Unknown Japan; Rural Nara Part Two

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 Two – Meditation in the Mountains, Journey into Ancient Japan and French Fine Dining with a Japanese twist

Whilst staying at Shigisan I was to call Gyokuzoin home, a Buddhist temple that hosts travelers overnight. Much like Koyasan, these stays are known as shukubo. Similarly to years gone by where pilgrims would seek refuge in these same temples, shukubo have now opened their doors to visitors who wish to embark upon a spiritual retreat, spending time joining practices that are usually reserved for monks and priests; praying, copying religious scripture, hiking, and meditating.

Waking up at Shigisan it was still dark. I pulled back the shutters on the window to try and glimpse even a spot of far-off sun, but there wasn’t any. Instead the stone lanterns shone in the black and leaves rustled in the wind. I dressed, pulling on a few layers to fend off the 5am chills and made my way to meet the monks for the experience that I’d been waiting for; the goma Buddhist fire ceremony.

Walking the illuminated pathways was like something from a fairytale, even more so in my groggy morning state. The air was still and cold but the warm glow from the lanterns somehow seemed to seep in to the skin and take the edge off. The Head of the temple was waiting when I arrived at the temple hall, with the only two other guests I’d seen staying at the shukubo. He beckoned us inside and motioned for us to take a seat on the floor. The room was beautiful. Ornate iron lanterns hung from the ceiling; a stone hearth decorated with glistening gold candlesticks in the middle of the wooden room, a pedestal was placed in front of the hearth. We entered, sitting to face the monks.

The sutra chanting began, reverberating against the wooden walls of the tiny room, the stillness outside enhancing every second. Trance like movements of the Head Monk, grasping a long iron rod, a cup at the end, feeding the flames that he’d lit in the hearth. Incense, dried herbs and wishes, written on cedar goma sticks, representing human desires and thus the root of our worldly suffering, were fed to fire producing gloriously sweet-smelling smoke that filled the room, floating between the flickering lanterns above. The consecrated fire is believed to have a powerful cleansing effect, both spiritually and psychologically, Buddha burning away the root of our suffering as we pray for our wishes to come true. Quickly, dramatically, the flames grew and hissed. Embers shot out as smoke rose, dancing to the chanting of the monks and the beating of the drum. It was transformative. I can safely say that I’ve never experienced anything like it. The movements, sounds, echoes, atmosphere, they were all electric. A feeling of fascination and contentment washed over me and I basked in it. It was almost addictive, the high of just being there and being part of this sacred ritual.

The flames died down and the chants became softer. The temperature of the room dropped while the morning air wafted back inside, the warmth of the fire immediately noticeable now that it was gone. We were told to wash the smoke from the remaining embers over ourselves and pray for our wishes to come true. I really believed it.

From here we had half an hour to explore the mountainside before morning prayers in the main hall. The sun was just rising and an ethereal glow crept slowly over the site. The quiet was deafening, in the most beautiful way. Birds began to sing and insects buzzed, breaking the silence to form a hive of activity.

After a spot of exploration, I followed the monks to the main hall for morning prayers. The sun was still creeping over the horizon and the view from the main hall onto the valley below was like a scene from a watercolour painting, pastel colours bleeding into each other across the horizon. Slightly less intimate than the goma ceremony, but just as fascinating, the morning prayers were louder and more energetic. Drums, chants and written sutras clapped together with an almighty crack were just the alarm clock I needed. The energy was the complete opposite to that of the fire ritual though I could feel it lighting a fire within me for the day ahead. My breath became less visible as the prayers came to a close and the sun shone outside. The day had just started yet I’d already experienced so much.

Leaving Shigisan I felt calm, purified almost. I didn’t want to leave but the stay was exactly what I needed, without being aware of it. I left lighter but with a longing to return already and I know that this experience will stay with me for as long as I can remember.

Next on my itinerary was a train to Kashihara to explore the charming little town of Imaicho. Arriving into Imaicho reminded me of the beautiful old parts of Kyoto, only undisturbed. The streets were quiet and unspoiled. Locals were going about their business amongst traditional streets and the few tourists that I did see were investigating the area in hushed adulation. I spent hours wandering, happening on quaint cafés, sake stores and soy sauce makers. I even found a tofu vending machine attached to a boutique tofu producer, the juxtaposition of old and new too much for me to bear, so I of course had to video myself purchasing a selection of tasty tofu treats. A few of my favourite spots were Café Satou, Tsuneoka Soy Sauce Brewery and Kawai Sake Brewery.

Imaicho had such a friendly buzz I could have spent hours more wandering the streets, but alas, after chatting to some locals over lunch in Café Satou and buying a few omiyage, I had another train to catch. This time to Sakurai and out into the countryside for my next overnight stay and one that couldn’t be more different to Shigisan.

L’auberge de Plaisance was my home for the next night. Set on a hillside overlooking the farming valley below, it’s a luxurious French style inn, part of the the Hiramatsu Hotels group, owned by one of Japan’s most famous chefs. The focus here is firmly on pure unadulterated luxury and fine food, with the in-house restaurant serving up incredible seasonal fare from local farms.

After a welcoming glass of freshly pressed pear juice overlooking the picture perfect view from floor-to-ceiling windows in the comfy lobby area, the staff showed me to my room. Sumptuous and spacious, the suite has a separate living area and bedroom, both with the same incredible countryside views and a gorgeous terrace, which although was out of action due to the November chill, was just as impressive to appreciate from the warmth behind the window. With a couple of hours before dinner, I sunk into the tub to ease the aches of muscles exhausted from walking for two solid days.

Dinner, the highlight of L’auberge for me, began with a glass of champagne and a perusal of the menu. Everything sounded delicious. I was told that, wherever possible, ingredients were grown locally and picked when perfectly ripe. Famed Nara vegetables were used in each dish and flavours built to complement the ingredients on offer on their very doorstep. I was not disappointed. Canapés carved to mimic maple leaves, served on cherry wood branches, simple wabisabi ceramics the backdrop to the most aesthetically pleasing portions of food and impressive flavours from a miso tapenade tuna dish to locally reared Yamato beef with chestnuts. Each dish was more delicious than the last and the combination of flavour and pristine presentation making the whole experience utterly engaging.

After an evening of multi-course mastery, I was ready for a night of contented slumber. Satiated, I left the table and wandered back to my room to relax in the cloud-like comfort of my bed. My head hit the pillow and I was out, a wonderful end to another exceptional day exploring what hidden gems Nara has to offer.

To be continued…