January 28, 2021

Yagyu Village & the Itto-seki

Located in Nara, Yagyu Village's Itto-seki is the source of inspiration for the famous bolder splitting scene in the anime Kimetsu-no-Yaiba.

Yagyu Villages's Itto-seki, a stone that has been cleaved in two down the middle

Standing alone in the middle of a secluded forest, I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed by a sense of something supernatural. Just before me was a behemoth-size boulder known as the Itto-seki that had been split down the middle in two. According to local legend, the massive stone seen above had been cleaved in half by noneother than Yagyu Munetoshi (whom I will henceforth refer to by his monastic moniker of Sekishusai). Once lord of the modest Yagyu Village, this storied swordsman was the founder of Yagyu Shinkage-ryu, a style of swordplay that is still rigorously practiced today.

Now, if we are to take the local folktales at face value, Sekishusai ended up slicing this slab of stone during his duel with a tengu (a long-nosed “winged goblin” that is part human and part bird and is skilled in combat). Allegedly, just as he was about to divorce the creature’s right side from its left with a thundering blow, the tengu suddenly vanished without a trace. In its place was a gargantuan boulder that had been cleft into halves by the stroke of Sekishusai’s blade. As much as I’d like to believe that this is nothing but a tall tale of the famous swordsman’s strength, the Itto-seki was cut so cleanly in half that it makes one wonder.

Kamado Tanjiro from Kimetsu no Yaiba cuts a boulder in two after his bout with Sabito—The scene was inspired by Yagyu Villages’s Itto-seki

If the above account seems strangely familiar, know that it’s probably because it served as the inspiration for the famous scene pictured above from the anime hit Kimetsu-no-Yaiba (or “Demon Slayer” in English). In the series, the protagonist Kamado Tanjiro battles with the phantom of the already deceased Sabito. Paralleling Sakishusai’s bout with the tengu, the apparition disappears following a mighty blow and Tanjiro is suddenly left with a bisected boulder in front of him. As Kimetsu-no-Yaiba has become more and more popular, the number of anime and manga fans making pilgrimages to the Itto-seki rock has skyrocketed.

As hot as Kimetsu-no-Yaiba is right now, I actually originally encountered Yagyu Village and Sekishusai while reading Yoshikawa Eiji’s epic Musashi. Though historical fiction, this novel does an excellent job at piecing together the story of Miyamoto Musashi, Japan’s most famous swordsman. In the book, a young and still hotheaded Musashi travels to Yagyu Village to challenge a now-elderly Sekishusai. Though I don’t want to get into the details, know simply that the accomplished fencer from Yagyu Village ends up serving as a civilized and cultured juxtaposition to the brash youth.

Speaking of Yagyu Village, know that this secluded sanctuary is about as far off of the beaten path as it gets. Though the homely haven is technically located within the confines of Nara City, Yagyu Village feels worlds away. Here, you’ll find none of the trappings of modern society. Instead, Yagyu Village more resembles the setting of an Isekai anime in that a visit feels as if you’ve traveled back in time to the days of yesteryear. Because of this, Yagyu Village is an awesome adventure regardless of whether or not you’re a Kimetsu-no-Yaiba fan.

Getting to Yagyu Village & the Itto-seki

A train arrives at Kasagi Station near Yagyu Village

As you might imagine, Yagyu Village does not boast the most convenient logistics. Nestled deep within the mountains along the borders of Kyoto and Mie Prefectures, the homely hamlet requires utilizing a number of different methods to get there if you’re coming by public transportation. Of course, the easiest method by far is a rental car but this is often not an option for overseas visitors to Japan. With that in mind, I’ll opt to outline how to reach Yagyu Village without access to your own set of wheels.

Put simply, the closest station to Yagyu Village is Kasagi Station on the JR Kansai Line. Unfortunately, there’s simply no way for a bus to wind its way up the narrow mountain roads from Kasagi Station to Yagyu Village. As a result, you’ll either need to hail a taxi (the only one servicing these boondocks is occasionally waiting right outside Kasagi Station) or resolve to hoof it. During my visit with fellow travel blogger Cheesie at the end of 2020, we lucked out and were able to get a taxi but you may not be as fortunate.

Rather than test your luck and pray to god that there’s a taxi lazily loafing about, I instead suggest you go to Nara first. Here, you can get a bus from either the JR or Kintetsu stations that will take you all the way to Yagyu Village. While this will require that you divine the hard-to-understand bus schedules, Nara is no stranger to overseas tourists. Thanks to this, you’ll almost assuredly be able to find someone to assist you. Just inquire at either of the two major stations or alternatively at one of the tourism info centers.

Note that bus and train departures are extremely infrequent in this part of the Japanese countryside. You absolutely need to be referring to a service like Hyperdia as well as the bus timetables to ensure that you don’t miss a critical connection. If you do, you’re looking at either having to wait an eternity for the next one (or worse)…

What Else to See in Yagyu Village

The fame Masaki-saka Kenzen Dojo in Yagyu Village that teaches the Yagyu Shinkage-ryu style of swordsmanship

For such a remote region, Yagyu Village actually has a number of awesome attractions to check out in addition to the Itto-seki. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll list below all the spots that I’d encourage you to consider seeing. As always, I’ll also include a Google Map link so that you, the reader, can best get your bearings while in Yagyu Village.

  • The Itto-seki
    Of course, the spot to go to in Yagyu Village is the Itto-seki that was supposedly cleaved in two by Sekishusai. Recently, it’s popularity has skyrocketed due to the Kimetsu-no-Yaiba hype and you’ll find a container with toy katanas near the rock. Whether you pose with one of these or come equipped with your own cosplay accessories, be sure to snap a few shots for the gram here at the Itto-seki.
  • Amano Iwatate Shrine
    This small shrine is found right before the Itto-seki. Rather than use a honden (main hall) where the deity usually resides, Amano Iwatate Shrine instead makes use of another massive boulder. Allegedly, Japanese people believe the shrine to be a “power spot” or a place where you can feel and receive spiritual energy.
  • Masaki-saka Kenzen Dojo
    Though the current building only dates from 1953, this dojo and its predecessors are where countless students have been taught the Yagyu Shinkage-ryu style of swordplay. I don’t actually think you can go inside but I encourage you to swing by while en route to the Itto-seki.
  • Jingozan Hotoku-ji
    Nestled on the hill above the Masakisaka Kenzen Dojo, this is the family temple of the Yagyu family. While there’s no ticket booth, visitors are asked to pay 200 yen to go in. Those who do will encounter a number of old manuscripts on swordsmanship as well as some armaments that once belonged to the Yagyu family.
  • Kyu Yagyu-han Karo Yashiki
    Though most of the above attractions are clustered near the Itto-seki, this former samurai domicile can be found on the other side of the valley. It used to belong to Oyamada Shurei, the karo or chief retainer of the Yagyu clan who oversaw all financial affairs.

Finally, while not entirely necessary to enjoy Yagyu Village, I do encourage you to read the Wikipedia entry on Sekishusai. Though enjoyable without the additional historical context, having a fuller picture of the Yagyu legacy and its significance will make it easier to appreciate this slice or rural Japan. As you’ll learn if you do your research, the clan were the personal fencing instructors of the Tokugawa shoguns. For the record, that’s quite the amazing feat for a family hailing from this secluded neck of the woods.

If you’re as impressed by Sekishusai as I am, you’ll want to be sure to stop by the Yagyu Graveyard and pay your respects. Here, you’ll find a host of Buddhist stone markers for the deceased. In all honesty, it’s hard to miss as you’ll encounter it while on the way to the Itto-seki. Moreover, if you look closely, you can actually find the final resting places of Sekishusai and other prominent Yagyu lords. Be sure to have the kanji ready though in case you can’t read Japanese.

Attractions Near Yagyu Village & the Itto-seki

A illustration of a ninja stealthily stalking his enemy in Iga-Ueno near Yagyu Villages and the Itto-seki

The most obvious answer for additional fun is Nara Park and all of the many allures that you’ll find there. Given that those opting to take the bus need to return here anyway, Nara Park is a sound choice. That said, it is also pretty mainstream and if you’re coming to a place like Yagyu Village, chances are high that you’ve already played with the deer before. Rather than revisit an old favorite, why not try something new? Seeing as Kasagi Station is but a few stops away from Iga-Ueno, why not go experience the area that is heralded as the “cradle of ninjutsu?”

If you’re interested in checking out Iga-Ueno, I highly encourage you to head on over to my in-depth article on the area. As an official supporter of Mie Prefecture, I cannot more highly recommend this metaphorical fresh breath of authenticity when it comes to anything ninja-related. As you’ll see in Iga-Ueno, the truth is commicaly different from what you see on the Hollywood big screen.

Until next time travelers…