For years tourists to Japan have been drawn to the country’s first capital, Nara. The ancient city where deer roam free and imposing temples as old as the founding of the city itself attract visitors in droves to marvel at the beauty of Old Japan. But there’s so much more to the prefecture, and of the city itself, than that of these major tourist sites, as I was to find out on a three day trip with Visit Nara. Here I recount my amazing journey, from tranquil urban hideaways off the well-trodden tourist trail, to rural exploration of some of the most stunning landscapes I’ve yet to see in this fascinating island.
Part One – Hidden Urban Hideaways and a Journey to Spiritual Solitude
Arriving into Nara city you’d be forgiven for thinking that the zen city of your dreams doesn’t exist. Busy streets filled with tourists, a steady stream leaving the station on their way to Tōdaiji to admire the giant Buddha, or head into the bustling park, jostling for selfies with greedy deer who bow and butt for locally-sold ‘deer biscuits’. Of course I see the appeal, along with a plethora of other tourists, but for me the joy of travel is finding something alongside the obvious. Secluded experiences, quiet corners and space; space to breathe, think and admire. Something that is not so easy when surrounded by camera-wielding packs of people pointing and shouting to each other over the ambient hum of a thousand excitable travellers. Those looking to escape the relentlessness of Tōdaiji’s main area can still find solitude in central Nara. In fact, a mere ten minute walk in the opposite direction will take you to a beautiful part of the park that is often overlooked by visitors and offers a stunning natural landscape in which to find some quiet repose.
Nara Park is big, which is a good thing when it comes to tourists. Most won’t venture far from the main guidebook-posted attractions, meaning a few minutes meandering through the manicured lawns takes you to quiet corners and open spaces of a park almost entirely your own. The deer here too are different. Calmer. No fighting for crackers, no biting or chasing or delving into open bags and pockets for any morsels that might have been missed. They wander the grounds, munching on grass and basking in the sun, sometimes offering up a friendly nudge or inquisitive sniff, but mainly keeping themselves to themselves and relaxing in all their photogenic glory. The south area of the park is particularly good for this. Wandering around the Ukimi-do Pavilion reveals a panorama so beautiful it’s a wonder why so few tourists are here. Not that I’m complaining. Walking the pathways between here and the thatched beauty of the Kataoka Bairin is a taste of the real Nara that travellers long to see and is so easily accessible it’s the epitome of hiding in plain sight.
Aware of my own words ringing in my head “Nara is so much more than the deer!” I head for the old town, Naramachi. Nothing beats beating the crowds, especially on an autumnal day in Nara. When the rest of the city is packed with leaf-peepers, no one seems to be in on the secret that Nara’s old town is equally worth exploring as the city’s fiery foliage. A short walk from the park, tiny alleys of traditional architecture beckon. Latticed wooden walls hide tiny tea houses, cafes and boutiques. Carefully-curated souvenir shops, like Yu Nakagawa, are full of thoughtful gifts for family and friends back home and just soaking up the ambience of the area is food for the soul.
A few of my favourite spots in the area include TABI coffee roasters, whose drip coffee selection is some of the best in the city and the tiny shop is so beautiful it’s an instagrammers idea of heaven. Tucked down a traditional alley with a heap of other boutique businesses (including a delicious-looking Japanese sweet-maker), this is a great spot for an afternoon snack and although not housed in a traditional machiya-style building, it’s secluded setting is seriously enjoyable. Another interesting space is that of Issindo. A Japanese calligraphy specialist store that is stacked high with beautiful brushes, ink and everything imaginable to create calligraphy magic. Even if you aren’t a practitioner, the blocks of ink, so intricately carved, and the precise animal hair brushes are so pretty that they’d make for excellent decorative gifts, a silent reminder of a trip to a land full of transformative encounters with thousand-year traditions and inspirational cultural practices.
Nara is a city best seen by walking. And there is no better way to work up an appetite than strolling its streets and parks, losing yourself to the quaint charm of its tile-roofed houses, stone passages and charcoal black wooden walls that, I imagine, conceal a precise dry stone garden with lush green mosses and perfectly pruned trees. Japan is so mysterious, it’s built that way. In a land where everything is hidden, quiet, behind closed doors, it does nothing but fire up the imagination and intrigue the senses. People fall in love with the mystery, longing for more and Nara delivers. Walking the same street over again illuminates secrets that went unnoticed the first time. NIPPONIA Naramachi is one such wonder. Walking a seemingly unassuming residential street, you’re suddenly greeted by a stunning example of traditional architecture. White stone walls and with dark wooden panels, ornate grey tiles and sunken steps leading to a simple white noren (Japanese traditional shopkeepers curtain) reading Restaurant Le Un.
Behind the noren is yet more examples of traditional architecture. The dining room, an old sake brewery (in fact, the entirety of the hotel is) has been lovingly restored into a stunning space in which to enjoy their carefully curated course menu. The food is French and uses only the best local ingredients, perfectly paired with seasonal local sakes made by the area’s most respected brewery, and funnily enough, the one that used to inhabit this building.
Sitting at the counter and watching the chef at work was magnificent. Slicing, steaming, flambé-ing and arranging mouth-watering little offerings that beckoned to be devoured, from Amberjack Tuna with local mikan (clementine) to turnip soup with dried yuzu peel ‘yubeshi‘ a famed Nara delicacy, every course was refined, beautiful and above all, delicious. The chef, hailing from Osaka but refining his art in France, was not only a culinary genius but a delight to chat to, his passion for produce and creating a menu oozing from his chilled-out charm.
The hotel itself is also a lovely option for staying to explore more of Nara city aside from the obvious. Rooms are beautifully restored and details have clearly been thought about to retain the original character of the building. Once a fully functioning sake brewery, the evolution into an inner city retreat is fascinating.
Well fed from my NIPPONIA experience, the final part of my first day was to ensue; journeying into the mountains for my shukubo temple experience.
Arriving at Shigisan was like be plucked from real life and dropped into a fairytale. Stone lanterns flickered in the evening air, lighting the pathways leading up into the mountain. A dark stillness settled and was only broken by the buzzing of insects or the last few chirps from nestled birds before settling into a night of slumber.
Checking in and meeting the Head Monk was enlightening to say the least. Rather unexpectedly he spoke English very well, something that I wasn’t prepared for in such a rural destination. We discussed his background, a corporate job that he traded in to pursue his dedication to Buddhism, not looking back for 30 years, 12 of which as Head of this temple, Gyokuzoin.
The check-in process was smooth and unsurprisingly peaceful. The setting washes over you and I immediately felt at ease. Softly spoken monks explained about bathing and meal times (Gyokuzoin has only one shared public bathhouse and it was explained that men and women were separated into 90minute time slots in the evenings. The bathhouse was not open in the morning as visitors are expected to rise at 5am for morning prayers).
All rooms at Gyokuzoin are the same. Simple, spacious tatami-matted spaces decorated sparsely but deliberately, I’m sure to encourage a sense of shedding any unnecessary modern excesses and focus on an inner-contemplative state, one that is further enhanced by succumbing to sleep and attempting to find peace on the futon with traditional buckwheat pillow.
After seeing the rooms and taking time to relax, a dinner of traditional Buddhist cuisine, shojin ryōri was to be served in a communal tatami room, set on a little pedestal including a number of delicious homemade and healthy dishes, from tofu steamed in kombu (seaweed) broth to tempura mountain vegetables. It was delicious and wholesome and totally representative of the amazing ambience that you could feel sinking into your soul by being in such a sacred place.
In preparation for my 5am start (and to tackle said futon and buckwheat pillow), after dinner I soaked in the onsen-style bath. All of my troubles seemed eased. The stress of the day washed away and, for the first time in my life, I was excited for my 4.45am alarm.
To be continued…