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 Three – A Beautiful Breakfast, Burning Leaves and A Calligraphy Masterclass
Waking up on my final day visiting the sights and scenes of rural Nara, I was greeted by this view. Blue skies, fluffy clouds and the sun beaming down on the farmland in front of my terrace at L’auberge du Plaisance. I opened the door to venture out and swiftly decided to come back once I felt the cold wind through my yukata. I decided that I was happy to admire from inside my room. It dawned on me that this is the part of Japan I love the most, the natural landscape, so far removed from the greyscape and neon lights of the cities. Out where the land is open and green, mountain peaks forming the far off backdrop rather than that of a great glass skyscraper. I felt lucky to have found this place and experienced so much of rural Nara on my three day exploration of some of the prefectures lesser known spots, if I could, I would spend all my days venturing out into the wilds of Japan and scouring the land for off-the-beaten path places. I went to breakfast (tasty pastries, galette and a citrusy salad, all washed down with freshly squeezed juice and wonderfully strong, bittersweet coffee) and with this thought swimming around my well-rested head, began researching the next unknown beauty that was on my must-visit list.
My stay at L’auberge de Plaisance was restorative. Everything about the place is made to make you relax, from the terrace views that are best taken in with a glass of wine in-hand, to the grand suites, relaxing tubs and sumptuous beds, not to mention the indulgent cuisine (that for me, was a highlight of this stay), everything came together to create a really special and decadent experience. I was sad to go, but I had autumn leaves to see. The staff called a cab to my next stop, Tanzan Jinja, a shrine in the mountains around 25 minutes away. The embodiment of omotenashi, they even explained to my driver that I was to head back to the station after my sightseeing jaunt and would it be possible to come and pick me up afterwards. The taxi driver insisted that he wait for me there, “with the meter stopped, of course!” so that I didn’t have to lug my luggage up the stone steps or risk not being able to find a taxi when I was finished (of which there were none)…
Journeying into the mountains, I reached a glowing Tanzan Jinja. The floor a carpet of crimson and the sky was a rustling of copper-toned, crisp leaves that shook in the breeze, occasionally breaking free like embers from a flame, drifting down to the ground to thicken the blanket underfoot.
Marveling at the autumn colours is a hugely popular Japanese pastime and the autumn colours here must have been famous as it was the busiest place (behind Nara Park) that I visited in my three day exploration, though more of a gentle bustle than the huge crowds seen in certain places in Tokyo or even Kyoto. Sightseers comprised few international tourists. Mainly it was a gathering of locals, from elderly couples impressively climbing the steep stone steps to tiny school children, one of whom proudly hollering her age at me whilst she walked past, “ni–sai desu!” (I’m two years old!), holding up two fingers and pointing at herself, whilst a group of around 20 slightly older school children continually waved and smiled at me from behind their lilac school caps. The atmosphere here was wonderful, I could feel the joy in the air, the sense of excitement and the warmth, from the people and the autumnal glow alike.
After a good stroll amongst the grounds, I headed back to meet my taxi driver and embark on my journey back to Nara City. I had one more thing booked; a calligraphy class, before my trip was to come to a close. The journey back was effortless, as public transport often is in Japan, and I was back in town before I even realised I was moving. I alighted the train and walked to Calligraphy Experience Kaku, which takes place in a stationary store situated on a quiet residential street only five minutes from JR Nara station.
At Kaku, my class was led by Kaoru, a calligraphy expert. She’s very relaxed, cheerful and knowledgeable, providing incredibly interesting answers (via translator) to my many questions. I find out that the ink block (stored in solid form and rubbed in a tray with water to dilute to the correct viscosity) is made from smoke, the brushes mostly from animal fur, and that of the breast of the Chinese Goat is most expensive. Her calligraphy style is fluid and completely captivating, dipping the brush and dabbing the excess ink so that it’s just so, then gliding over the paper, flicking a wrist at strategic points to produce words of art in kanji. Now it’s my turn. It’s not as easy as it’s made to look… but I’m assured that my attempt is actually one of the better ones that my teacher has seen, though perhaps, more likely, she’s just being polite. Either way it doesn’t matter to me, the experience is enthralling and before I know it the hour is up and I’m beaming proudly at the pieces that I produced.
Upon finishing my class it was time for me to make my way back to the station to head home. I was sad to be leaving the beauty of the Japanese countryside behind. But I was sure to be heading back to Kyoto a changed person; more complete, contemplative and even more in awe of this amazing country and its people.
I would wholeheartedly recommend every place I visited on this incredible trip. For more information head over to Visit Nara and start planning your adventure to this extraordinary part of Japan.