Nara – the Forgotten Capital of Japan

Nara Japan Imperial Palace

Photo by tochis on Flickr

When planning their trip to Japan, most people include Tokyo and Kyoto on their itinerary under the assumption that they will be covering the ever-fascinating contrast between new and old in Japan. They often overlooked, however, is the charms of the forgotten Capital of Japan – Nara.

While Tokyo is, indeed, a skyscraper jungle punctuated by odd little shops springing out from here and there, a heaven for techies who aspire to nothing more than getting lost in the streets of Akihabara, where all sorts of hi-tech toys, manga and anime characters compete for attention, Kyoto is often seen as a remnant of the “old ways” with its magnificent and abundant temples, cozy restaurants and kimono shops. Truth be told, both cities rely on a prevailing side to attract their visitors while discretely protecting their other faces. They both have a split-personality, like Japan itself: Tokyo is home to many beautiful places of the old times like the Asakusa district and the Imperial Palace and Kyoto’s main streets are bustling with fast cars and modern shopping malls.

One hour away from Kyoto lays the city of Nara, the first permanent capital of Japan, established in 710. Initially called Heijo, Nara became known as the center of Buddhist activities with its numerous monasteries and Chinese-influenced buildings, lending its name to an entire historical period of Japan. If a visitor truly wishes to witness the greatness of old Japan, Nara is one of the best places to go to.

Nara Japan

Photo by JAQ'S PhotoStorage on Flickr

Coming out of the main train station, there’s a variety of tight little streets waiting to tempt the visitor with old-style sweets shops, where sweets are made out of rice flour, filled with sweet red bean paste and mimicking peaches or tea leaves. Traditional sweets are still much appreciated although Western-style cakes and pastries have won over the young crowds. Nara’s narrow streets are, otherwise, filled with shops selling hand-crafted objects, kimonos, traditional Momiji dolls, beautiful hair pins and other decorative items, colorful umbrellas made out of special paper, everything a traditional art-loving customer would look for. They make a great authentic souvenir for the people back home or a well-received gift for a Japanese friend.

After slowly walking in history’s footsteps, the visitor finally arrives in a glade full of green and…deer. Nara Park is famous for its roaming deer, always hungry for a deer-biscuit, shika senbei, happily sold by vendors all over the park. According to the legend, the god called Takemikazuchi arrived in Nara on a white deer which prompted the deer to be regarded as a “heavenly” animal and, thus, protected and cared for.

Deer in Nara park

Photo by Fon-tina on Flickr

Feeding the deer along the way makes for a fun stroll towards the largest wooden building in the world, the Todai-ji Temple, listed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its huge dimensions may be accounted to hosting the largest Buddha statue in the world, Daibutsu for the Japanese.

At dinner time the streets lit up with signs indicating that Nara’s classic-style restaurants, with menus full of healthy traditional Japanese dishes, are open for business. After their meal, Japanese and tourists likewise enjoy a walk through old-style beautiful wooden houses, straight out of history, straight out of the Nara period.

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