This year is the 1,300th anniversary of the founding of Japan’s first major capital, named Heijokyo, and its present-day home prefecture of Nara is basking in that ancient spotlight.

One sunny afternoon earlier this month, the downtown area of Nara City — which is just two train stations from the Heijokyo Palace site from where the country was run between 710 and 784 — was noticably more crowded with tourists than usual.

Nearby Nara Park — where more than 1,000 “sacred” deer roam free — was also thronged with busloads of visitors, including a group from Tahiti, drawn to its many ancient temples and other cultural lures.

There, lots of camera-toting visitors snapped away at the Five-Storied Pagoda within Kofukuji Temple, while others made long lines to enter the Great Buddha Hall of Todaiji Temple, which enshrines a 300-ton, 15-meter-high statue of Buddha — the largest Buddha statue in the world.

Tourism statistics released by the Nara Prefectural Government underscore the trend, with the number of visitors having grown steadily every year since 2004.

In 2008, the latest year for which there are figures, a total of 35.7 million people visited Nara — an astonishing 490,000 more than the year before. And though there are no official statistics yet for this year, that number is sure to rise further — especially with the 1,300th-anniversary celebrations having got into full gear on Saturday.

The commemorative projects on and near the Heijokyo Palace site include the opening of history and experiential museums, parades by performers clad in Nara Period costumes, guided walking tours and live performances of music and dance.

The Heijokyo celebrations, scheduled to run through Nov. 7, are aimed at bringing in 10 million visitors, and — more importantly — it is hoped they will help boost Nara’s future national, regional and global profile as a tourist destination.

It’s no secret that Nara Prefecture has long been in the shadow of its more glitzy, tourism-savvy neighbor of Kyoto. Indeed, many tourists merely regard Nara as a place for an afternoon trip before or after a longer stay in Kyoto, which is much easier to get to because of its Shinkansen station and expressway links nationwide — whereas Nara is another 40-minute train ride away from Kyoto.

Also, even though Nara Prefecture can boast three UNESCO World Heritage sites — more than any other prefecture in Japan — they are so scattered across its landscape that it’s practically impossible for a time-pressed visitor to see them all in a single day.

A lack of accommodation is another factor that has long mitigated against Nara developing as a major tourist destination.

Indeed, the prefecture had a total of only 9,436 hotel/inn rooms available as of fiscal 2008 — fewer than any other prefecture in the nation, according to data from the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.

On top of all this, many local merchants are conservative-minded and are generally not interested in hosting guests from abroad, says Ryo Yonehara, owner of the English-language free magazine Nara Explorer. “When I visited merchants just to interview them, they said, ‘We don’t want to be interviewed because we don’t want foreigner business.’ For them, the business they derive from foreigners is so small as a percentage of their total turnover that they think they can survive without it.”

Some, though, are learning to adapt — however stressful that may sometimes seem.

At a Japanese-style cafe in downtown Nara, a middle-aged female clerk looked panic-stricken recently the moment a pair of French-speaking tourists walked in. She used fierce arm and hand gestures to convey her message that one of the drinks presented on the English-language menu was actually not available at that time.

Fumihiko Ito, an official at the Tokyo office of the Nara Prefectural Government, says the fundamental aim of the 1,300th-anniversary festivals is to change the mindset of Nara residents.

“We want more people to come to Nara, and through that we want more residents of the prefecture to acquire a hospitable mind,” he said.

Against such a background, this week’s special Timeout explores the future potential for Nara — including interviews with some of the growing number of young professionals who champion the virtues of the city as Japan’s “Slow-Life Capital.”

We also examine how some of the oldest establishments are experimenting with new approaches — as reflected in a series of innovative publicity campaigns launched by officials at 1,300-year-old Kofukuji Temple.

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