Nara, the ancient capital of Japan, is the Yin to Kyoto’s Yang.
While Kyoto abounds with grand temples and flamboyant shrines aimed originally at flaunting the wealth and power of the lords and monks that ruled the day, Nara is a quieter, more relaxed and down-to-earth city, perfect for weaving your way through back alleys on a rented bike or taking a leisurely stroll through the old part of town, known as Naramachi.
Nara certainly has its share of tourists, but it is much easier in Nara to absorb the beauty and serenity of Japanese temple and shrine architecture without having to battle the endless organized tours that dominate Kyoto these days.
Our trip to Nara this spring was short – just an overnight stay – but full of delightful discoveries, beginning with Kakomura, the Japanese kaiseki restaurant just a short walk from Nara station, where we had lunch on the first day.
Not everything about Kakomura was a pleasant surprise. For one thing, it is located on the second floor of a decrepit building, above a coin-operated parking lot. Not only is it an unappealing site for a kaiseki restaurant, it is impossible to find unless you know to look specifically for that parking lot.
But the decor at Kakomura is as tasteful and the atmosphere as soothing as at many high quality Japanese kaiseki restaurants and after our unusually off-putting introduction to the place, what surprised us most was the quality of the food. While the service and location would turn many people off, the food is, without a doubt, worth it all.
Our first course, a hassun, or assortment of small appetizers, included a perfectly balanced dish of string beans with a thick sesame sauce (a classic side-dish in washoku or traditional Japanese cuisine), a savory egg roll and satoimo (taro root) reconstructed with a sweet yuzu paste inside, which was excellent.
The owan, or clear soup, with scallop dumplings, which followed was delicate yet full of umami, or savory flavor, while the sashimi — buri, or yellowtail — was unusually succulent, a sign that it was wild, rather than farmed.
Every dish, from the deep-fried megochi, or big-eyed flathead fish, which was crisp and light, to the flavorful sunomono of crab, mitsuba (Japanese honeywort) and shiitake mushrooms marinated in a sweet and tangy vinegar sauce, was perfectly prepared and absolutely delicious.
Satiated and happy to know that Kakomura’s cuisine was all that we had hoped it would be, we headed to our lodgings for the night, the celebrated Nara Hotel. http://www.narahotel.co.jp/
Sitting atop a hill that overlooks the town’s central area, Nara Hotel is a refined example of traditional Japanese architecture enhanced with western touches and was even more atmospheric than I had long imagined it to be.
As we approached the top of the hill and spotted the hotel’s grand building, I could sense the history of the place.
Once we stepped inside, I felt transported to a different world, a world of Japanese aristocrats at the turn of the 19th century, when men wore tail coats and the women full-skirted gowns as they enjoyed tea and cakes in the high-ceilinged parlor.
Our room, in the older, main building of Nara Hotel, was charming with its wood-paneled ceiling, old-fashioned radiator and lamps modeled on Japanese lanterns. Only the cheap-looking plastic cup and soap dish in the bathroom detracted from the otherwise tasteful, old-world effect.
After a quick rest, we rented bicycles at the front desk and set off to explore the city.
Our first stop – Himuro Shrine – was packed with visitors marveling at the magnificent cherry blossoms, which were of a type that bloom earlier than the delicate somei yoshino cherry blossoms cherished all over Japan.
From Himuro Shrine it was an easy ride to Todaiji http://www.todaiji.or.jp/english/, probably Nara’s most famous temple, which is guarded by two imposing Nio Guardian Kings and houses the famous, 15-meter tall Daibutsu or Grand Buddha of Nara.
Riding past numerous deer in Nara Park, we then headed to Kofukuji http://www.kohfukuji.com/english.html, to see the famous standing Asura statue.
On our way back to the hotel, we explored Naramachi, the old merchants’ quarters, where many traditional town houses and warehouses remain intact.
Our curiosity was piqued by strings of red, stuffed dolls hanging in front of several houses, which turned out to be lucky charms, believed by locals to protect their houses from evil.
Dinner that night was at Tsuruyoshi, a traditional kaiseki restaurant whose chef hails from Ishikawa, on the western coast of Japan’s main island.
In contrast to our lunch venue, Tsuruyoshi was located in a grand-looking traditional Japanese house a short walk from the back entrance to Nara Hotel.
And the meal did not disappoint. One of the standout dishes was a clear soup of kue (long tooth grouper), a prized fish with soft, fatty white meat, which was light but full of flavor.
The nodoguro (blackthroat seaperch) from Tsushima, west of Kyushu, was surprisingly soft, and the takiawase of separately simmered young bamboo shoots and seaweed was deliciously seasoned with fragrant sansho (prickly ash pepper). Another excellent dish was the light, perfectly crisp tempura of blowfish and mountain vegetables.
The following day, after a sumptuous Japanese breakfast in the hotel’s dining room, we set off to Hokkeji, known for its 11-faced Kannon (Goddess of Mercy) statue and verdant garden.
By luck, we happened to be there when the Kannon, which is a national treasure and is only brought out for public viewing three times a year, was on display.
From there we called a taxi to take us to Toshodaiji, http://www.toshodaiji.jp/english/ a temple which was founded by Ganjin, a revered Chinese monk. It is said that Ganjin was invited to Japan by the then-Emperor Shomu but only succeeded in coming after five unsuccessful attempts. By the time he arrived in Japan, he had lost his eyesight.
Several buildings within the Toshodaiji compound are designated national treasures, including the Golden Hall and Main Hall, both of which were built in the late 8th century.
Our final stop in Nara was Yakushiji, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is known for its trinity of Yakushi Nyorai, or Buddha of Healing.
Although Yakushiji is one of Nara’s oldest temples, most of the original buildings were destroyed by fire. Only the East Pagoda, which was built in 730, remains in its original form.
We left Nara that afternoon, somewhat regretfully and somewhat surprised at how much we had enjoyed our visit. While I still love Kyoto, I found Nara’s charm and its beauty and elegance as impressive as that of her flashier neighbor to the north.
Getting there : From Kyoto, transfer to the JR or Kintetsu Nara lines. Nara is less than an hour from Kyoto by express train.
Nara Hotel :
Address : 1096 Takabatake-cho, Nara 630-8301
Tel : +81-742-26-3300
Rates : A standard twin room is about Y27,000 depending on the day, including tax and service.