Nara City is home to literally dozens of World Heritage sites, many of which are Japanese temples and shrines. However, there are several places recognized as World Heritage sites that are neither. One example is Kasugayama Primeval Forest. Just a few short minutes from the central area of Nara City, this ancient forest is one of Nara’s many treasures.
Why Is Kasugayama Primeval Forest So Important?
Kasugayama Primeval Forest is a sacred forest that Kasuga Shrine has protected since 841, when they prohibited cutting down any trees in the forest. This means that many trees in the forest are hundreds upon hundreds of years old. However this doesn’t mean the forest is completely unchanged. Rather, it has been well maintained but essentially undisturbed. Even though there has been some human involvement, the main goal has always been to maintain the forest’s rich ecological balance and diversity.
Getting to Kasugayama Primeval Forest
There are two entrances to the Kasugayama Primeaval Forest trail. The north entrance is near a little restaurant called Mizuyachaya between Kasuga Shrine and Todai-ji. The south entrance is on the south side of Kasuga Shrine. The entrances are not that clearly marked, so you should take a map!
Once you enter the forest the path is very clear and easy to follow. That withstanding, we strongly encourage bringing a map, since there’re a number of smaller routes along the trail.
(blue line = Kasugayama Primeval Forest Trail black line=Mt Wakakusa Trail )
Kasugayama Primeval Forest
We decided to start from the north entrance because we thought it was easiest to find.
The trail is well maintained and not at all steep, so you probably won’t need special gear other than a decent pair of hiking shoes.
In addition to the rich wildlife, there are a handful of other things you should pay attention to during your hike.
Points of Interest
Uguisu no Taki
This waterfall is just about 500 meters off the main trail and is a refreshing sight!
World Heritage Marker
This marker also serves as the halfway point on the trail. If you go over the bridge, you will cross into the oldest part of the forest.
Jizo and Buddha Statues
Near the end of our hike we ventured off onto one of the side trails. There we found these stone Buddha carvings. It turns out these carvings are quite old; from the Heian Period. In the 12th century, workers from Todai-ji would go in to Kasuga to look for stone to build the temple. While harvesting rock, they also made these carvings and left them in Kasuga.
The jizo statue (below) has had it rough! He was once used for practice by sword master Araki Matauemon.
All in all, we walked ten kilometers in about four hours. Since the hike wasn’t particularly steep, we didn’t feel as tired as we thought we would. I’ve heard of people finishing this hike in around two hours, but I think you should take your time to enjoy it and check out some of the side trails.
Standing just behing Todai-ji is Mt. Wakakusa [若草山], though it really just looks like a big hill. The entry fee is about 200 yen per person.
It is a two hour hike up Wakakusa so if the four hours needed for the Kasuga Trail is too daunting for you, this is a nice option.
Unlike the Mt Kasuga Forest Trail, the hike up Mt. Wakakusa is pretty steep— so that might wear you out.
However, the scenery from the top of the hill is very pretty!! Also the top of the “mountain” is connected to the Kasuga Trail, so this is yet another alternative you could take while hiking in the Kasuga Forest.
FYI Mt.Wakakusa is closed from the middle of December to the middle of March.
The Future of Mount Kasuga Primeval Forest
Some people may wonder how many deer live in Kasugayama Primeval Forest, especially since there are so many deer in nearby Nara Park. The answer is… almost none, and that’s a good thing.
Once upon a time, Kasugayama Forest was full of wolves and wild dogs, so the deer didn’t go into the forest. Overtime, however, the wolves slowly went extinct due to hunting and deforestation throughout Nara Prefecture. Once the deer realized there were no more predators to worry about, they started going into the forest. As I said, this isn’t good. You see, deer love to eat soft greens, and they found the young native plants in the forest especially tasty. With the deer eating up all the young plants, the forest’s diversity is beginning to dwindle. Not to mention they also trample saplings.
Great efforts are being made to remove the deer from the forest in order to preserve the centuries old ecosystem, but it’s challenging. Because of Nara’s iconic deer, their treasured forest is in danger. Only time will tell what the outcome of these events will be.
Coming next time,
The historic Kofuku-ji Temple!
The adventure continues…