Two years ago, Ippei Seto opened the Nara Ugaya Guesthouse in the center of Nara City, aiming to offer dormitory-style, affordable lodging for visitors. His guesthouse occupies a rented, two-story wooden building that is around 40 years old and formerly housed a pharmacy but is now his 20-bed inn — with the pharmacy’s massive old medicine drawers converted into bookshelves.
With its entrance-window panels nicely decorated with images of lotus flowers, an elephant and other creatures, the place has a quaint, neo-Japanese feel that continues through to the lobby area, where guests can relax and exchange tips with other travelers surrounded by shelves full of guidebooks, manga and magazines.
Ugaya, where a night’s stay exclusive of meals costs ¥2,500 to ¥3,500 per person, was the first guesthouse in the city of Nara, where most other inns and hotels charge more than ¥10,000 per person per night. Now, as Ugaya has became popular with tourists — especially Westerners — a few more guesthouses have sprouted up in the area, making Nara a far more affordable place for budget travelers than ever before.
Seto, 35, got his idea to run a hotel after going on the famous 88-temple pilgrimage around Shikoku Island three years ago, during which he often stayed in local inns — and first realized how guesthouses can really bring people together, he says.
He then decided to locate his inn in Nara after a dramatic encounter with a Buddhist statue at the city’s small and rather obscure Chuguji Temple, which he dropped into after visiting the more famous Horyuji Temple, known as the world’s oldest wooden building.
However, the real roots of his enterprise in Nara actually predate that pilgrimage. Several years ago, he explained, his father and grandmother were killed in a traffic accident that also left his mother critically injured. At that time, Seto, a native of Wakayama Prefecture, was working in Osaka after graduating from college in Nara. But when he suddenly found himself the head of his family, he had no choice but to quit his job.
“Meeting the Buddhist bodhisattva Maitreya at Chuguji Temple was a dramatic experience for me,” Seto said. “I didn’t go there looking for salvation, but deep inside I had probably been suffering unconsciously, and I felt that I could leave all my pains to the bodhisattva. I felt like staying there forever, staring at the statue. I really felt comfortable being there.”For Seto, Nara is a place where “you can have a truly good sleep.”
“It’s the ideal place to rest,” he said. “Time passes here slowly. Nara’s real attraction is not the Great Buddha or anything tangible; it’s this slow pace that brings people back.”