Although Nara has become a favorite of international tourists in recent years, the city, which served as the nation's ancient capital from 710 to 784, has historically been a bit off the beaten path.

Heijokyo, or Heijo Palace, as Nara was then known, was the easternmost terminal of the Silk Road and the center of Buddhism in Japan. It drew scholars and religious leaders from Korea, China and other parts of Asia in what was a long and sometimes difficult voyage by land and sea.

Today, though neither an arduous nor dangerous journey, Nara remains less convenient to reach by rail from other parts of Japan than neighboring Kyoto or Osaka. But a campaign promise by Nara Gov. Shogo Arai, who was re-elected to a fourth term in April, has put the spotlight on Nara's future as a major domestic crossroads if a proposed Nagoya-Osaka link for the maglev shinkansen is realized.