Put aside your image of Japan as a land of packed train platforms, “winking” neon, and “yellow-haired punks,” said Pico Iyer in Condé Nast Traveler. Twenty miles south of bustling, cosmopolitan Kyoto lies humble Nara, a city of nearly 400,000 that “is, in many ways, where Japan became Japan.” Nara served as imperial Japan’s first permanent capital 13 centuries ago, at a time when “the folkloric animism of Japanese-born Shintoism” merged with “the Buddhism that was streaming in from China.” The conjunction bred a national culture that’s one part magic, one part solemnity, and you feel that spirit in Nara as you can nowhere else. A smattering of ancient temples at the heart of the city has something to do with Nara’s strange pull. But, even more, it’s the quiet.
To my Kyoto-born wife, Nara is “the last word in backwardness.” Its only Starbucks didn’t last; the city’s one eight-screen cinema has been shuttered too. But approach Nara as “a place for getting lost” and your meanderings will be rewarded. I usually take visitors first to see Todai-ji, an 8th-century temple that houses a 250-plus-ton bronze Buddha and is said to be the world’s largest wooden structure. I always hope that my guests are up for the 30-minute walk from there to Kasuga Taisha, another major shrine, because the journey takes us through Nara Park, a deer sanctuary. “In 768, a deity was rumored to have been seen riding a white deer over the hills in Nara,” so the sika deer are considered sacred. They roam the local streets freely—some would say imperiously—and have been known to “eat maps out of the hands of startled visitors.”
Last year marked the 1,300th anniversary of the city’s birth, but Nara is not a place that’s good at calling attention to itself. It’s a city for wandering down lanterned streets to find a sake ice cream, or to stroll through the park until you find yourself in front of a Buddhist pavilion with “watercolor hills wreathed behind it.” At night, you can walk the streets for 10 minutes and “not come across another soul,” hearing only the “plaintive wails of deer.”
At the Nara Hotel (narahotel.co.jp), doubles start at $234.