial cleansing purposes. More easy to appreciate is the well-preserved Bronze Buddha dating back to the 7th century.
People looking for the quieter, traditional face of Kansai should find exactly what they are looking for in Asuka Mura. A big part of its appeal is that, while the modern face of Japan is an ever-changing, undefinable entity which refuses to be easily categorized or even defined, Asuka Mura has the feel of something solid that likely hasn’t changed in a long time. The best thing is that a trip can be combined with an evening visit to Namba to experience both sides of Kansai.