Fred A. Bernstein

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Nara: The Town That Time Forgot

A quiet alternative to Kyoto

Published in The New York Times, November 13, 2006

Kyoto isn't MY idea of paradise. At an 800-year-old Zen garden, my thoughts were drowned out by a man using a leaf blower to clear the famously raked gravel. And at Nijo Palace, where I counted more than 50 buses in the parking lot, loudspeakers behind the ancient ramparts blasted "Auld Lang Syne," in an effort to get tourists to depart. Everywhere, hideous Blade Runnerish buildings reflected each other in mirrored facades - a continuous loop of grotesque architecture. On the edge of Gion - the fabled Geisha district - I passed the Chapel Cinderella, a wedding factory that looked like Disneyland on acid. Tawaraya, the city's most famous inn, was surrounded by construction sites (one with signs promising a "New York-style" high rise).

Kyoto is filled with magnificent sights, but I found the price of seeing them too high.

Flipping through a guidebook, I noticed an enthusiastic description of Nara, Japan's capital from 710 to 794, and decided to follow my gut. Two hours later, I was 25 miles - or was it a million? - from Kyoto's depressing Japan Rail station. 

Soon I was standing in front of a grand hotel, built 100 years ago on the edge of a park that encompasses staggeringly beautiful Buddhist temples and culminates in a primeval forest, untouched (according to experts) for 1,300 years. A bellhop in a crisp uniform ran out to greet me like a long-lost cousin. Inside, the guest book displayed in the lobby, from the hotel's opening week, lists "Mrs. A. M. Dodge, New York City, October 17, 1909" - and it didn't look as if anything had changed since Mrs. Dodge's visit.

Nara itself is far from unspoiled. The Nara Hotel sits on a dividing line: to the north and east are mountains and forest, but to the south and west is a sprawling commercial zone. Naturally, I chose a room facing the mountains. It was in the hotel's original building, with dark wainscoting, a 14-foot-high ceiling and an odd ceramic tile fireplace. The bathroom wasn't gorgeous, but water in the electric kettle was hot (I made green tea), and the toilet seat was set to "warm."

I was too tired for either of the hotel's formal restaurants, one French, the other Japanese. So I walked down the steep stairway that leads directly from the hotel to a neighborhood filled with old wooden houses and stores. At Tempura Asuka, I took a seat at what looked like a sushi bar but was really a tempura bar; a white-robed chef proceeded to batter and fry everything from baby corn to scallops wrapped in mint leaves, one perfect morsel at a time. Leave it to the Japanese to elevate deep-frying to an art form. (The meal, which also included soup, rice, salad, several appetizers and cherry blossom ice cream, was about $40.)

Between courses, I flipped through a pile of tourist brochures. Nara, I learned, has eight World Heritage sites. I decided to try to see all eight, as long as I could do it in two days at a gentle pace, with time for meals and contemplation.

As it turns out, I spotted the first of the sites at breakfast the next morning. The hotel seated me alone in a corner of the large, elegant restaurant -- giving me a perfectly framed view of a five-story pagoda, part of a temple complex known as Kofuku-ji (ji means temple). After breakfast, I rented a bicycle from the hotel and rode to the 1,200-year-old pagoda. The temple complex was deserted, except for a few elderly Japanese women lighting incense, and hundreds of deer, which awaited handouts. (Japanese children come to Nara especially to feed them.)

Back on the bicycle, I pedaled to Todai-ji, built in the mid-eighth century. Its main hall, the kondo, is believed to be the largest wooden structure in the world (surprising, given that it's a two-thirds-scale 17th-century replica of a much older building destroyed by fire). There were other tourists on the grounds, but they numbered in the dozens and were barely noticeable alongside the temple's 50-foot-high bronze Buddha (with eight-foot ears, according to the commentary on my ticket stub).

From Todai-ji, I biked less than a half-mile into Nara Park, which seemed to stretch on forever in the distance. I stopped at the Kasuga Grand Shrine. The vermilion-walled building is best known for the 3,000 lanterns lining its pathways. Each lantern is a miniature building, carved from stone, with rice paper windows through which candles glow at night.

I took a leisurely ride, in brisk spring weather, through the park, passing stunning botanic gardens where a stream coming out of the mountains slowly morphs, through the careful placement of boulders and gravel, into a fountain. The mixture of nature and artifice was quintessentially Japanese. Around 11, I rode back to the Kofuku-ji grounds, where the Treasure Hall had opened. It is, for my money (a $5 admission), the best small museum in Japan -- an unassuming building containing about 40 ancient artworks, each one memorable.

I returned my bike to the hotel and walked back into town (where more than once I saw women arranging flowers, ikebana style, in the courtyards of their houses). One street led to the Gango-ji, where Buddhism is said to have taken root in Japan. I continued on to the Japan Rail station; a 10-minute train ride took me close to Horyu Temple -- actually a Central Park-size complex, reputed to contain the world's oldest surviving wooden buildings. A new museum, tucked behind the main temple, contained an exhibition of architectural fragments, many of them exceedingly complex puzzle pieces designed to stay together without hardware. Back at the Nara station, I walked across the street to see one of city's modern buildings, a performing arts center designed by Arata Isozaki, with a concert hall contained entirely in walls of glass. (Time hasn't stood still in Nara; it's just moved gently.)

At 7 o'clock, I was in the dining room of the Nara Hotel, where I had decided to spend $100 on a kaiseki dinner (an elaborate meal consisting of 13 courses). I'd had kaiseki before, but in traditional settings that involved too much ceremony for an impatient New Yorker. Here, the decor and service were informal but the food as complex as Horyu temple's architecture. One course was listed on the menu as "grated and marinated brook trout, lobster, fresh vegetables, seeds of summer cypress, orange sauce." It was served in a dish not much larger than a thimble.

The next morning, I made plans to see two temples in the western part of town. This time, I took the Kintetsu line (Japan Rail's competitor) directly to the Yakushi Temple complex, built in the seventh century by an emperor praying for the health of his empress. (It worked; he died, and she ascended the throne.) The walk to nearby Todai temple took me through a lovely residential neighborhood, where stone-lined canals fed lush gardens.

At Todai-ji, I was shocked to see a giant, shedlike building. As it turns out, the kondo is being restored, a job that will take years, and that necessitated placing the hangarlike structure over the old foundation. But the rest of the complex, acres of stunning Japanese gardens, was intact, and the construction had scared off even those few tourists who might otherwise have been here. I was blissfully alone, among cherry trees that were beginning to flower.

Amazingly, snow flurries began to fall, and for a moment, I imagined they were blossoms. The magic of Nara - the anti-Kyoto - filled the sky.