Nara City – Brush stroke on a portrait of Japan.

The ancient city of Nara, an experiment in technological and spiritual innovation. The watermark of a nation in bloom, and a defining point in the portrait of a culture.

I had developed an interest in Nara soon after arriving in Japan, following an encounter with an old friend. We were having lunch, discussing the trials and tribulations of rural Japan, when the subject came up—she had just returned from there on business, and said it had been an altogether pleasant trip. Though I had some knowledge of the city and prefecture beforehand, I had never been, nor had I made any plans to do so; however, after our conversation I became increasingly taken by the idea of visiting. I am fortunate to be spending a few days in Nabari, in neighbouring Mie prefecture (some 65km from Nara City) making the journey convenient if nothing else.

The City of Nara lies in the mountainous Yamato Basin, close to the Kyoto border, where she has done for some 1300 years. Built in the 8th century, the city was modelled on the ancient city of Ch’ang in the hope that it might emulate the splendour of the Tang Dynasty. It became the home of the Imperial Court and capital of Japan, and lends its name to the subsequent period (Nara-jidai) from 710 – 794. These days however Nara makes do with the title of prefectural capital, and is home to some 350,000 people, who live and work throughout the city and its suburbs. Though modestly sized (at least by Japanese standards) the city retains a historical and cultural significance that rivals even the largest of its contemporaries—the prefecture hosts more UNESCO heritage sites than any other.

The drive from Mie to Nara is in itself an experience worth writing about: up through the forests and winding roads, into the mountains; and then down, into the basin itself, where you are met by a panoramic view of the sprawling suburbs, the lights of commerce sparkling throughout. A sight for sore eyes. When travelling through the Japanese countryside, I am often astonished by the volume of undisturbed woodland. In fact some 67% of Japans land mass is accounted for by trees—to put that in context the UN average is 29%, with England retaining around 10%—making it one of the most densely forested countries in the world. Nara is no exception, its sloping, wooded hills giving shelter to one of the city’s most prized treasures: the Sika.

Just as one cannot mention Venice without gondolas, nor Prague without Kafka, a discussion on Nara seems incomplete without some reference to deer. The Sika, or Japanese Spotted Deer, are ubiquitous throughout the prefecture, though most notably in the city itself, where approximately 1200 Sika (as of 2015) coexist alongside their two-legged counterparts. A particularly interesting phenomenon, given that deer are so renowned for the shyness, and I’m sure one could spend a whole day studying their interactions with the environment and never tire of it—this can make for many a fascinating, and often amusing spectacle. For example, the deer have adopted certain idiosyncrasies specific to the urban setting, such as bowing to receive food, and waiting with pedestrians at traffic lights. The level to which they seem to have integrated into society is also noteworthy. For many Narans the Sika are a central feature of everyday life. I speak to a café owner, who tells me that one particular deer has been coming to her store since a young fawn, and now brings his family to receive scraps.

A fine example of a Sika Doe, in Nara Park.

This arrangement of cohabitation seems, at least at first glance, to be one of mutual benefit. Tourists flock in to see the deer, which has spawned an industry in Shika-senbei (or ‘deer snacks’) that can be purchased and fed to them; the deer have in turn been allowed some degree of autonomy, being left to roam the city and Nara Park—where they are predominantly found. There are however some, perhaps unsurprising, problems that arise from cohabitation. The deer population has been steadily rising over the years, and with incidence of deer attacks on the rise, as well as a general strain on the local environment and infrastructure, it has prompted a question of ‘how many deer are too many’, and what should be done about it? There have been talks of a cull within local government, though this has (at least for the meantime) been shelved in favour of a relocation programme—largely due to public outcry.

This is more than an issue of animal rights, or protecting the tourism economy, however. Equally significant is the importance of the Sika to Nara’s culture and identity on an esoteric level. Legend has it that the Shinto thunder deity takemikazuchi-no-mikoto rode into Nara atop a white deer, where he was summoned to guard the Kasuga Taisha shrine; as such the Sika were for many years considered sacred and protected under pain of death. Whilst the scope of Japanese religious observance may have changed in the years between then and now, deer are still revered throughout the country; which is perhaps a good example of how certain values become entrenched over time, transcending the esoteric into common sense—that is to say, religion influences culture (and vica-versa).

Upon entering the Tōdai-ji, one cannot help but reach for the word ‘magnitude’. The sprawling complex is in itself a tremendous achievement both in size and engineering, though it is perhaps the Daibutsu (or bronze Buddha ornament) that is most exceptional. Standing at nearly 50 feet in height, it is the largest statue of its kind, and is housed in the Daibutsu-den (or Great Buddha Hall) which until the 90s was the largest wooden building in the world. I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this, but suffice to say, when it comes to Buddhism in Nara, size matters; and perhaps that is only right, Nara is after all Japan’s first quintessentially Buddhist city and template for the subsequent Heian Kyo—modern day Kyoto.

Gate to the Todai-ji complex.

Standing in the courtyard, on a gravelled path leading to the Daibutsu-den, it is grey and overcast. Whilst I’m sure a bright, autumnal sky would make for a stunning picture, perhaps the clouds and drizzle lend to the conservative splendour of the place—much as a foggy day in London is almost a prerequisite to experiencing the city. The romantic in me tries to imagine the place as it was 1200 years ago, with the crowds of tourists replaced by monks and worshippers, though I’m not sure how helpful this is as the complex has been renovated numerous times since its inception. Inside the enclosure the Daibutsu cuts an imposing figure, and one can see how such a structure would inspire reverence in the hearts of all who came to supplicate before it. It is said that the amount of bronze used alone nearly bankrupted the nation, and took multiple attempts to cast. Nevertheless, it remains awe inspiring both in size and presence, and one cannot help feeling humbled before it.

The Daibutsu-den, home to the Great Buddha Statue, at the Todai-ji, Nara.

Outside it is growing dark, though I decide to take a final stroll through Nara Park before departing. Nara Park is in fact one of the oldest parks in Japan, having been built towards the end of the 19th century during the Meiji restoration; and like so much in Nara, it is also beautiful. The leaves are turning as autumn sets in, in a spectacular canopy of green, orange and brown. Couples walk hand in hand  along the pathways and stag joust with one another nearby. I have always felt autumn to be my favourite season, and this is especially true in Japan—something about the oak and maple in particular. The atmosphere there is one that I feel resonates with Nara as a whole: peaceful and understated.

I decide to visit the Kasuga Taisha, a Shinto shrine tucked away in Nara park, before making the journey home. Built in 768 it was dedicated to the illustrious Fujiwara clan, who rose to prominence under the enigmatic Fujiwara Kamitari, and remained the de-facto rulers of Japan throughout much of the Nara and following Heian period. The family name remains a significant one, and the Fujiwara Kamon (depicting a wisteria vine) is not an uncommon sight—especially in Nara and Kyoto, where the clan exercised considerable power. The shrine is noted for its collection of stone lanterns adorning the grounds and those of the park in which it is situated, of which there are some 3000. Each one is said to have been donated by a worshipper, in an act of devotion that seems almost banal by this point in my trip. The shrine also hosts the Kasuga Wakamiya on-Matsuri, a festival and celebration of feudal Japanese culture (particularly the Heian era), though I am visiting at the wrong time of day and year to experience this first hand. Instead I content myself with wandering through the shrine, enjoying its ambience as the light slowly fades.

There is much to be said about Nara, indeed much more than I can articulate in these brief paragraphs. In finality, It is clear that Buddhism (and to some extent Shinto) has played an important part in Nara’s identity and Raison-d’etre; whilst Nara itself has contributed towards shaping the Japanese identity, at least in the historical sense. It is then somewhat like a brush mark, on a historical canvas, giving definition to a national portrait. There are indeed many such brush marks, though it is only by studying these indentations that we can seek to comprehend the broader picture, which is itself an ever growing ‘work in progress’.

Mie: A journey into rural Japan.

As of writing I am in Mie prefecture, located in the Kansai region of Honshu (Japan’s main island), where I will be based throughout my stay.

I think it’s common to associate Japan with sprawling cities, outlandishsub-culture and all the shiny baubles of technological modernity; by comparison rural life presents another world entirely. One that is, to all appearances, quaint and simple, perhaps somewhat antiquated. This no doubt holds a charm of its own for many travellers, myself included. As such I have developed something of a love affair with rural Japan, and relish any opportunity to explore it.

The prefecture itself consists of 14 cities, of which Tsu is the capital and largest city, with a population roughly the size of Hull, East Yorkshire (around 280,000, give or take). I am staying in Nabari. a sparsely populated city, tucked away amidst the rugged landscape that defines much of the region. Situated almost directly on the mountainous border with Nara prefecture, it is some 2 hours to Osaka by train, and a similar amount to Nara City (the capital of neighbouring Nara Prefecture) by car.

The ride into Nabari.

Mie encapsulates much of what I like about Japan’s country life: it is spacious and peaceful, with an abundance of wildlife and forests; the locals are also generally speaking friendly, albeit somewhat cautious—though one does have occasion to feel like a slightly famous, mildly unpopular TV personality spotted in public. The domestic and suburban architecture is what one might call quintessentially Japanese, comprised of wooden frames and ornate tiled rooves. Time ambles along slowly, with the elderly and housewives pottering around the cafés and shops.

It is easy for me to romanticise about all this, however it does not escape me that many of the things I admire about rural Japan are a hindrance to its prosperity—and in some cases are perhaps even a symptom of its problems. Urbanisation is by no means a new concept, nor a relative one, though it does seem to have taken a particularly heavy toll on Japan’s rural communities. Large swathes of the country’s young have migrated from their home towns and villages into the growing metropolitan areas, in search of work and opportunity otherwise unavailable in their home communities.

As such, what may appear as tranquillity to an outsider, may be viewed as stagnation, or even regression, to a young man or woman who has to live there. It is a mutually reinforcing phenomenon: the lack of jobs and opportunities leads to an exodus of the young, whilst the same exodus prevents innovation and change from occurring in the communities they have left. The hope is, at least in the long run, that some of those who have left will return to their hometowns, bring with them the skills, experience and capital they have accrued working in the city.

Neighbouring houses in Nabari, Mie.

Whilst this has of course been true in other cases concerning migration, both at national and international scales, this does not yet appear to be happening in Japan; nor is it likely to in a time frame or intensity that would prevent many smaller towns from dwindling into extinction. When coupled with a declining birth rate, and an ageing population, this makes for a particularly debilitating cocktail.

The Mie economy seems to have fared better than that of other prefectures. It maintains a thriving rice and tea industry, and has a number of attractions that lure a steady flow of tourists into the region. For example, Ise is the traditional tea growing region, producing some of the finest in the country, and is also home to the Ise Shrine (Ise Jingu); the Iga region is similarly famed for its rice, a varietal known as Koshihikari (or Mie-Koshi), as well as being the birthplace of both Ninjutsu, and the venerable Japanese poet, Matsuo Basho—who scarcely requires an introduction from me. Mie also benefits from Japan’s efficient rail system, the Kintetsu line, linking many towns to larger cities (such as Osaka) and putting them on a commuter belt.

Nevertheless, despite all this, both Nabari, Iga, and Ise have smaller populations today than they did in 1995. Whilst the death to birth deficit has a hand in this, it is equally related to the aspirations and ambitions of Mie’s young, who wish to improve on the lot of their parents. Certainly the job market in smaller towns is not what it once was, and the quality of life there afforded, though comfortable, is out of sync with that desired by many; equally, the diminishing population impacts the level of public service provided, such as schools and hospitals, making relocation essential for parents who want the best start in life for their children. This can be a case of moving from smaller towns to larger prefectural cities such as Tsu, though often it involves migrating to larger metropolitan areas.

One area that has suffered particularly is that of the Buddhist temple. In conversation with a local monk, I am told that there simply aren’t enough monks to run the numerous temples spread amongst rural communities. He is now managing 3 temples—his own, and two others—which has become a terrible strain on him. It seems that many older monks are now reaching retirement age and, despite the profitability in becoming a monk, there is an apparent lack of those willing to take on such responsibility.

A monkless temple in rural Mie.

Many of the issues I have detailed are in fact the concern of countries all over the developed world, and are by no means exceptional to Japan. What might be considered exceptional however is the outstanding natural beauty and history in the Japanese countryside, of which Mie is a fine example. I only hope that some reinvigoration and innovation can help maintain its existence. Surely increased tourism is a means of doing this in the short term, and if I can promote that in some small way, all the better; though in the long run, some serious intervention is likely required, to prevent (or at least ameliorate) the decline into social decay.

Benjamin Elstobb
Nabari, Mie