Yagyu: Nara’s Hidden Village of the Shoguns’ Sword Masters

By Alon Adika

Legend has it that while roaming the wooded hills around his village one day, Yagyu Munetoshi encountered a tengu — a mythical creature, part human and part bird, adept at swordplay.

Munetoshi was renowned for his fencing skills and relished the opportunity to duel with such a foe. When he sensed a weakness in his opponent’s guard, he attacked with a thunderous bellow. Just as his sword was about to strike the tengu’s head, it disappeared; the sword instead struck a large rock, which it cleaved in two.

I stood in the dark forest looking at the stone that spawned this legend. The muddy ground squished as I moved closer. The rock was much larger than I had expected it to be — but it was most certainly split cleanly into two parts.

It seemed implausible that a man with a sword could have accomplished this feat. Nevertheless, an eerie feeling overcame me, and though it was a hot summer day, I felt a chill in the air and did not linger for long.

I had come to the village of Yagyu on a pilgrimage to seek out the roots of the martial art I had been practicing for the past number of years: the Yagyu Shinkage style of swordsmanship.

The village was once home to the illustrious Yagyu family of swordsmen who have been immortalized in Japanese history and popular culture. It was here that tengu-trounced Yagyu Munetoshi (1529-1606) received a certificate of initiation into the deepest secrets of swordplay and became the second chief master of one of the most famous sword styles in Japan: a style that was to gain the patronage of the Tokugawa family, from which Japan’s ruling shoguns from 1603 to 1867 were drawn.

Yagyu is a mountain village in a remote corner of Nara Prefecture by the border with Kyoto Prefecture. Yet, though actually part of Nara City, it is removed in both time and space from modern Japan.

Here you will not find any convenience stores or family restaurants. You will not see any karaoke boxes or pachinko parlors. You will not even be able to detrain here, as the closest station is about an hour’s walk away. You will, however, have an opportunity to catch a glimpse of an older Japan while learning about the Yagyu family and their swordsmanship.

As I marched into Yagyu, I noticed a yellow-green sea of rice fields. The stalks of the rice plants were heavy and drooped with ripening grains. It was a quiet weekday morning; there was only the occasional rustling of the rice plants. Some farmers worked in their fields as harvest time neared.

Presently I reached a flight of stone steps leading to Hotokuji, the Yagyu family temple built on one of the green hills surrounding the village by Yagyu Munenori in memory of Munetoshi, his father. In a garden in front a stone marker records this as the site of an early Yagyu fort. The stone steps, lookout spots and empty moat in the area all lend credence to that marker.

It was his meeting with a swordsman from the Kanto region that changed completely the course of Munetoshi’s life. He was so comprehensively defeated in a bout with Kamiizumi Isenokami, the founder of the Shinkage style of fencing, that he invited him to come and stay in Yagyu and asked to become his disciple. Kamiizumi accepted.

After a period of training together, Kamiizumi left to continue his journeys. Before taking his leave, however, he gave Munetoshi some homework; he asked him to explore the concept of muto (lit. “no sword”): facing an armed opponent while yourself unarmed.

When Kamiizumi next visited, Munetoshi demonstrated the results of his study. It was after this that Kamiizumi designated him the second chief master of the Shinkage style of swordsmanship.

There is no ticket booth at the gate of the temple, just a little box with a sign asking for ¥200. Part of the temple serves as a small museum. On display are old manuscripts on swordsmanship and strategy, armor emblazoned with the Yagyu family crest, sword guards and other objects connected with the Yagyu family. In the main hall, a wooden statue of Munenori is on display. I took some time contemplating its strong-willed face before continuing.

From there I followed a path that skirted the temple and led to the pine forest behind it. After a short while, I reached the Yagyu graveyard sited in a clearing. I examined the many old tombstones and found that of Munetoshi. As I gazed at it, I reflected on how the Yagyu family has been transmitting its style of swordsmanship from generation to generation for more than 400 years.

Later, back down in the village, I passed a few sleepy shops. There was no one around except for another visitor I had seen that day. The young man from Tokyo told me he had come “to meet Yagyu Munenori” — he who had become the fencing instructor to the Tokugawa shoguns.

Yagyu family lore tells how the future first Tokugawa Shogun, Ieyasu (1543-1616) —after watching Munetoshi demonstrate his skills — picked up a wooden sword to put to the test the master’s no-sword techniques. Unarmed, Munetoshi lowered his center of gravity and advanced towards Ieyasu with smooth steps. As soon as Ieyasu attacked, Munetoshi slipped in and from below seized the sword hilt before the blade could touch him. Next thing Ieyasu knew, his sword was flying through the air as Munetoshi tapped him lightly on the chest.

Impressed, Ieyasu sought to employ Munetoshi as his retainer. Due to his age, however, he declined, but recommended Munenori in his stead. Afterward, Munenori also went on to be the sword instructor of future shoguns Hidetada and Iemitsu, as well as an inspector for the Tokugawa government. Such high-profile roles of course enormously boosted the prestige and prospects of the Yagyu family and their style of swordsmanship.

I looked toward the hill across the valley and noticed a tall, withered cedar about halfway up the slope. Known as the Jubei Cedar, that tree is named after another famous family member, the much-romanticized Yagyu Jubei, a son of Munenori. According to tradition, Jubei planted it more than 350 years ago, but it died after being struck twice by lightning. The contrast between the green-leafed trees on the hill and that lone leafless cedar is as eye-catching as the eye patch some accounts say Jubei wore.

Walking along a path beneath Jubei’s tree, I passed more rice fields, a modern junior high school and the large 19th-century home of the chief retainer of the Yagyu domain. The old mansion is open to the public and contains some items connected to Yagyu history and some exhibits about the 20th-century author Yamaoka Souhachi, who wrote several novels about the Yagyu family, one of which was made into a 1971 NHK TV series titled “Haru no Sakamichi.”

As I continued my peregrination, the path began to narrow toward the edge of town and took me into a forest. I realized that I was on an old route leading to central Nara some 16 km distant. I walked on for a while, but then remembered that I had an engagement that evening. Though the stone path beckoned me strongly, and I stood there regarding its past and present for a few long moments, I reluctantly forced myself to turn around and walk back to the bus station — but not before promising myself that I would return some day to complete walking the old Yagyu Highway.

Getting there: Take a 50-min. Nara Kotsu bus ride to the village of Yagyu from JR Nara or Kintetsu Nara station. As there are only a few buses daily, you can plan ahead by calling Nara Tourist Information Office on (0742) 24-4858 or Nara Kotsu Bus on (0742) 20-3100. Alternatively, take a taxi (10-15 min.), or walk (1 hour) from JR Kasagi Station.