The view from the Honoya's outdoor bath, as seen in springtime

Mount Yoshino (Yoshinoyama) in Nara Prefecture is one of Japan's most celebrated destinations, especially come spring when tens of thousands flock here from all over the country and beyond to witness the dazzling cherry blossom displays that illuminate the mountain's slopes.

Sakura aside, the mountain and the surrounding town are well worth a visit all year round, with a great deal to offer tourists including temples, shrines and other sites that relate to the area's rich history, as well as an abundance of attractions that fall decidedly more on the indulgent side of things.

The purpose of this trip was to focus on the latter, in investigating the town's sake scene by visiting a couple of the town's respected breweries before following the road up the mountain to arrive at a traditional Japanese inn and enjoy hot spring bathing and Japanese cooking before bedding down for the night.

I started my journey at Osaka-Abenobashi Station in central Osaka from where Yoshino can be reached by Kintetsu Railway in just over an hour by a limited express train. I chose to take the Blue Symphony, a special train that makes two round trips per day between Osaka-Abenobashi and Yoshino stations and for which tickets must be purchased before boarding either online or at a ticket counter.

The Blue Symphony
The train's classic interior

Inspired by classical music, the train's interior strikes a balance between that reminiscent of decades past and the modern, and provided quite the luxurious and comfortable means of travelling to Yoshino. While on board I ordered a tasting set of three sake from Yoshino breweries (two of which I'd visit upon my arrival in the town) to get me in the mood.

The three were very different but equally delicious and, paired with a portion of sesame bean curd made with local Yoshino ingredients and never-ending views of the quaint country side, they left my appetite decidedly whetted.

Sake and rural scenery
Plush seating
Sipping and snacking
After alighting at Yamato-Kamiichi Station

I alighted in the heart of the sake-brewing area at Yamato-Kamiichi Station, just a couple of stops before the Yoshino terminus. After walking down the sleepy town's narrow, meandering streets, I ended up at Kitaoka Honten, a sake brewery that this year is celebrating its 150th birthday.

I entered and was taken on a tour around the old complex by an English-speaking employee who dutifully informed me of the techniques involved in brewing the company's sake. I also got the chance to get up close to some of the impressive equipment that stands around this rustic complex.

After the tour was over, I was guided back to the front of the complex where the sake tasting was to begin. I got the chance to try multiple different types of Yatagarasu (the company's sake brand) while the guide told me a little about the properties of each. The sake was delicious, with the brand's sakura-flavored sake striking me as especially light and refreshing and tasting similar to nothing I'd ever drank before.

Kitaoka Honten's brewery tours can be booked in English either by phone (+81-746-32-2777) or email (yamauchi@kitaoka-honten.com) every day between 9:00 and 17:00.

The Kintetsu Yoshino Line crosses the Yoshino River
Meandering through the narrow streets near Yamato-Kamiichi Station
Arriving at Kitaoka Honten brewery
The brewery's tasting area where many different varieties can be tried and purchased
A few of the brewery's tanks
A delicious-looking lineup

A few tumblers of sake down, I left Kitaoka Honten with a spring in my step and made the walk across town to the second of the sake breweries on my list, Miyoshino Brewery. Upon arrival, I was given a tour of the place, another old complex steeped in history, before being shown to the brewery's outdoor area where patrons can sit and sip sake in an idyllic setting by the banks of the Yoshino River.

Tours are carried out here on Sundays from November to March between 14:00 and 16:00 and are in Japanese only, but the brewery's shop and tasting area (including the outdoor seating) is open every day from 9:00 to 17:00 making the brewery a great place to visit any time of year.

Bottles on offer in the brewery's shop and tasting area
Wooden tubs in the brewery, reminiscent of centuries past
An idyllic spot to sit out and drink
Part of an old barrel serves as the seating area's table
Views along the Yoshino River

It was now time to start my ascent of Mount Yoshino towards the traditional Japanese inn where I'd be spending the night, so I walked from the brewery to Yoshinojingu Station and took a train on the Kintetsu Yoshino Line one stop to the terminus at Yoshino Station. From here I began the relatively gentle hike up to the mountain's mid-levels, passing through the charming, hilly townscape along the way.

I was by now ready for food and came across Hatsune, a delightful hillside restaurant serving traditional Japanese cuisine including a somen noodle and tempura set, which I ordered for lunch. In addition to the tranquil atmosphere created by its tatami floor and lightly colored decor, the views down the mountain that can be had from this place made it a great place to stop and rest.

Arriving at Yoshino Station
Scenes from the walk up the mountain
Hatsune
A nice setting for a traditional lunch
Somen and tempura with a view

Evening was beginning to close in when I eventually arrived at the Honoya, a traditional Japanese ryokan in a stunning location towards the summit of Mount Yoshino and where I'd be spending the night. After a day of sake sipping and hiking, the first thing on my mind was to soak, which I was lucky enough to do in the ryokan's outdoor bath. The bath overlooks some of the surrounding mountain range, making the experience of soaking here quite spectacular.

Arriving at the Honoya
Rooms with a view (photo taken in spring)

I was treated to a Japanese ryokan dinner, including traditional favorites such as sashimi, tofu and grilled fish as well as some succulent, high grade beef. The meal, washed down with a couple more alcoholic beverages, left me satiated and sleepy and signaled a delicious end to a fun-filled day.

Dinner is served
Succulent beef ready to cook

Access

The one way ride between Osaka-Abenobashi and Yoshino stations takes 75 minutes and costs 1480 yen by limited express train (1690 yen in case of the Blue Symphony) or 90 minutes and 970 yen by express train. Limited express trains require seat reservations.

The Kintetsu Rail Pass 2day offers unlimited use of Kintetsu trains within the designated coverage area, including trains between Osaka, Yoshino, Nara and Kyoto, and is only available to foreign visitors. Note that the supplement fee for limited express trains is not covered by the pass. A 1-day pass is also available.

Kintetsu Rail Pass 2day

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