Of the seven prefectures that make up the Kansai region, the heartland of traditional Japanese culture, none is more steeped in antiquity than Nara. Home to many of the country’s ancient capitals, with a heritage stretching back into prehistory and legend, it is among the finest places in Japan to immerse yourself in natural beauty and the ambience of the past kept alive through modern appreciation.
Travellers to Nara will usually arrive in the capital, Nara City, by rail from Osaka or Kyoto, a trip of around 45 minutes from either starting point. Kintetsu-Nara station is right on the verge of Nara Park, whose unmissable historic sites are just the beginning of what the prefecture has to offer. Nara’s greater joy is in exploring the mountainous landscape, which presents new treasures to discover over every crest, and around every bend in the road or river.
While still in the city, take a look at Naramachi, a historical district of narrow streets lined with old merchant houses that are now home to sweet shops, art galleries and cafes. The area’s main landmark is Gangoji, a temple that moved there from Asuka in 718, during Nara City’s time as the Japanese capital. Consider staying or dining a few blocks away at Nipponia Hotel Naramachi, a converted sake brewery where you can enjoy the subtle charms of historical architecture, including tatami mats, shoji screens and views into elegant gardens.Then journey deeper into history with a visit to Asuka Village, around an hour from Nara City by train. Set in a valley surrounded by forests and terraced rice paddies, Asuka was the capital from 538 to 710, the era when Buddhism was first introduced to Japan. Its tranquil atmosphere and human scale make it a wonderful place to explore on foot or a rented bicycle. Attractions include Asukadera Temple, which houses the country’s oldest Buddha statue, and the palpably ancient Ishibutai Kofun, a tomb topped with huge monoliths, dating from the seventh century. Strolling amid the hills, fields and stones in late afternoon, as quiet descends on the town towards sunset, you can feel the presence of the distant past, long before any hint of modernity.
A short taxi ride from Ishibutai Kofun lies L’Auberge de Plaisance Sakurai, a small inn with only nine guest rooms and suites, in countryside on the grounds of an agriculture and food college. Its restaurant, which looks out over green fields, marries French culinary techniques with local ingredients to produce a new cuisine that is exquisitely plated, finely flavoured and uniquely Nara.
To taste another side of the region’s cuisine and culture, take the train from Asuka to Shin-Oji Station, and then a taxi to the Gyokuzoin Temple at Mt Shigi. There, you can partake of the tradition of shukubo, lodging in a monastery like the religious pilgrims of old. One of three shukubo spots at Mt Shigi, Gyokuzoin is a wonderland of pagodas and temples, where lantern-lined walkways wind across the wooded hillside. After a meal of the Buddhist vegetarian cuisine called shojin ryori—or a more omnivorous kaiseki menu—you can stay Japanese-style in a tatami room and lose yourself in the same peaceful environment and meditative practice for which the monks themselves take to the mountains.
Like the experience of a night or two in a monastery, a trip through Nara prefecture takes you off the beaten track into another world alive with enchantment and restorative power. As the crow flies, Mt Shigi is tantalisingly close to the bright lights of bustling Osaka, but if you can’t bring yourself to go back to the everyday, you can always venture further into Nara’s wonders.