Past perfect in Nara
Kyoto’s lesser-known neighbour city is saturated with history
YOU come out of the train station, walk through a shopping arcade, find yourself on the narrow shopping street of Sanjo-dori and suddenly you notice lanterns magically illuminating little Sarusawa Pond.
Behind it looms the outline of great hills. To the right, across a stone bridge, are the quiet wooden houses of Naramachi, one offering narazuke, or vegetables prepared in sake, another greentea muffins. Girls in kimono are streaming up a flight of steps towards the second-highest pagoda in Japan, eerily illuminated above you. And all around, among the 50,000 lanterns set across the largest municipal park in the land this warm August evening, are the city’s unofficial rulers, the 1200 wild deer that roam free around the centre of the 8th-century capital.
Two are seated placidly outside the glass-and-concrete City Hall. Another is chasing a woman into a candy store. Acouple more are even meandering up the long driveway leading to the stately Nara Hotel.
You cross a street and, wandering past plum trees and grazing deer, come to Ukimido, a heavenly pavilion lit up as if on a golden lacquer screen. All around the great open spaces of Nara’s Deer Park during the annual summer Lantern Festival, little boys in yukata are carrying white illuminated gloves. If you walk 10 minutes across the park you’ll come to the city’s crowning glory, Todaiji, often said to be the largest wooden building in the word (with a 14.6m Buddha at its centre that is the world’s largest bronze casting).
Walk 20 minutes in another direction, along a path lined with 2000 stone lanterns, and you arrive at the most sacred Shinto shrine in Japan (outside of Ise), Kasuga Taisha.
Take a 12-minute train ride from Nara Station and you’re in the vicinity of the oldest wooden buildings in the world, dating from AD607, at Horyuji.
Yet too often people overlook Japan’s first permanent capital to savour the younger ancient capital, Kyoto, 32km to the north. Nara, after all, hosted the court for only 74 years (from AD710 to 784). Kyoto, meanwhile, played home to emperors for more than 1000 years and so became the celebrated artistic centre where Zen Buddhism and geisha culture, tea ceremony and garden design rose to their richest flowering.
Even today, many foreign visitors come to Nara only on a day-trip from Kyoto, while young Japanese students see it as no more than a place to watch deer bowing (in exchange for special cookies) on official school outings.
Yet Nara has a changeless grandeur that Kyoto, for all its refined miniatures, sometimes lacks. And, as the last stop along the Silk Road, Nara draws on influences from old India and China and Greece while Kyoto remains the core of what might be called ‘‘Japaneseness’’.
In summer this sense of hauntedness takes on a special power, for all the wasting heat that makes Japan so unexpectedly tropical. In mid-August,
PICTURES: THINKSTOCK; ALAMY the Obon Festival marks the time when departed spirits are said to return to their earthly homes for three days, to revisit their loved ones, and lanterns bob above many graves to light the ghosts’ way home.
To offset the heat, some department stores release a cooling spray into the streets for customers waiting outside, while fancy shops actually have men at the door with chilled bottles of Evian to hand to every browsing visitor.
Official statistics will tell you that Nara today is home to almost 400,000 people (still only a quarter of Kyoto’s population) and to several World Heritage sites. Yet the beauty of a 1303-year-old former capital is that statistics don’t begin to tell the story.
Nara is the rare place in Japan that is sleepy, traditional and quite private, yet saturated with history. Before Nara was Japan’s capital, the court was at Asuka, 19km away, and it was there Prince Shotoku created the outlines of a modern state. Japan’s earliest origins are said to lie in the Yamato Plain, site of the first emperor more than 2600 years ago and also near modern Nara.
In April the most famous cherry blossoms in the country, tens of thousands of them, carpet the slopes of Mount Yoshino, 32km from the Deer Park. Yet often, even in central Nara, I take myself for a walk among the sutrahouses and prayer-halls after dark and for 10 minutes or more may see not another visitor.
The obligatory first stop for any newcomer to Nara is, of course, Todaiji, the massive temple reached through the guardian-haunted Nandaimon gate, which was constructed without nails. But after you’ve been put in place by its authority, it makes sense just to wander. Stroll around the corner, down a couple of quiet lanes, and you come to Yoshiki-en, a traditional garden that offers free admission to foreigners. In the equally beautiful, and often equally neglected garden next door, Isui-en, you can enjoy a classic lunch and enjoy the silence.
Walk across the lawns and past a national museum and you come to Edosan, a 105-year old ryokan (inn) where the rooms are fairytale cottages.
Follow an empty road into a modern neighbourhood, and you come to the Nara City Museum of Photography and the spacious house once occupied by the early 20th- century novelist Naoya Shiga.
When I first moved to Japan, a quarter of a century ago, I headed straight for Kyoto, as most foreign pilgrims do. It’s only after 20 years of living in Nara that I’ve come to see that the older capital — largely undeveloped, crowded with spirits and still centered around temples and shrines — may in fact be the place most of us are imagining when we dream of Kyoto.
The Kyoto Hotel, to take an almost typical example, is a huge, high-rising modern structure that might have been airlifted from Manhattan; the Nara
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Clockwise from top, wild deer roam free around Nara; Todaiji temple; stepping stones at Isui-en garden