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Nara's Quiet Charm

June 24, 2014

Madeline Gressel spends the day feeding deer, visiting pagodas and strolling gardens in one of Japan’s most charming towns.

Published on Jun 24, 2014

Nara is a day-tripper's dream. Nestled inland, the 1,300-year-old Japanese capital is equidistant from its illustrious sisters, Osaka and Kyoto. Nara doesn't bustle with urban energy like Osaka, nor shimmer with elaborate temples like Kyoto. Instead you'll find a quiet, staid Japanese town, but beneath its ordinary façade there lies legend and history, like the mystical setting of a Murakami novel.

I journeyed to Nara one warm April morning, but there's really no bad time to go. In spring, the lawns and lanes are lined with pink cherry (sakura) and plum (ume) trees; in summer, lotus pads dot the city's many ponds; in autumn, the trees explode in a fiery canopy of orange and yellow; and in the winter, powdery white snow frosts the eaves of wooden temples.

Nara's eight World Heritage Sites are dotted across the small city, easily visited by foot, and mostly clustered around Nara Park.

There live the deer, Nara's claim to fame. According to legend, the god Takemikazuchi arrived on a white deer and commissioned the sacred animals to guard the newly built capital. Today, the deer roam freely, munching on grass and happily accepting biscuits from delighted tourists. They're friendly but insistent—one nipped my bottom twice for more biscuits.

Nara deer

At the park's entrance, pass the storied Three-Storey Pagoda of Kohfuku-ji, once a prosperous tutelary Buddhist temple, before heading under massive orange torii (wooden arches) to Nara National Museum. Pop into the impressive building to view some of Japan's most beloved treasures, then head to Todai-ji, Nara's crowning glory. The Buddhist temple complex houses the world's largest bronze Buddha Daibutsu, fingers poised in benediction, eyes peacefully closed.

Todai-ji temple

Todai-ji's south gate leads to Isui-en Garden, which draws the nearby temples and mountains into an unforgettable landscape. Inside, you'll find Sanshu-tei, a traditional restaurant serving delicious set meals and burnt rice tea alongside contemplative views of the garden.

Climb the stairs to Nigatsu-do Hall for views of the city below. The tall pagodas and twinkling temple lights paint a picture of what life in Japan must have looked like 200 years ago.

Tall pagodas

Come nightfall, the city's historic Naramachi district is the place to be. The stone-cobbled lanes are filled with old wooden houses, stores and restaurants. Have a fancy kaiseki meal at the picturesque Awa restaurant (+81 742 245 699), quaff homemade rice wine at Spring Deer Sake Brewery (+81 742 232 555), or simply wander, soaking up Nara's charm beneath the stars.


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