In the old capital of Japan, many icons of the country’s Buddhist history blend with trendy urban development to create a unique cultural landscape. Today, some of the ancient city’s most famous sites include Tōdai-ji (東大寺) (where you can find the second largest Buddha statue, or Daibutsu 大仏, in Japan), deer-filled Nara Park (奈良公園 Nara-kōen), the Naramachi (奈良町) merchant neighborhood, and fast-paced Higashimuki Shopping Street (ひがしむき商店街).
When I was in Japan in January, I had the opportunity to explore Nara for an afternoon, stopping at each of these distinctive places. Here I will share some highlights and recommendations of places to visit on your trip to Nara, whether for a few hours or a few days.
Tōdai-ji | Two years ago, I had been studying ancient Japanese history with a particular focus on the cultural and religious exchanges that took place under the emergence of Buddhism in Japan. The most famous temple I became familiarized with was Tōdai-ji (東大寺), once home to the largest Buddha in the country, and rebuilt multiple times after a number of disasters. It is a timeless symbol of not only Nara city, but also Japan.
In addition to the excitement of the ritual incense-burning at the temple’s entrance, and witnessing the sheer size of the daibutsu itself, I also found incredibly interesting the above models of the temple grounds. These beautiful handmade models are located at the back of the structure, and are accompanied by a plaque that states they were in fact assembled by reformed Japanese youth. This interesting backstory has continued to stay with me.
Also in the back of the temple is the famous pillar with a crawlspace roughly the size of daibutsu‘s nostril. A tourist favorite, for sure (I did not climb through but enjoyed watching several others). After circulating through the temple, you will reach a small stretch of souvenir stalls where you can purchase keepsakes (postcards, keychains, prayer beads, etc.) engraved with the temple’s name and image.
Nara Park | Part of the fun of visiting the temple is actually crossing Nara Park (奈良公園 Nara-kōen) to reach the temple grounds. This park is renowned for its friendly (at times too friendly) deer that walk freely among tourists and locals, searching for snacks during winter time. One of my friends warned that they do eat anything – map pamphlets out of your back pocket, sweet potatoes, candy, you name it. Fights tend to break out between deer at peak times of the year, as well, and for this reason it’s common to see warning signs.
Higashimuki Shopping Street | This local shopping site is now of the busiest parts of the city, even during winter, and is somewhat of a contemporary extension of the old Naramachi merchant section. Higashimuki Shopping Street (ひがしむき商店街) has a wide selection of affordable goods and clothing, hole-in-the-wall restaurants and cafes, mini prayer centers, and even a secondhand goods store where you can purchase vintage Japanese jewelry and housewares – all under a long sky roof. Sales abound here, and there are dozens of store workers waiting outside to greet you, hand you menus, and beckon you to come in to take a look.
In addition to your typical Japanese shopping street finds, there are also a couple of quirky establishments on the outskirts of the Higashimuki, including the NERD store and Black Music and Bourbon (take it or leave it..?) below.
Naramachi | Once you walk farther out, and exit the covered area to cross the street, you begin to see older buildings in an area that looks residential. Naramachi (奈良町), or “Nara town” is the merchant district that used to serve as the city’s central business zone. Between the houses and gardens that now line this street, you may see a specialty shop here-and-there, that may look a lot more like the Japan we see in depictions of “traditional-but-urbanized Japan.” This cutlery shop really caught the eyes of my friend and I – everything from the sign to the neatly presented goods spoke to the level of quality and depth of tradition that one might expect from modern-day Japanese merchants.
Above photo by Wie Jie Liew, September 15, 2014 on Holiday Dreaming.
Cafe TANNE | After curiously roaming around the Naramachi/Higashimuki borderlands, my friend and I were seeking out a place to rest and headed into Cafe Tanne. Bright, warm, and homey, this cafe is excellent for a brief respite from the outdoor weather or a longer meeting with friends and family. Owner Matsuo Kaori has poured much happiness, joy, and attention into the interior, which is as intricately arranged as the food and beverages you can enjoy here. Even more, wi-fi is available! While my friend enjoyed a pot of tea, I indulged in a latte and the chocolate roll cake, that comes as a slice with fruit compote. Just gorgeous. Cafe Tanne offers daily specials, lunch, sandwiches, sweets and more from 8:00 AM to 8:00 PM (cash only), and I would love to return to try everything else on the menu.
Ryokan Matsumae | For one night in Nara, I stayed at the amenity-rich Ryokan Matsumae (旅館松前) located in Ikenocho, Nara. Not only does Ryokan Matsumae offer a full kaiseki-ryōri (懐石料理) multi-course Japanese meal service and provide in-room tea amenities, but guests can also access Japanese baths on the main level that are divided by gender.
I wore a complimentary yukata robe to my first kaiseki meal – this really transforms the stay into an authentic ryokan experience. As a vegetarian, I was curious to see what would be included in my meal, as was astonished at the beauty, balance, and flavors of each component of the kaiseki. There was a hot soup, four or five fish of different flavors and cuts, tofu, tsukemono pickles, rice, mushrooms and fava beans, ginseng, tiny flower-shaped cakes, and a beautiful slice of melon. Each component was arranged along a balance of colors, temperatures, textures, flavors, and sizes in mind – a true meeting of art and food. It looked like this:
After this incredible dining experience, I decided to try to the shared bath as part of the full ryokan experience (a week earlier, I went to a jjimjilbang public bathhouse in South Korea and was not feeling very shy after that!). Surprisingly, I had the entire bath to myself. For those who have not yet bathed Japanese-style, the basic premise is to approach the bath without inhibitions (you completely undress in the first section, store your clothing, robe, and towel) and to achieve the cleanest clean possible (showering with complimentary shampoo, conditioner, body wash before entering the bath). There was one hot bath here, that could probably accommodate 5-6 sitting guests. So wonderful for a 15-20 minute stress-relieving soak. I could easily recommend Ryokan Matsumae to anyone traveling in Nara – just be sure to make your reservation in advance!
Even though I had not expected to visit Nara while in Japan, it ended up becoming one of my favorite places. Hyper-tourism aside, it was easy to settle into a sense of history and of place while exploring the city. I would definitely like to return – and stay at Ryokan Matsumae one more time! – if I have the chance. This was a really long post! Hope you found it informative.
xo Jackie Sakura
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