Shrines and temples, animals, and food – dive deep into the wonderful depths of Nara with these three aspects
Words and Photography: Kazuya Baba
Nara – the former capital of Japan and central hub for politics, economics, and culture predating Kyoto. This ancient locale’s history as the heart of Japan spans throughout history with it also being home to the ancient capitals of Asuka, Fujiwara, and Heijo-kyo between the 600s and 800s. The prefecture of Nara boasts the most national treasures, important cultural properties, historical structures, and historic cultural resources in all of Japan.
Tokyo is now the central hub of Japan, however, it only became the country’s hub for politics and economics relatively recently in the 17th century. Prior to Tokyo becoming Japan’s modern capital, Nara and Kyoto formed the heart of Japan and was home to the Emperor himself. Furthermore, the largest city in western Japan, Osaka, also has its own unique culture built through centuries. In fact, western Japan houses vastly more ancient and Middle Age historical sites than what can be found in eastern Japan.
While Nara is home to such historical prestige, it is often not the first city that comes to mind as a major sightseeing spot in Japan. Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, and perhaps Sapporo, owing to the recent skiing boom, are the cities tourists tend to flock to. For those looking for a deep dive into Japan’s history, Nara should be the top destination to visit. One of the reasons why Nara is not more mainstream is possibly because it is sandwiched between the big names of Osaka and Kyoto. It also finds itself off the shinkansen (bullet train) line, making it less accessible than the aforementioned cities. With the city less than an hour away from both Osaka and Kyoto, many tourists are inclined to drop by for a daytrip, but it is far more recommended to spend more time soaking up all of the temples and other ancient Japanese offerings to be found. Keep reading for a collection of must-see spots that can be reached by foot from Nara city. Drop by these places between October and November, if possible, to see all of the sights draped in beautiful autumnal leaves.
This feature will take a deeper look at the wonders found in Nara by focusing on three aspects – shrines and temples, food, and animals.
“Drop by these places between October and November, if possible, to see all of the sights draped in beautiful autumnal leaves
Japanese national treasures framed by beautiful autumnal leaves
Kasuga Grand Shrine was built in 768 to protect Heijo-kyo (the capital at the time) and bring prosperity to the people. According to legend, a kami (Japanese god) rode on the back of a white deer to the Kasuga Grand Shrine, which is why the deer are now regarded as sacred animals and can be found happily living in the surrounds.
The beautifully red-coloured shrine sits proudly at the base of Mikasa-yama (Mount Kasuga) and offers plenty to see, including long-stretching torii gates.
A particular sight to see are the lanterns lining the approximately 52-metre-long eastern corridor, and 81-metre-long western corridor. About 1,000 lanterns that have been offered by visitors over the span of 800 years can be found here. Each of the lanterns are unique in shape and design, with brand-new gold ones also found in the mix. In fact, all of the lanterns start off looking gold and gradually change colour over time. This shrine was registered part of the “Historic Monuments of Nara” in 1998, with the shrine and the surrounding ancient forest of Mikasa-yama (Mount Kasuga) also recognised as a world heritage site. The ancient forest found here is also a location that should be on the list of all visitors.
For those with a leisurely itinerary planned for Nara, a walk around the Kasuga Primeval Forest is highly recommended. Located 498 metres above sea level and spanning across an area of approximately 250 hectares, the primeval forest carves a beautiful sight across the eastern mountainous backdrop of Nara. The rare primeval vegetation on this mountain has been left relatively untouched as it was a sacred site of Kasuga Grand Shrine and was actively protected in the 9th century through an order to prohibit the felling of trees. The official trail is approximately 10 kilometres long and would take about four and a half hours to leisurely conquer.
Pray to the massive Buddha statue and bask in the Nigatsu-do sunset at Todai-ji
Emperor Shomu used his power to build this temple in the 8th century. It was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in December 1998 as part of the “Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara”. The area spanning from the centre of Nara Park reaching towards the north is home to a large number of Important Cultural Properties.
Standing at a towering 14.98 metres tall is the “Great Buddha of Nara” (nara no daibutusu) which is housed in the almost 50-metre-tall Great Buddha Hall. Coming to terms with the idea that these structures were built many centuries ago is sure to leave many mouths gaping. Drop by to be awestruck by the sheer size of the Great Buddha whilst also allowing time to admire the smaller statues of Buddha inside the building.
The Great South Gate found at the entrance of Todai-ji is also a national treasure that is sure to impress. On either side of the gate are two 8.4-metretall wooden Nio statues standing guard with their menacing looks.
A visit to Nigatsu-do around sunset will treat visitors with a wonderful view of the city sprawling below. The gradually fading sunlight painting the city of Nara in its warming glow as the night begins to fall will leave a lasting impression on visitors who make the trip.
Strolling around the famous Isui-en Garden
The Isui-en Garden is made up of two gardens worth a stroll around to soak in the surrounding scenery of Mount Wakakusa, the Great South Gate of Todai-ji, and Mount Kasuga.
Both gardens feature centrally located ponds and span across 13,500 metres square with the first garden built in the Edo period, and the second built during the Meiji period. The gardens are absolutely stunning during the autumn when the leaves are at their most colourful. Visitors can also stop by museum featuring bronze wares and pottery, or enjoy a leisurely cup of tea at the tea house within the grounds.
Nara is absolutely teeming with various other historical sites, but for those visiting the city for the first time a walk around these hot spots should be your first port of call.
Places to hit up in Nara – first stop Tomio, the battlegrounds for ramen-lovers
Many tourists tend to take daytrips to Nara given its accessibility from Osaka and Kyoto as well as its relatively compact size compared to the aforementioned cities. These tourists often spend the day frolicking with the sacred dear in Nara Park, and visiting the various shrines and temples, rarely ever spending the night Nara.
While Nara is a great spot to visit to see historical buildings and other structures, it is actually also full of a variety of other wonderful restaurants and sights that cannot all be visited in one short day. Keep reading to get the inside info on where to go in the heart of Nara city, as well as the buzz about the ramen battlegrounds making the rounds across Japan.
Be gobsmacked by the mochi making frenzy at Nakatanidou
There are a vast number of great places to visit from the heart of Nara city that are accessible from the JR Nara station or the Kintetsu Nara station. One of the most popular attractions in the area can be found at Nakatanidou, located at the entrance of the shopping district. It is well known as a traditional Japanese sweets store and for its high-speed mochi (rice cake) pounding demonstration.
Making mochi is an ancient Japanese custom that is carried out all across Japan to ring in the new year. It involves pounding cooked sticky rice in a wooden mortar using a giant hammer. The pounded mass is constantly turned and folded onto itself until it forms a soft, smooth, stretchy rice cake. Nakatanidou is known for demonstrating this act of pounding mochi at an extremely high speed, significantly faster than the average mochi-making artisans. Pounding the mass while the sticky rice is hot ensures that the finished product is soft and very stretchy, which is why the mochi masters go to lengths to create their mochi at such a high speed.
There are few places where freshly made mochi can be eaten on the spot outside of New Years in Japan, so this store is great for gourmands looking for a delicious treat, or those itching to see the impressive demonstration in the heart of Nara (Nakatanidou URL: nakatanidou.jp).
Take a break from your adventure at Rokumei Coffee
The city area of Nara is highly convenient for visiting temples, shrines, and other spots, but sometimes it’s nice to give the feet a rest by stopping by a nice café. One such café that deserves a visit is ROKUMEI COFFEE CO. (URL: http://www.rococo-coffee. co.jp), known for its own-roasted coffee beans. Founded in 1974, it is a long-standing establishment with its own special spin on coffee that it has maintained throughout the years whilst also offering a stylish interior to stay up to date with the times. This coffee shop is much loved by locals as well as international tourists, including those from Australia where the coffee culture is alive and kicking. According to one of the café staff, the biggest differences between ROKUMEI’s coffee and the average drop, are its “fragrance and flavour”. “Coffee beans are fruits. They should be fragrant like flowers and have sweetness and acidity like fruits. We aim to bring out these qualities as well as the true flavours of the coffee beans,” the same staff member commented.
While dark roasting coffee increases its bitterness, the café goes to efforts to ensure that the beans do not lose their fruity notes and maintain their unique character profile during the roasting process so as to serve delicious coffee to customers. The café itself is spacious with many tourists opting to drop by more than once a day. This place is a must visit for those looking for a truly delicious cup of coffee during a stay in Nara.
“Mitsuba” – a superstar restaurant in the new ramen battlegrounds of Tomio
Just five stations away from Kintetsu Nara station by local train is Tomio, a town that has garnered much attention across Japan of late as a feeding grounds for ramen. Ramen is currently experiencing a renaissance around the world in not only large markets such as the United States and Europe, but also in humble Sydney, Australia as well. A trip over to the ramen battlegrounds in Nara should be on the list of those seeking to taste the truly popular ramen bowls found in Japan.
The ramen restaurants found in the surrounds of Nara are currently the focus of many across Japan, with the town of Tomio at the heart of the popularity boom. Despite this, visitors hopping off the train at Tomio station will not be flooded by the sight of ramen restaurants as far as the eye can see. This is why a certain amount of research is required to taste all of extremely delicious, high quality ramen the town has to offer.
There is one particular popular restaurant that I would personally like to introduce to readers in this article. Located in Tomio Honmachi, a sixminute walk away from Tomio station, is Ramenya Mitsuba (URL: http://www.ramenya-mitsuba. com/). It has been featured on the Top 100 Ramen Restaurants of Western Japan published by Japanese foodie site, Tabelog, for multiple years running. In fact, to not know this restaurant is to not be a genuine ramen lover.
The foamy broth of the Pork CHIKI (pork and chicken) Soy Sauce Ramen is the restaurant’s base dish. This ramen is known for its pork bone and chicken-based broth, which is surprisingly clean on the palate, and features an innovatively foamy consistency. Since long queues often form outside of the restaurant, Mitsuba has its own procedure to ensure the lines move efficiently by asking customers to form two lines. One line is specifically for buying meal tickets and the other line is for those with tickets waiting to be seated inside. It is advised that all customers abide by these simple rules to ensure a hassle-free experience on the way to delicious ramen.
While there are many popular ramen restaurants in the area, Mitsuba is definitely worth dropping by first to taste their unique and tasty creations.
Spend time with animals in Nara – from the iconic deer, to cats and owls
Nara is home to the most sculptures and buildings designated as national treasures in all of Japan. This is partially owing to the fact that the city itself is older than that of even Kyoto. These historic structures are naturally the focus of many tourists who come to the city to sightsee, but there is one particular symbol of Nara that must not be forgotten – the deer.
Some 1,300 odd deer make Nara Park, and the surrounding mountainous areas, their cosy home. Nara Park can be found in Nara city in the heart of the prefecture bearing the same name. It is not merely the sheer amount of deer living in the area that makes them interesting, but the fact that they strut around the town with a poised confidence about them. While this is a sight you might expect to find somewhere deep in the mountains out in the wild, to see so many deer out and about in town is surely a phenomenon that cannot be experienced in very many places around the world.
So why are there so many deer found wandering about in Nara? The answer to this question can be found in the long and vast history of Japan. Wild deer have always inhabited Nara, however, it has been said that when the Kasuga Grand Shrine was built approximately 1,300 years ago in the year 768, a kami (Japanese god) rode on the back of a white deer to welcome and commemorate the birth of the shrine. The deer of Nara have long been regarded as the helpers of gods ever since the beginnings of this legend. Having knowledge of this deep history adds to the reason why the deer are so beloved, especially so when they approach visitors and bow to them so ever politely.
The adorable sight of deer roaming around the place is rather common if you take a trip over to Nara Park and its surrounds. Deer crackers (shika senbei) can be purchased in the area to feed to the deer if you wish to get up close and personal with them. The deer in Nara will bow by swaying their heads and down when they see these crackers, as if to politely request a piece or two to chew on. Many people often purchase these crackers to witness the adorable sight of them
bowing, however, it is advised that you give the deer a cracker once they have bowed as they have been known to get violent when teased for a bit too long.
Trying your hand at deer herding (shika-yose) is highly recommended if you plan on visiting Nara. This Nara tradition dates back 127 years ago to 1892 where deer were herded into one location by the sound of a French horn being blown into. Trumpets were originally used for this activity before French horns became the norm. The deer come flocking in from all directions upon hearing the sound of it. It is an impressive sight to behold, whilst also being rather cute as the deer quickly bound on in to gather with their fellow companions.
This experience can be had within the grounds of Kasuga Grand Shrine between 8am and 11am (8am to 10am during the summer months of July to September) for 20,000 yen per herding and can be booked a year in advance. Splitting the cost between a large group makes the experience rather reasonable and worthwhile. Experiences are also conducted free of charge on certain days in summer and winter, so it is worth looking into these dates by contacting the Nara City Tourism Association for more information.
Dropping by the cat cafés and owl cafés
Deer are usually the first animal that come to mind when the city of Nara is mentioned, but there are also a variety of other animal experiences to be had within the city. Cat cafés, while still uncommon in many countries overseas, are popular mainstays of Japan and can be experienced on a visit to Nara. “Cat café Cocone” (http://catcafe-cocone.com) is one such example that is easy to visit and has garnered great reviews. It is situated close to the city centre and is highly recommended.
Approximately 20 cats can be found lazing about in the stylish Japanese-styled rooms with tatami mat floors and bamboo interior fixings. You can sit back and watch the cats as you read a few comics (only in Japanese, unfortunately) and sip on a drink, or you can pet and play with the cats with various toys if you so please. Prices start from 600 yen for 30 minutes, making this a fun experience, which is light on the pocket, worth checking out.
If you are looking to nestle up to animals of the non-feline variety, then the “Animal Shelter Zoo” (http://fukurou-naramachi.com) is a must-visit spot that offers a more unique experience. The Animal Shelter Zoo is a quick walk within Nara city and is easy to drop by on a whim if you happen to find yourself with some spare time. While it may be known as a “zoo” it is closer to an owl café in practice. Rare owls can be found all around the establishment and the more timid residents can also be touched. It is also home to an impressive hawk that flies around inside.
Don’t forget to mosey over to the rabbits, squirrels, porcupines, and other small animals for an overload of cuteness. The entry fee of 1,000 yen comes with a drink and grants you a fun experience with all of the different animals without any time constraints.
Nara, although known for its deer, also offers other fun animal experiences for you to spend your day in the city. The ability to enjoy a day filled with deer, cats, owls, hawks, and other animals is just one of the many reasons to visit Nara.