Exploring Ikoma City’s Secret Gems

NAIST hosted a grand gathering of international students from several universities across northern Nara to explore and experience the hidden treasures of Ikoma.

Indonesian students from NAIST enjoying the bus ride to Takayama Bamboo Park

Whenever people ask me about my university and I tell them that it’s in Nara, they automatically reply, “Oh, you live with the deer!” They are making either one of these two assumptions: (1) that my university is in Nara City or (2) that the entirety of Nara prefecture is home to the deer, both of which, unfortunately, are incorrect! The Nara Institute of Science and Technology (NAIST) is located in Ikoma, a city to the very northeast of Nara Prefecture, sharing a border with Osaka. It is not the most touristy place in Nara but it does have its secret gems that the city can be proud of!

Group photo outside the main prayer hall of Chokyu-ji Temple (長弓寺)
My handmade bamboo tea whisk (chasen/茶筅) which I get to keep as a souvenir!

Last November, NAIST, together with the Nara International Exchange Promotion Committee, sponsored a tour that included international students from several universities in northern Nara: Nara Women’s University, Nara University of Education, Hakuho Junior College, Tezukayama University,  and Tenri University. The tour has a three-fold purpose: (1) to promote understanding of Japanese culture through cultural experiences and activities in Ikoma area; (2) to deepen exchange with international students from other universities; and (3) to interact with local children through the Templish activities.

Participants from the Nara Women’s University

First, the participants learned the craft of making bamboo tea whisk, or chasen (茶筅), which is produced exclusively in the Takayama area. The technique of making bamboo whisks follows the isshi-soden (一死祖伝) tradition which has been passed down through several generations.

Demonstration of the entire process of making bamboo whisks from small bamboo tubes
Participants having a first-hand experience of the craft of bamboo whisk-making!
Dianne, a student from NAIST Division of Materials Science, making some final touches to her hand-crafted tea whisk

After this, we experienced and enjoyed a Japanese tea ceremony. We prepared the matcha by whisking with the locally crafted chasen (茶筅). We also toured around the Takayama Bamboo Park which is a very calming and serene area where one can discern and meditate.

This lady facilitating the Japanese tea ceremony and serving delicious matcha
Students enjoying matcha that they whisked by themselves!
Group photo at the Takayama Bamboo Park

For the second part of this trip, we went to Chokyu-ji Temple (長弓寺), the only structure designated as a National Treasure in Ikoma and is dedicated to the Eleven-faced  Kannon Bodhisattva. Here, we had an amazing one-of-a-kind vegetarian lunch experience. Referred to as shojin ryori (精進料理), this vegetarian meal is traditionally prepared for the monks and is made purely from non-meat products such as vegetables, beans, and grains.

Vegetarian lunch set served at Chokyu-ji Temple
Participants enjoying every bit of the delicious side and main dishes!

This temple is also host to a volunteer event called Templish, where Japanese kids learn about Japanese culture through fun activities while learning English! The kids were extra enthusiastic and energetic that day because of the overwhelming number of volunteers that participated.

Templish reception area managed by international students from different universities
Hide-san giving an overview of the Templish activities prepared for that day. Look at how packed the room is!

We spent a bright, sunny afternoon playing both indoor (paper tower) and outdoor games (pass the message, paper plane-making). We also prayed at the main hall of the temple, a structure that has never been renovated or reconstructed in its 800-year history. Even to this day, all the lighting used in the halls is natural light! And as a practice, we ended up the Templish activities by singing the song “Country Roads, Take Me Home.”

Japanese kids receiving the “message” for the game “pass the message”
Both kids and adults trying out the paper planes that they made

This event gathered together many international students from different cultural backgrounds to have a deeper understanding of Japanese culture through various activities in the Ikoma area. It was also a great opportunity for international students from different academic backgrounds to build connections with each other and the local kids. Many students even want to participate in future Templish activities and they will be more than welcome to join us!

Interacting with the kids through Templish activities is a heart-warming and fulfilling experience!
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