Upon coming to Japan, I first knew Nara for its cute and hungry deer, and majestic landmarks such as Kasuga Taisha and Todaiji Temple. Now, living as one of Nara’s 370,000 local inhabitants, I have discovered a different city.
My first surprising discovery about Nara was the sheer number and physical size of the kofun in the area. I hadn’t really heard about them until they caught my eye while looking at Nara on Google Maps where, from above, they look like enormous green keyholes covered with trees and surrounded by water, making them difficult to even notice from ground level. In fact, the kofun are burial mounds constructed between the 3rd to 7th centuries, an era appropriately named the Kofun Period.
My favorite is the kofun of Emperor Seimu, though not for the tomb in itself (except when using a drone and filming from above), but rather for its surroundings. It is located in an ancient residential area called Misasagi-cho which is full of things to see, such as old houses, farm fields, and hidden shrines.
In the center of Nara, right next to the park, there is also another secretly kept structure named Zuto, which is also referred to as the Pyramid of Nara. Said to be inspired by a similar pyramid in Indonesia, it was recently restored to its original condition from over 1,200 years ago and now allows visitors daily.
Since I live in Nara and do a fair bit of walking and jogging, my favorite area to go through is Naramachi, a historic district that is now becoming more of a tourist hub. Right now it seems that most tourists only visit the area closest to the main street by Nara Park, but there’s much more to discover. The shotengai (shopping street) of Mochiido is beautiful towards the end, with a lot of shops dedicated to cats, and you can find even more in the little streets and winding alleyways behind.
At the end of this shotengai you can cross the street and walk towards a very interesting part of Naramachi, away from the tourists and much closer to the original heart of Nara, where the atmosphere is much quieter despite the activity. I usually go up to the Shonen-ji Temple, try to find my way to Jurin-in Temple, go back to the Sarusawa Pond, and then stop in front of the classic Nara Hotel. There are a few traditional coffee shops around just waiting to be found.
Nara also has amazing temples, which are almost only visited by Japanese tourists. In my opinion, the most beautiful one is Hannya-ji, especially during the autumn season when its 100,000 cosmos flowers are in bloom, but the simplicity and austerity of Shin-Yakushi-ji’s exteriors have something magical that draws you inside to face a two-meter high Buddha hidden surrounded by twelve guardian deities.
Of course, these are just a small sample of the Nara I’m coming to know, with many more new discoveries to be found and photographed.
Posts by Jordy Meow