Delve into the living history book that is the first capital of Japan
Japan 2019 Travel Guide: Nara
Head off the beaten path and visit the Nara Prefecture, which is full of World Heritage Sites and picturesque villages…
The Culture Vulture
Rather than just visit a temple, why not stay in one? Mount Shigi offers such lodgings, where you can sample shojin ryori cuisine (the traditional dining style of Buddhist monks) and take in the temple grounds at night.
As the centre of trade between Japan and the Silk Road, Nara was the first place to receive new ideas from overseas. Buddhism also spurred innovation, from the cloth for priests’ garments to the calligraphy brushes, paper and inks used for copying sutras and the tea whisk (Chasen). Look out for these traditional crafts in the shops of Nara.
Mount Yoshino, Horyuji Temple and Nara City are all World Heritage Sites, providing an insight into the area’s unique history.
In the towns along the pilgrimage routes through Nara, a special type of sushi evolved. Kakinoha-zushi, meaning ‘persimmon-leaf sushi’, is a small portion of rice topped with a slice of raw salmon or mackerel and wrapped in a persimmon leaf. The leaves have anti-bacterial properties that keep the sushi fresh. Well worth a taste test.
Somen, fine white noodles that are often eaten chilled in summer, originated in the Mount Miwa area. And there are plenty of options for fine dining, too, with 20 Michelin-starred restaurants in Nara.
The best way to discover Nara at your own pace is by bike. In the city there is a 25km World Heritage Tour that takes in the main landmarks, or head out into the countryside for a 40km ride on the Yamanobe-no-Michi Trail, a section of Japan’s first road that takes you to ancient sites.
At Asuka, rent an electric bike to discover beautiful terraced rice fields as well as temples, tombs and giant stones, and stop by a cozy café for a break.
Nara is full of adventures. Traditional martial arts Yagyu-Ryu (swordsmanship) and Hozoin-Ryu Sojutsu (spearmanship) were founded in Nara 460 years ago.
The Party Animal
Refined sake has a 400-year history in Nara, with the area offering visitors brewery and tasting tours.
To the south of Nara Park, where you can see deer, is the old town of Naramachi. The narrow streets of traditional merchant houses now host shops, galleries, cafés and bars. It’s an easy area to cover on foot and is the perfect place for a night out.
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How to get there
Nara is easily accessible by train from Japan’s big cities. It’s just a half-hour rail journey from Kyoto or Osaka, one-and-a-half hours from Kansai International Airport and three-and-a-half hours from Tokyo.