Travel

Strolling the quiet alleyways of Japan's forgotten capital

by Mandy Bartok

Special To The Japan Times

It’s hard playing second fiddle when you used to be first chair. Just ask Nara, Kyoto’s underpraised southern neighbor.

In 710, Japan’s seat of power settled in Nara, on the plains of the Yamato Province. While previous centuries had seen the capital move after the death of each emperor, Nara was to be the permanent place from which Japan’s rulers governed their domain.

Over the years, Nara’s political and religious clout grew, and the area became populated with powerful Buddhist temples and monasteries. In 794, however, the capital city decamped once more. This time it moved just up the road, to Kyoto, where it would stay for 1,000 years, gradually overshadowing the former glory of its neighbor.

Though many travelers to Kyoto make daytrips to see relics from Nara’s time in the spotlight, the lure of famed sites — such as the Kinkakuji and Kiyomizudera temples — has kept most visitors in Kyoto’s city limits. However, a significant increase in the number of tourists to the Kansai region in recent years has clogged the city’s narrow streets, created impossibly long lines at certain venues and even spilled over to Nara Park’s typically quieter temples, making sprawling venues like Todaiji a headache to navigate.

Unwilling to fight Kyoto’s hordes of summer holiday goers, I set my sights on Naramachi, an overlooked old district in Nara.

There are reams of information available about the other parts of Nara and its many temples, but Naramachi doesn’t give up its secrets so easily. So I am more than happy to part with ¥2,000 to explore the neighborhood with a competent insider: Yoshiko Hatcho, a guide who hails from Koriyama, a few stops south of Nara on the Kintetsu train line.

Hatcho has spent the past decade leading visitors around the Naramachi quarter and seems to know the history behind every house and local family. She shares those stories with visitors every Saturday — rain or shine — on her Naramachi Walking Tour.

We begin in the covered shopping arcades outside Kintetsu Nara Station, but it’s not long before we veer off of the main thoroughfare. Hatcho leads us down a tiny alley to enter Nara’s old geisha quarter. It’s quiet today, which surprises our knowledgeable guide.

“This school teaches music classes to the local geisha on Saturdays,” she says, gesturing to a nondescript building tucked slightly off the street. “Normally, every time I bring a group down this street, we hear the sounds of a shamisen.”

Even without an accompanying soundtrack, Yoshiko’s tour of the geisha neighborhood is fascinating. A store selling imported souvenirs is revealed to be a former okiya (geisha residence), once home to some of the 200 entertainers that inhabited these lanes. Across the alley, an architect who moved into the district showcases old photographs of Nara’s maiko (geisha apprentice). We knock, but he’s not in. A shame, Yoshiko laments, before giving us all a souvenir postcard of maiko from the stack he keeps outside his home.

We pass Mangyoku, a 300-year-old former okiya that has been given a second life as a classy restaurant. It’s a theme that becomes increasingly evident as we move deeper into Naramachi: buildings that might once have been condemned to the wrecking ball now beckon diners with hand-drawn menus and pleasant aromas. Much like Kyoto’s machiya cafe boom — where traditional wooden town houses have been converted into fashionable eateries — Naramachi’s traditional properties are getting a face-lift. Though the trend is bringing people back to the graying neighborhood, you’re more than likely to score a seat here than at similar places in Kyoto — even on weekends.

Naramachi’s only two active geisha homes sit next to each other on a small backstreet. One is rather unassuming, but the second, known as Tsuruya, gleams with a recently renovated wooden facade and white lantern painted with swallows. The house mother here is Kikuno (her geisha name). She is one of Nara’s younger and — according to Yoshiko — most beautiful geisha. She has one maiko currently under her wing, so the community is not yet defunct. Perhaps it is the lucky swallows in flight on the front lantern that assure her success.

The eaves of the neighborhood’s homes are a haven for migrating swallows, and residents welcome them and the luck they allegedly bring to the local houses. You’ll see paper placed under nests to catch any mess the birds may make — residents would rather have a temporary eyesore than dislodge the area’s winged harbingers of good fortune.

As we walk through a nearby backstreet, the faint scent of roasted tea pulls us into Tamura Seihouen tea shop. The aroma inside is pleasantly overpowering. A 60-year-old tea roaster, emblazoned with one of Nara’s ubiquitous deer, has pride of place right inside the door. I leave with a new bag of sencha (nonpowdered green tea), sourced from Nara Prefecture, and a gentle admonition to never steep my leaves with boiling water, lest I strip the tea of its flavor.

Out on the street, I notice that a few shops are showcasing cat-themed products or cat motifs. There was once a large number of strays roaming the quarter and, though no longer overrun, the district still has its fair share of felines. In 2000, a photobook drew attention to Nara’s many furry denizens and the city has continued to embrace the population, with the creation of the Nyara-Machi Neko Matsuri (Naramachi Cat Festival). The event takes place every June, when participating businesses roll out edible cat-themed specialties. A beauty salon even makes visitors up to resemble their favorite character from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats.”

Wandering to the center of Naramachi, we arrive at Nigiwai-no-ie, one of the neighborhood’s highlights. This traditional residence, which once belonged to a local tradesman, fetes its 100th birthday in 2017. It’s the kind of home in which I could only hope to retire. The narrow frontage of the house — built at a time when homes were taxed by their width — belies a spacious interior. The kitchen boasts soaring ceilings, blackened by years of smoke from an old wood stove, and the living areas double as guest rooms, all linked together by a polished wood veranda. It’s possible to close the rooms off for privacy but the staff here have left the space open, making it feel as if the house goes on forever. Every room has at least some view of the attached garden, though the best view is from the owner’s bedroom at the rear of the house.

The light summer rain that has been pelting us all morning was a nuisance out in the streets, but inside Nigiwai-no-ie it’s a welcome intrusion of nature that completes the restful scene.

We wend our way through the alleys of eastern Naramachi before ending our walk at Daijo-in Temple garden. The temple was moved here at the beginning of the Heian Period (794-1185), but became ruined in the Meiji Era (1868-1912) and is nothing but a memory today. The garden also feels little more than a faded imprint of its once-glorious self. Its matted paths through the grass lead only partway around the property; any stepping stones from years past have long been removed. Compared to Isui-en — Nara’s more touted traditional garden near Todaiji Temple — Daijo-in seems a forgotten relic.

And that’s precisely why we have it entirely to ourselves. A gardener’s grass cutter drones in the background as we sit and admire the ponds and the stark red bridge that links them. When the buzzing stops, we’re graced with silence — an uncommon sound in a city of this size. The lure of Nara’s typical tourist sites is significant, but here, on the fringe of well-trampled Nara Park, a different side of Japan’s ancient capital awaits discovery.

Naramachi is a short walk from Kintetsu Nara Station on the Kintetsu-Kyoto Line, which is roughly 50 minutes from Kyoto Station. The Naramachi Walking Tour is held every Saturday from 10 a.m.-1 p.m. and departs from outside the Kintetsu Nara Tourist Information Center (outside Kintetsu Nara Station). Reservations are not necessary.

Accommodation

Hara Hotel (www.narahotel.co.jp/en, 0742-26-3300), is perched on the hill overlooking Daijo-in Temple garden. Since its founding in 1909, the hotel’s guests have included Helen Keller, Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russel, among others.

Guesthouse Tamura (www.guesttamura.web.fc2.com/framepage2.html, 080-5447-4345) offers small dorms or simple private rooms on a quiet street at the eastern edge of Naramachi.

Food and drink

Hiyori (www.narakko.jp/hiyori, 0742-24-1470) is a popular Naramachi restaurant that focuses on using local vegetables. Its set lunches are excellent value.

Hakushika Sake Brewery (www.harushika.com, 0742-23-2255) was established in 1884, just south of Daijo-in Temple garden. Visitors can sample or purchase a variety of Hakushika’s locally made sake.