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Goin’ Japanesque!

Strolling Around The Trending Area of Nara-machi where Past and Present Coexist

I recently visited Nara-machi, now the hottest spot among tourists visiting Nara, and took a stroll around the town. Let me share with you some of the places I visited and the things I did there.

 

Nara-machi

Nara-machi is an atmospheric town with a historic townscape, stretching southward from Sarusawa-ike Pond, the tourist hub in Nara. It is easily accessible by foot either from JR Nara Station or Kintetsu Nara Station. With no large streets, Nara-machi is a perfect place to enjoy a leisurely stroll with a map in your hand.

Nara-machi is a very old town and has many temples and shrines including Gangoji Temple, whose origin can be traced as far back to the 5th – 6th century (Asuka Period) while many of the cafes and galleries around the town feature an architectural style of old townhouses from the 17th – 19th century (Edo Period) with some contemporary twists. Such co-existence of past and present makes this town very attractive.

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Writer’s Photo: Kisshodo Temple Hall in Nara-machi

Also, Nara-machi is known for a talisman called “Migawari Zaru (substitute monkey).” Many people even consider the talisman almost synonymous of the town. They are hung at the entrance of stores to drive away the evil spirits. The talisman in the shape of a monkey is believed to suffer troubles in place of people. Information: Map

 

History of Nara-machi: Gangoji Temple

The history of Nara-machi can be traced as far back to 710, when the capital of Japan was moved from Kyoto to Nara. The present Nara-machi was an outer part of the capital called “Gekyo” at the time. Many temples were built in the area and laid the foundation of the later development of the present Nara-machi. Gangoji Temple was the first of many temples built in the area.

Gangoji Temple is part of the “Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara,” which is registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The temple was originally called “Hokoji” when it was first built by Soga Umako as Japan’s oldest Buddhist temple in the area once called Asuka. The temple was later renamed as “Gangoji” when it was moved to the present location at the time of the capital relocation.

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Writer’s Photo: The Main Temple Hall of Gangoji Temple (Gokurakubo)

Three assets from Gangoji Temple; the main temple hall (Hondo/Gokurakubo), Zen hall beside the main hall and the five-storied tower (Hourinkan) are registered as national treasures.

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Writer’s Photo

One of the things you must check out here at Gangoji Temple is the ancient roof tiles.

Part of the roofs of the main temple hall (Gokurakubo) and Zen hall have the tiles, that were made sometime between the 6th to 8th century (Asuka – Nara Period). What is special about these roofs is that they are not displayed on a shelf of a museum but are still serving their purposes sitting on the roofs and continuously being exposed to wind and rain.

These tiles are characterized by its unique shape where the width of each tile widens toward the bottom. They can thus be laid by placing the wide end of a tile on top of the narrow end of another. This thatching method is called “gyokibuki.” The roofs of Zen hall have both ancient “gyokibuki” style thatching and “honkawarabuki” style thatching from a later period. Information: Map

 

Industry in Nara-machi: Traditional Skill Handed Down to Date

Gangoji Temple used to compare to such prestigious temples as Todaiji Temple and Kofukuji Temple but lost its prestige after the middle age. After the middle age, many factories and workshops of ink and brush, mosquito bed net, bleached cotton cloth, Chinese medicinal herb, sake and various other kinds of products were established on the old temple site of Gangoji and the industries have been handed down to date just as they used to be or renovated with modern elements. You can get close to such industries in Nara-machi and purchase a traditional product or two as your souvenirs.

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Writer’s Photo: Kikuoka Chinese Medicinal Herb Store

This is a long-established Chinese medicinal herb store, which opened in 1184 and has been handed down over 24 generations. In Chinese herbal medicine, crude drugs made from trees, plant roots, leaves and other natural ingredients are taken to adjust the balance of the whole body functioning and improve your physical constitution. The store also provides medical consultations. Information: Map

 

Other Tourist Spots in Nara-machi

Besides Gangoji Temple, Nara-machi also has many other great tourist attractions.

1. Koshindo (庚申堂)

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Writer’s Photo

Koshindo is famous for the “migawari zaru” (substitute monkey). Local people friendly refer to this place as “Koshin-san.” “Migawari zaru,” or the monkey-shaped talismans, that are hung at the entrances of many houses around the town, are available for purchase here. Make sure to get one of them or two as your souvenir. Information: Map

2. Goryo Shrine (御霊神社)

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Writer’s Photo

Goryo Shrine enshrines the soul of the Princess Inoe, who was the eldest daughter of the Emperor Shomu and died a tragic death. Shusseinari Shrine, one of the sub-shrines here, is believed to bring luck in love and marriage. You can buy a heart-shaped ema (votive tablet) and present it to the shrine as a prayer ritual. Information: Map

3. Nara-machi Nigiwai No Ie

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Writer’s Photo

This is a house aged 100 years, one of the many old houses scattered around Nara-machi. Many of such old houses around the town are preserved and made open to public as “Nigiwai No Ie (House for Gathering)” for concerts, tea parties, lectures and other events. If you ever have a chance, dropping by one of those houses to join the event will surely be an unforgettable experience. Information: Map

 

Contemporary Sensitivity in Nara-machi: Shika No Fune

Nara-machi also has many places where you can enjoy contemporary sensitivity.

“Shika No Fune (Deer Boat),” the facility housing a cafe, a restaurant and the tourist information office of Nara-machi, is one among such establishments. The cafe and the restaurant were produced by “Kurumi No Ki,” the very popular cafe chains that have many avid fans all around Japan.

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Writer’s Photo: Shika No Fune (Nara-machi Tourist Information)

You can get many kinds of tourist brochures and tourist information services here.

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Writer’s Photo: Restaurant Kamado (in Shika No Fune)

The fire burning in the furnace in the restaurant creates a very nostalgic atmosphere and reminds you of old days.

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Writer’s Photo

The restaurant here offers fresh furnace-cooked rice and delicious dishes made with natural ingredients. Breakfast is available from 8AM. Enjoy the meals made with a lot of local ingredients in the airy and lucid atmosphere. Information: Map

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Writer’s Photo: Cafe Kokohana

This is a pet friendly cafe in Nara-machi. Whenever you’ve had enough of walking, sitting back and relaxing at the cafe in an old house will be a great idea. Information: Map

 

Nara-machi is a great place where time flows slowly in a laid-back atmosphere like old days. It would be a perfect place you’d want to consider visiting when you are tired of the bustle and crowdedness in Tokyo and other urban areas. You will surely be able to get away from the busy everyday life and fully relax and rest yourself here.

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