Rare Lilies at Isagawa Shinto Shrine’s Lily Festival, & Nearby Nara City Strolls

From June 16th to the 18th, Isagawa Shrine holds its beautiful Lily Festival (Saikusa Matsuri), during which the place is festooned with flowers and celebrated with dances by Miko shrine maidens who carry lilies during their performances. Miko, who serve the Shinto gods and goddesses with what have become refined forms of sacred dance that can be at once purifications of space, offerings to the divine beings, and re-enactments of myths, are even older than this festival which was performed as early as the year 701. At this time it was held as an important state ritual. Today the Isagawa Shrine is part of a busy section of Nara city where it is surrounded by residences, businesses, cafes, restaurants, and temples (see below), but the status of the festival back in the day tells of its importance on a high political level. And the shrine itself is even older than the festival. It is said to have been founded in 593, making it Nara City’s oldest shrine. Together with Omiwa Shrine, a major Nara Shinto Shrine, the Lily Festival was held to prevent epidemics. Isagawa Shrine is normally rather a quiet place, where the main worship halls for the enshrined deities – and Empress-goddess and her parents – is barriered off, though visible, to the visitor, but the festival sees the place come to celebratory life. The main festival takes place on June 17th from 10:30am.

See bottom of post for details.



Isagawa Shrine


The principal goddess is Himetara Isuzuhime no Mikoto, the Empress-Consort of legendary Emperor Jinmu. During the festival, two barrels of white sake and black sake decorated with lilies are offered to her – sake being the drink of the gods in Japan. As legend has it, she once-upon-a-time dwelled in the foothills of Mount Omiwa (a shrine with deep links to sake, and whose main deity she is the daughter of) in the vicinity of fields of lilies. This is why the offering of these flowers is believed to be a way of pleasing her. The lily is the Sasayuri (Bamboo Lily), an extremely rare type that is endemic to Japan.


This ancient celebration of the legends of the imperial line is a chance to see the elegant sacred dances of the maidens, and to observe how a Shinto Shrine offering takes place. And those who love the amulets with distinctive designs found at temples and shrines will love the lily-themed charms, prayer plaques (ema), and even cufflinks and tie-clips that can be procured at the shrine. Himetara Isuzuhime no Mikoto promises special care for safe delivery, and of babies. Parental care is a general focus – the goddess’s mother and father are enshrined here too.



Isagawa Shrine



In the streets around Isagawa Shrine lie some interesting spots – a twenty minute walk brings into view Buddhist temples in gorgeous garden grounds, a toothbrush store with Nara-themed designs, and a retro cafe full of French-film themed paraphernalia. This is a part of the city centre that sometimes gets missed by visitors but is full of charm, history, and fun design detail.



Migakiyasui Toothbrush Artisan



Migakiyasui (“Easy to Brush”) Toothbrush Artisan has a range of brushes with fun designs that feature Nara’s famous deer and Great Buddha as well as Japanese flowers. They make for quite original, modern souvenirs and gifts. Their manufacture is based on the invention of Tanabe Jukichi, whose original design of an ideal toothbrush over 70 years ago has since been developed and refined.




Migakiyasui Toothbrush Artisan



Nearby Cafe Bardot has something of the flavour of those old-fashioned Japanese cafes that are, unfortunately, dying out – the kissaten.



Cafe Bardot, Nashiharacho Town



These are not quite like cafes of today – they began in the early twentieth century and are an aspect of Japan’s modernity and the boom in coffee culture. Kissaten reached their height in the 1960s and 1970s, and retro cafe Bardot captures this aesthetic along with splashes of modern design, art, and accessories made by the owner (among them quirky Nara-themed collage postcards), Brigitte Bardot memorabilia, nods to French culture, and old film magazines. It serves light food and desserts as well as coffee.




Cafe Bardot, Nashiharacho Town




A short walk away, Aburasaka – or “Oil Slope” – town was, in the medieval period, home to oil merchants. Renchoji Buddhist Temple, devoted to the Nichiren school of Japanese Buddhism, is situated here. The Nichiren school promised salvation to the ordinary believer – including the merchant class – and rose in the thirteenth century, long after the grand institutions of Todaiji Temple and Kohfukuji Temple secured their places in Nara, and have continued to attract followers up to the present day. Today, it also has a considerable following in the US, Europe, and elsewhere outside Japan as lay organisation “Soka Gakkai”.




Renchoji Temple, Aburasaka Town



Founder Nichiren understood the Lotus Sutra to be the supreme Buddhist sutra, and and promoted the practice of chanting the name of the sutra. Renchoji, while dating back to the eighth century, was re-established as a Nichiren temple in the fifteenth century and rebuilt in the seventeenth – the early Edo period – corresponding with the rise of a powerful merchant culture. We hear less of the merchant culture side to the city, since its ancient and imperially-linked aspects are so (deservedly) prominent, but a wander around this part of town gives some idea of its role and importance.




Renchoji Temple, Aburasaka Town



Steps away from “Oil Slope Town” are found other signs of later mercantile activity and the craft industry at the 1915 Nakagawa Family House, which is a beautifully preserved example of a wooden machiya townhouse. The atelier no longer survives, but the home demonstrates the architectural style of machiya in the early twentieth century.




Nakagawa Family House – home of textile manufacturers



The house belonged to the Nakagawa family who operated a textile business from the eighteenth century until the beginning of the Pacific War. It is replete with traditional features constructed with traditional techniques. Among them, there are two types of lattice windows, used to protect a property from thieves: hiragoshi-mado which are flush with the wall and degoshi-mado which jut out. Mushiko-mado, another type of window here, where earth is pasted over the vertical lattices, resemble insect cages, from which they derive their name. A Registered Tangible Cultural Property, this is a nice spot for enthusiasts of Japanese architecture that gives a glimpse into the old townscape of Nara.


Nara is a multi-faceted, multi-layered city that showcases awe-inspiring, ancient, politically-powerful Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines and their elaborate ceremonies, is home to one of the best Buddhist art museums in the world, and whose citizens include over a thousand free-roaming deer. But it also has a history of mercantile culture, newer schools of Buddhism, and old shrines tucked away unobtrusively in lesser-known streets. Its contemporary street-culture of cafes and commercial goods unique to Nara is not to be missed either. It’s a wonderful place for walking, and there’s nothing like a stroll around the city to get to know it all on a deeper level.



Isagawa Shrine Lily Festival

Isagawa Shrine (Isagawa Jinja) location here.  18 Honkomoricho, Nara, 630-8231.

Festival Details in English here.

Main Festival  June 17th, from 10:30am

Evening Festival   June 16th, from 3pm

Post-Festival   June 18th from 10am


Migakiyasui Toothbrush Artisan

Location here. 〒604-8061 Kyoto, Nakagyo Ward, Shikibucho, 263.

Weekdays 11am-7:30pm, Weekends 10am-8pm


Cafe Bardot

Location here. 13 Nashiharachō, Nara, 630-8253.

Hours: 10:30am-6:30pm every day. Closed on Mondays


Renchoji Temple

Location here. 426 Aburasakacho, Nara, 630-8247.


Nakagawa Family House

Location here. 20-1 Imazushicho, Nara, 630-8243.

(Note: The interior is not open to the public)




[Day Trip] 1-Day Nara and Uji Private Tailor-Made Tour

[Day Trip] 1-Day Nara and Uji Private Tailor-Made Tour

  This course is a tour that takes you from Osaka to Nara, famous for deer and the Great Buddha; and to Uji City, which is famous for tea. An English-speaking driver will go to pick you up at your hotel in Osaka.




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