Past per­fect in Nara

Ky­oto’s lesser-known neigh­bour city is sat­u­rated with his­tory

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - PICO IYER

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

Con­tin­ued on Page 8

Clock­wise from top, wild deer roam free around Nara; To­daiji tem­ple; step­ping stones at Isui-en gar­den

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