A thousand tame deer roam its streets. Virgin forests stretch two miles into the city's heart. Footpaths are lined with ancient stone lanterns. A willow-rimmed pond downtown mirrors a towering pagoda.
Nara is as singular today as it was when founded 13 centuries ago.
After Japan became a unified nation in 707, Emperor Mommu commanded the construction of a capital so perfect that it could never be improved. So Nara was designed on a grand scale, with broad boulevards and 50 huge pagodas. Just three-quarters of a century later, bankrupt emperors abandoned the city, letting it languish into tranquil obscurity.
Though Nara's just half an hour by train from Kyoto and Osaka, few foreigners make the journey. That fact alone was enough of a lure for me. On a two-day visit here last fall, my husband, Kevin, and I explored both facets of Nara: the brash imperial capital that fell from glory and the moody backwater of 350,000 that grew from its ruins.
It was September, typhoon season in Japan, and when we arrived in Nara an offshore storm was pelting the region with rain. It provided a splendid backdrop for visiting Todai-ji, the temple of the Great Buddha of Nara.
In 743, Emperor Shomu set out to cast the largest bronze Buddha statue to be enshrined in the largest wooden building in the world. The records stand more than a millennium later. It consumed 1.2 million pounds of copper, creating a shortage of the metal for years afterward. Five men can stand together on the Buddha's upturned palm. It sits on lotus petals 10 feet tall, engraved with inch-high Buddhas. The figure was once plated with 970 pounds of gold, and it was dedicated by 10,000 monks.
In the deep, chilly shadows of the hall, the 50-foot image of Buddha towered above us, so massive we could hardly grasp what we were seeing. And that's precisely what this statue of Vairocana, the Cosmic Buddha, was intended to do — not to comfort or teach but to awe with the might of the nation that built it.
Todai-ji has a lighter side. In a back corner, one pillar has a narrow passage tunneled through its base, and anyone who fits through is supposedly assured of a place in paradise. We watched a line of middle-school kids scramble through the wood smoothed by the scraping of centuries of bodies; even their teachers managed. (Hint: Hold your arms above your head.)
Free-roaming deerFrom the temple, we wandered into Nara Park, an ancient forest unbroken from the city center to the surrounding mountains. Cypress, pine, oak and cherry crowd together in a green curtain that muffles city sounds. And deer wander everywhere. According to legend, the city's protective deities arrived on their backs, and today, Nara's deer make the most of their sacred status. In five minutes, I watched one doe scrounge donations of baby carrots, peanuts, grapes and "deer crackers" sold from deer-proof mesh boxes. Ignore them and they'll complain, a weird sound akin to a rusty door hinge. The pungent scent of deer droppings mingled with incense and damp leaves.
The animals belong to one of the oldest and holiest Shinto shrines in Japan. Kasuga Taisha's brilliant orange and white buildings glow against the dense green, and 2,000 mossy stone lanterns line the approaches through the park, some dating back to the 12th century. All are lighted during jampacked festivals in February and August, together with the thousand-plus brass lanterns under the buildings' eaves. But on the stormy day we visited, the shrine was dark and empty of worshippers.
Priestesses in white blouses and scarlet trousers sat at long counters, somber behind their trays of brocade amulets, silver ornaments tinkling around their foreheads, and a priest in billowing aqua trousers hurried off under an umbrella.
When we finally checked in at our inn, Ryokan Seikan-so, and slipped off our soggy shoes, we immediately forgot any plans to go out for the evening. The place looked just like what it is: a former geisha house fallen on hard times. The well-worn mansion, built around the turn of the 20th century, embraces a romantic old garden. When the last geishas left in the 1940s, it became an inn. So what if the sliding doors stuck and the tables wobbled? Our room looked out on a garden of stone paths, gnarled pine trees and elegant arched bridges.
Looking out on the corridor, rice-paper windows — shaped like the moon, a cloud, a Japanese fan — glowed gently, the prettiest nightlight I had ever seen, while we slept on luxuriously thick futons on tatami mats.
It was still pouring the next morning when we headed off on a different kind of tour.
English speakers in many Japanese cities have formed volunteer guide clubs, and Nara has several. The Nara YMCA English Goodwill Guide Club introduced us to Keiko Ichikawa, who would show us the other side of Nara.
Only seven emperors reigned in Nara. Its splendor proved its downfall. Building the Great Buddha and its enormous hall nearly bankrupted the national treasury, and the powerful monks of the Todai-ji began meddling in politics. One even tried to seduce the empress. In 784, Emperor Kanmu abandoned his "perfect city" and moved the court to Kyoto, where it remained for more than 1,000 years. Nara soon sank into insignificance, and in some ways, that's true today.
The city has no office towers or important industries, and thanks to benign neglect, Nara's oldest neighborhood, Naramachi, where Keiko took us, is a relic from a bygone century.
Naramachi is a startling contrast to modern Japan. Its crooked streets are lined with narrow, shuttered houses. The street-level facades are mellowed brown wood with densely slatted windows that act like two-way mirrors: People inside can see out without being seen. Silver-gray tile roofs shelter white stucco second stories. Because buildings were taxed according to street frontage, they were built deep and narrow.
As we trudged through the rain, Keiko pointed out a house where two bundles of rags with childishly inked-on faces hung on a wall, a children's custom that hopes to encourage better weather so kids can go out to play. She even sang us the nursery rhyme that went with the tradition.
We parked our umbrellas inside Naramachi Shiryokan, a neighborhood museum in an old shop. An evocative jumble of bric-a-brac crowds its display cases — such as century-old shop signs from an era when many Japanese couldn't read. A huge radish marked a vegetable store while a man on horseback announced a medicine shop. Nineteenth century photos showed Naramachi wasn't much different from today.
The woman behind the desk sat stitching the little red-and-white stuffed figures that we'd seen hanging on strings at Naramachi's front doors. They're called migawari-zaru, or substitute monkeys. Each represents a family member and is supposed to suffer accidents and misfortune for that person. Keiko laughed as she explained them, then bought a monkey for her daughter, who was facing a crucial university entrance exam.
The neighborhood has other quirky traditions. Guardian statues snarl from roofs, repelling evil spirits. Residents believed that a worm called sanshinomushi lived in their bodies and went to heaven to report their sins to the gods while they slept. To prevent this, on certain dates they stayed awake all night praying and eating a vegetable called konnyaku, which the worm hates.
In recent years, Naramachi has blossomed with antique shops and cubbyhole galleries, but plenty of old family businesses still operate. In one tiny workshop, an elderly woodworker was turning out cutting boards and the little wooden stools used in Japanese baths. The clean fragrance of cedar swirled out into the rainy street.
Koshi-no Ie, a reconstructed townhouse, gave us a close-up prowl through Naramachi architecture. Tatami-floored rooms were lighted by windows on an atrium-like garden, and a stone-paved hallway held the kitchen hearth. A wooden staircase with drawers cleverly built into its steps led to the second floor, where the curved roof beam, the trunk of a single tree, gave the house a soft, organic feel.
Some Naramachi merchants became extremely wealthy, among them the Imanishi family of sake brewers who built the Imanishi Shoin in the 16th century as an office and reception hall for high-ranking visitors. It's a serene, elegant building with seemingly acres of tatami-matted rooms opening onto spacious gardens.
We sat in the tea ceremony room, and Keiko ordered for us. Though this was not the formal ceremony, it was still intimidating to be served tea in museum-piece bowls by a kneeling woman.
Keiko cheerfully coached us: Turn the bowl one, two, three times to admire it, rest it in your left hand, and empty it in three sips. I had a tough time obeying instructions. My bowl, gray with a delicate blue overglaze, was so gorgeous that I couldn't stop looking, and eating the jewel-like sweet felt sacrilegious — like chewing on sculpture.
Next door is the sake brewery with the traditional ball of cedar fronds hanging over the door. Keiko explained that fresh branches were hung when sake was brewed. When they turned brown — like now — customers knew the batch was ready. It was an opportunity Kevin couldn't pass up.
Dioramas inside explained how sake is made by fermenting steamed rice, but the real attraction was tasting the products: $3.50 bought generous samples of five varieties and a handsome cup to take home. Soon Kevin was yelling "Kanpai!" (Cheers!) with a jovial group of Japanese businessmen. Unsurprisingly, they pronounced the last sample the best.
It was definitely time for lunch, and Keiko knew just the place to take us. The handmade udon noodles at Sigenoi, near the Japan Rail train station, were chewy and hearty, nothing like the factory kind. The owner told us he makes the dough every night, then spends three hours cutting noodles. The menu is simple: udon with tofu, udon with tempura shrimp or just plain udon. You can't go wrong.
After exchanging goodbyes and e-mail addresses with Keiko, we wandered the shopping area downtown. Rows of stalls sell kitsch: deer puppets, deer key chains, bright pink blow-up deer with wheels, even candies shaped like deer droppings. (They're actually crunchy chocolate.)
In a more dignified vein, we also saw ink sticks and writing brushes, venerable specialties from Nara's heyday as the center of Japanese Buddhism.
By evening, the rain had slowed enough for us to take in one of Japan's typically fleeting pleasures: the light-up. At picturesque seasons, a landmark will be brilliantly illuminated for photographers and sightseers, for just a few evenings.
With its long roster of historic buildings, Nara had an entire Light Up Promenade of 11 sites. The lighted willow trees, lovely and serene, were reflected in Sarusawa Pond, and the illumination under a five-tiered pagoda showed off the intricate wooden undersides of its roofs. At the entrance to Nara Park, the huge torii gate glowed molten crimson.
Kevin and I kept walking, through the brilliant arch and into the dark forest, listening to water dripping from branches and trickling over stone. The deer made their eerie cries as they settled for the night. But we continued on until we had left the light of the city behind, and we found ourselves surrounded by ancient trees, shadowy lanterns and mist. No one was there but us, and the imperial ghosts of Nara.
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From LAX, Thai and JAL offer nonstops to Osaka. JAL, Korean and All Nippon have connecting service (change of plane). Restricted round-trip fares begin at $500.
From Osaka, Nara is a 40-minute ride on commuter trains from Japan Rail's station. There is also bus service from Osaka's Kansai Airport.
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 81 (country code for Japan) and the local number.
WHERE TO STAY:
Ryokan Seikan-so, 29 Higashi Kitsuji-cho; telephone/fax 742-22-2670. We made a reservation through the Welcome Inn Reservation Center, http://www.itcj.or.jp . Our double room was $75.
Nara Hotel, 1096 Takahata-cho; 742-26-3300, http://www.narahotel.co.jp . An elegant century-old hotel in Nara Park, which has Western-style double rooms from $210.
Nara Youth Hostel, 1716 Horen-cho; 742-22-1334, http://www.jyh.or.jp/english . Has dormitory accommodations for $30 per person. Reserve through the Japan Youth Hostels website.
WHERE TO EAT:
Sigenoi, in an alley near the Japan Rail train station. Get directions from the station's tourist information office. Bowls of chewy, delicious udon noodles go for about $6.
Hiraso, 30-1 Imanikado-cho (one block south of Sarusawa Pond). Its specialty is salmon and mackerel sushi in persimmon-leaf wrappers. Small plates in the restaurant start at $8, or get a beautifully packed box to go.
Kameya, on Sanjo-dori (the main street), serves okonomiyaki, a huge pancake of egg batter with vegetables and meat or seafood, fried at your table. From about $7.
Nara YMCA English Goodwill Guides, 742-45-5920 (English is spoken Monday-Saturday), eggnara.tripod.com. Knowledgeable volunteers offer free, personal walking tours of the city. You pay only for their admission fees at the attractions, but it's a nice gesture to buy them lunch. Make reservations a few days in advance.
TO LEARN MORE:
Japan National Tourist Organization, (213) 623-1952, http://www.jnto.go.jp .
— Kristin Johannsen
Kristin Johannsen lived in Osaka for three years.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times