weekend away - Nara
Written by John Ashburne
Relax in Japan’s cultural heartland, the chilled-out ancient capital of Nara.
Nara retains a sleepy, old world aristocratic charm that makes even nearby culture haven Kyoto seem abuzz with 21st-century sophistication. Osaka – just an hour away – seems by comparison a maelstrom of indecently hurried modernity verging on madness.
But no-one goes to Nara for a slice of high life. A trip to Nara is to travel back to the dignified era of 8th-century Japan, when the then-great metropolis ruled the land as the epicentre of cultural, religious, and political power. The city was originally called Heijo-kyo, and was founded by Empress Gemmei in AD 710 on a site 2km to the west of the modern city. It modelled itself on the Chinese city of Xian, and became the beating cosmopolitan heart at the centre of the nation’s explosive intellectual growth.
Today’s Nara can be easily traversed on foot, or by rental bicycle available near the Kintetsu Nara Station.
Drop by the AD 699 Kofuku-ji Temple – its five-storey pagoda is Nara’s iconic symbol – then stroll through the boutique- and café-filled streets of Nara-machi. Here you’ll find the excellent Michelin-starred soba noodle restaurant Gen, tofu specialist Kondo Tofu-an, and local café favourite Kana Kana. For incredibly tasteful souvenirs be awed by Kobaien, whose calligraphy techniques date back 400 years.
Nara’s other must-see is the Daibutsu, the Great Buddha enshrined at Todai-ji Temple, just a short distance across the Nara-koen Park from Kofuku-ji. The 16m-tall Buddha is the world’s largest bronze statue, and an exquisite work of art. Twice decapitated by earthquakes, it was last restored in 1692, and is today the finest remnant of a capital that came to life in gentler, more rarefied times. The excellent Nara National Museum is also nearby.
Things To Do
The Ancients did it then, and school kids and tourists do it now, so why not take a stroll in Nara-koen Park and feed senbei rice-crackers to the 1,500 deer that roam free there? They’ll try to charm you with a Bambi doe-eyed stare, but take care: the ‘messengers of the Shinto Gods’ are well-versed in the head-butt to the tourist stomach ploy.
WHERE TO STAY
Favourite of Marlon Brando, Edward Vlll, and Albert Einstein, the Nara Hotel was established in 1909 and remains the Grand Dame of the Nara luxury hotels. It oozes the grace and charm that fits the city to a tee.