Our “don’t leave home without it” JR Rail Pass had expired. Our onward journey to the place I had daydreamed about in school days – Nara, is via the Kintetsu Railways. Nara is only a short ride from Kyōto. It is the first capital of Imperial Japan from 710AD – 784AD, during the Nara Period. It is now over 1300 years old. Fortunately, today, this old world, “shitamachi”, charm exists in Nara Old Town, “Naramachi”.
Gangō-ji Temple was moved to Nara in 718 and the temples grounds occupied a large area. Most of these structures disappeared and gradually the locals established their home on these grounds, which is today’s Naramachi district. Parts of Gangō- ji Temple still remain. Many of the buildings built by merchants were in the “machiya” style – long and narrow townhouses with tiled roofs. A mix of wood and stone were used. White plaster walls with wooden lattice windows mingle with dark wooded walls and interiors. Over time, many of these traditional “machiya” architecture style homes of the former merchant district had been converted into tourist and artesian shops, accommodations, cafes, restaurants and museums. However, the old world charm of Naramachi which had been wonderfully restored, retained and lived. A living museum indeed!
Within the beauty of green (tiled roofs) and
The imperial city of Nara is now in its glory,
Like the brillance of flowers in full bloom.
– Ono-no-Oyu, Man’yōshū(circa 759AD)
Nara is our last stop and we decided to stay in a nice Japanese style home. Our accommodation was Sakuraya Guesthouse in the heart of Naramachi. Kayoko met us at the door and I immediately had a liking to her. We were immediately invited to some tea in the dining hall which faced a lovely inner – courtyard garden, “tsubo-niwa”. Later we were led upstairs to our Japanese style tatami mat floor and sliding door room. It was called the ‘Kaze’, Wind, room. From an adjoining screened balcony, we could see the garden. Futon beds were already laid out. Downstairs, we had another round of tea and some lovely biscuits. We did not feel like we were staying in an accommodation but at a friend’s place. What a place! It felt like a ryokan than a guesthouse as the name suggests. Kayoko was like a long lost friend. It was a good feeling.
We wandered the narrow streets of Naramachi. Besides the lovely restored wooden homes with tiled roofs, one common sight is the overhead electrical wires. As we walked, I noticed that there were hardly any people around. Doors closed, “noren”, curtains, flowing in the light breeze and hardly any sound. An elderly lady dressed in a lovely colourful kimono appeared from her home and disappeared into an alley. The streets branch off into complicated alleyways. We were unsure of where we were going but it did not matter. Getting lost here is a good thing. We came across gift shops and small eateries. The more we walked in this laid back old town, the atmosphere of the 19th century oozed out. A lady dressed in kimono, emerged out of her shop and poured a bucketful of water onto the street. Then she swept the street of dust and re- entered the shop.