ONE PER­FECT DAY JA­PAN ON THE QUIET

Alis­tair Jones cy­cles the streets of the an­cient im­pe­rial cap­i­tal of Nara

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

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).

Check­list

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

Pic­tures: Alis­tair Jones

Girl power: Clock­wise from main pic­ture, fe­male archers at Ka­suga Taisha; lanterns; deer on a man­hole cover; a biker priest

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