Kyoto, with its exquisite gardens, picturesque pagodas and impressive temples, has always been a popular place to revel in the fiery hues of autumn.
But with the recent surge in tourism, which has resulted in unmanageable crowds and congested traffic, the city has become almost impossible to enjoy.
During one long weekend in autumn, crowds of tourists in Kyoto filled the streets, obstructing traffic and causing general discomfort to local residents and, ironically, to the visitors themselves.
Fortunately, the ancient capital of Nara is just a short train ride away from Kyoto but does not get the same amount of attention. Visitors can be pleasantly surprised to find it offers similarly inspiring sights in more peaceful surroundings, as mentioned in an earlier post on this blog.
That is not to say Nara is entirely free of crowds. When we returned to Nara for a long weekend in mid-November, the city was bustling with tourists and the most famous sites, such as Todaiji temple, Kasuga Taisha shrine and Nara Park were quite crowded.
But it was still possible to enjoy even those cultural gems without too much stress.
Most surprisingly, we were able to book two rooms at a centrally located Japanese ryokan, or inn, a little over two months in advance – unlike Kyoto where rooms always seem to be overbooked.
We left Tokyo on the 9:30 a.m. Nozomi shinkansen, transferred in Kyoto to an express Kintetsu train, which took us to Nara before 1:00 p.m. In order to save time, we ate bento, or boxed lunches, on the short train ride to Nara.
Yoshidaya, our comfortable ryokan lodging, is conveniently located within walking distance of the Kintetsu Nara station. Much to our delight, it was a pleasant 10-minute walk – even dragging our wheelies through a covered shopping street, past some of the major temples and alongside a scenic pond known as Sarusawaike.
Located just off Sarusawaike Pond, Yoshidaya is not only centrally located, the public spaces and rooms are comfortable, relaxing and tastefully decorated in traditional Japanese style, with the usual modern conveniences, such as tables and chairs, as well as beds in some rooms. Most notably, the staff are very friendly and eager to help.
While the bathrooms in the standard rooms are tiny, there is a larger public bathroom, which is communal, and smaller private baths, which are available on a first-come, first-served basis.
Although Nara is not known for its cuisine, we found the traditional meals at Yoshidaya to be delicious and substantial, although not in the kaiseki, or haute cuisine, category.
The sukiyaki we ate on our second night there was excellent, with succulent meat so plentiful we had to leave an embarrassingly large amount of it.
From Yoshidaya, it is a short walk to Todaiji, where the famous Buddha sits 15-meters tall, flanked by two faithful bodhisattvas, or enlightened characters. This Great Buddha, or daibutsu, is the world’s largest bronze buddha image and Todaiji is one of Nara’s Unesco World Heritage Sites.
From Todaiji, we took a pleasant route past a green pasture, known as Tobihino, which abounds with local deer, to Kasuga Taisha shrine.
Kasuga Taisha was founded in 768 and was rebuilt every 20 years until the end of the Edo period (1615-1868) when the practice, which is still maintained at Ise Jingu grand shrine in Mie prefecture, was discontinued.
On our second day we took a train out of the city to Horyuji temple, one of Japan’s oldest wooden structures, which was originally built in 607.
The temple grounds of Horyuji are extensive and since the temple itself is less accessible than those in central Nara, it does not attract as many tourists and we were able to explore the ancient buildings in a leisurely manner.
While we had not planned our trip to coincide with the peak season for enjoying the flaming colors of autumn leaves, we were fortunate that many trees were already glowing with bright yellow, orange and red leaves.
So we decided to take advantage of our luck and the gorgeous weather by visiting Isuien Garden, which turned out to be one of the most relaxing and beautiful places to enjoy the autumn spectacle.
Isuien Garden, which was built for a wealthy textile merchant, comprises two types of gardens – a front garden built in the Edo period (1603-1867) and a back garden, which was built in the Meiji period (1868-1912).
The combined area is extensive, covering 13,500 square meters, but it is an easy walk and there is an old Edo period rest house where it is possible to have lunch or green tea and sweets and take in the surrounding scenery.
Just outside the garden is the Neiraku Museum, which houses a collection of pottery from ancient China, Goryeo (918-1392) pottery from Korea and Japanese tea ceremony ware, among others.
On our third and last day in Nara, we visited Kofukuji Temple, which together with Todaiji and Horyuji, is one of the three most popular sites in Nara. It was built in 710 by the Fujiwara clan, which dominated Nara from the 9th to 12th centuries.
Kofukuji and its five-storied pagoda – the second tallest in Japan after the pagoda at Toji in Kyoto – are landmarks of Nara, which dominate the city skyline.
While it is possible to see the main Kofukuji buildings from outside for free (entry is restricted) the Eastern Golden Hall, which houses several national treasures, requires an entry fee. Nevertheless, the impressive statues in the Eastern Golden Hall are definitely worth the Y700 fee.
A better deal is the Y900 combined ticket for entry to both the Eastern Golden Hall and the National Treasures Museum of Kofukuji, home to one of Japan’s most beloved statues – the three-faced, six-armed statue of Ashura, one of the eight classes of Buddhist guardian deities.
This statue, which was created in 734, stands out for its slender build and delicate features and has been dubbed “Japan’s Venus de Milo.”
Having visited three of Nara’s eight Unesco Cultural Heritage sites, we spent our last hours there exploring Nara-machi, a quaint corner of this ancient capital, where many traditional houses still line the narrow streets.
Nara is a small city, which retains a laid-back, old world feel. It may not have the glamor of Kyoto but neither does it have its crowded madness. Nara has enough inspiring temples, peaceful shrines and charming traditional houses to make it a favored destination of mine for many more years to come.
Address : 246 Takabatakecho, Nara City
Phone : 0742-23-2225
Rates : From Y15,000/person for a 12-mat Japanese room to be shared by 3-4 people
From Y22,000/person for a western-style room overlooking Sarusawaike pond with beds and a private hinoki cypress bath