ONE PERFECT DAY JAPAN ON THE QUIET
Alistair Jones cycles the streets of the ancient imperial capital of Nara
WE can’t help but stare. On a narrow street of old Japanese houses with faded walls, darkened wood and glimpses of private gardens, we’ve come across the Liberace of hearses: a shiny 1960s Toyota with a glitzy golden temple crafted on to the back end, dazzling in the sun as locals pedal by and delivery vans squeeze past its gilded fins.
The driver stands watch outside a family funeral, lightly rolling on the balls of his feet like a dark-suited doorman, waiting to receive the coffin. The Buddhist rites are still going on but one priest slips out early and dons a helmet. He slides a pale hand into the hidden pocket of his generous sleeves, retrieves the key to a sleek, canopied scooter and rides off. The dead are being honoured but life goes on.
We’re in the old quarter of Nara in the Kansai region of central Japan, founded in 710 as the first permanent imperial capital and these days a provincial city of about 370,000. The restrained yet cosmopolitan buzz of Kyoto and the Bladerunner nightscapes of bustling Osaka are only a half hour away by train, but Nara moves at a more tranquil pace, with incense in the air.
I’ve been joined by a friend from Tokyo and soon we’re trundling along the main street on rented bicycles, heading into Nara-koen, a 526ha park set aside in the late 19th century to better showcase Nara’s historic sites, eight of which have UNESCO World Heritage status.
Best blockbuster: The star attraction in Nara-koen is Todai-ji, a temple complex with a whopping 16m bronze and gold Buddha seated in the world’s largest wooden building, attended by two glittering bosatsu, deities that have postponed entering nirvana to remain helpful to worshippers. The big fella was first cast about 750 for the Yamato clan, who still rule Japan. The Yamatos made Chinese Buddhism the official national religion, concurrent with indigenous Shinto beliefs, from which they drew the claim to being of divine descent. As a grandiose statement of imperial clout, Todai-ji must have been a jaw-dropper for scrabbling peasants living in pits, the bulk of the population before the court moved in.
What with fires, earthquakes and wars, most of Japan’s ancient buildings have had to be reconstructed through the centuries. Todai-ji’s present great hall dates from the beginning of the 18th century and is only two-thirds the size of the original, but the looming southern entrance gate survives from 500 years earlier in a more obviously Chinese style. The gate encloses two fierce, wooden Nio guardians by master sculptor Unkei, each about 12m tall and remarkably animated, despite being obscured by protective mesh.
Best mascot: The avenue down to Todai-ji is dotted with deer droppings and lined with stands selling deer-themed knick-knacks, along with other local crafts and some good pickles. More than 1000 tame deer mooch freely around Nara-koen as messengers of the gods, seemingly content to live on a diet of tourist biscuits. They feature appealingly on Nara’s illustrated manhole covers.
Best shrine: Cycling southeast through the park leads towards the surrounding hills and the vermilion gates of Kasuga Taisha, whose Shinto mythology is responsible for the deer. Founded in 710 and rebuilt every 20 years until 1863, Kasuga Taisha backs on to a primeval forest, also with heritage status, and things become more mossy as we wheel our bikes up a shaded drive past some of the several thousand stone and brass lanterns surrounding the shrine. There’s ancient magic in the air.
The worship in progress as we arrive involves an archery ritual with striking costumes and headgear. The women’s contingent ping off their arrows with poise and precision, solemnly observed by a panel of elders seated by the target. Drums beat slowly as they file from view in measured procession.
The restaurant in the gardens below the shrine doesn’t admit deer and is a pleasant stop for lunch before freewheeling down pathways in the park, pausing here and there at an interesting building or pond, on the way back to town.
Best ancient and venerable sites: It starts to rain as we reach the twin pagodas of Kofukuji temple, so we duck into the treasure hall and are transfixed by finely articulated human faces on 10 great disciples of Buddha: 1.5m wooden figures carved and lacquered during the 8th century. The statue of Ashura is also a standout among an arresting, if dimly lit, collection from a period when Chinese ideas were avidly absorbed in Japan. During late October, glittering imperial treasures of a similar vintage are displayed in the Nara National Museum.
About 20 minutes south of Nara by train and shuttle bus is Horyu-ji temple. Founded in 607, burned down in 670 and rebuilt in the 8th century, it is claimed that the five-storey pagoda is the oldest wooden structure in the world. The adjacent treasure halls contain some exceptional antiquities.
Best orientation: Nara has two railway stations about five blocks apart: Japan Rail and the terminal of the Kintetsu Corporation, whose network is generally the most convenient for travel across the Kansai region. The Kintetsu information office outside the station supplies good maps, answers questions in English and can arrange free guides.
Take Higashimuki arcade on the left of the station to pass the pickle emporium and find Italian-style coffee at the Piano Bar and Trattoria at the next cross street, Sanjodori. A right turn down Sanjodori will take you past the Nara Tourist Information Centre before reaching JR station, where bikes can be rented to the left of the terminal. JR station also has an information office. Across the street from the Piano Bar, continue down the arcade to find trendier shops, several small bars and the road into Naramachi, the old quarter.
On a fine day most of Nara’s attractions can be covered on foot and the average admission fee is about $5.
Best change of era: The museum of photography, southeast of Nara-koen, is time-consuming to find on foot (take a taxi from Kintetsu station, about $10) but is a pleasant place to take tea in a light-filled modern building that appears to float on an infinity pool filled with white pebbles. The collection is more pretty than riveting, but early 20th-century photos of the area are interesting.
Best local taste: We ask directions at a corner store in the old quarter to find Hiraso, a neighbourhood restaurant not far from where Higashimuki arcade runs into Naramachi. It serves kakinoha zushi: mackerel and salmon sushi wrapped in persimmon leaves, a Nara specialty with a distinctive, delicate tang. Bento boxes of kakinoha zushi are handy for train journeys: the pressed blocks are easy to eat with your fingers and soy sauce is not required (the leaves are for wrapping, not for eating).
After dinner we knock back some mellow sake in one of the bars off the arcade. There’s baseball with the sound turned down on the television and a CD of smooth soul music playing. Nara has been making sake since its inception and its many boutique brewers create a lovely version in a soft, light style.
Best snack: No Japanese meal is complete without a pickle component and Nara’s are renowned. Cured with the lees left over from sake-making, the pickles have an appealing dark aftertaste and a fresh texture.
Best tip: The Japanese are unfailingly helpful to travellers. The process becomes even more convivial if you learn a few basic words such as konnichi-wa (good day), arigato (thank you) and sumimasen (excuse me).
Osaka is the international entry point for the Kansai region. Japan Airlines, Qantas and Jetstar offer regular direct flights and leading Asian airlines service Osaka via their home ports. www.pref.nara.jp/nara e/ www.jnto.go.jp
Girl power: Clockwise from main picture, female archers at Kasuga Taisha; lanterns; deer on a manhole cover; a biker priest