The insights you have when someone says Japan to you are easy: sushi, J-pop, technology, vending machines selling dodgy things to salarymen and earthquakes. The one no-one ever mentions is ‘nature’ which is strange as it is Japan’s unique relationship with nature which is what strikes me every time I go there.
This is not the tectonic led relationship with nature that has been evident ever since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster but the seasonality and hedged and trimmed intersection of nature throughout daily life. You know what? It is slightly British really.
And so it was with Nara. Nara is in the same Kansai region as Osaka and Kyoto and used to be the old Japanese imperial capital for 74 years back in the 7th century. Despite it only being the capital for a short time it got littered with the kind of temples that are perfect tourist fodder as well as an immodestly large Buddha.
It also comes with the Japanese equivalent of panhandlers: hungry deer. These deer are straight out clever enough to patiently wait by the places to buy deer cookies so they can harass willing tourists. They then have to suffer the indignity of constant picture taking in return.
And these temples, buildings and deer tramps are placed – and the word is placed – amongst grounds that have 1,300 years of refinement to best exhibit them and to make sure when autumn comes you get the entire colour spectrum. Autumn in Japan is one of the great things in the world. Whilst many try to hit the sakura or cherry blossom festival, autumn is a many layered, complex and planned assault on your senses by an over-tended nature. It is outrageously good.
Nara also gave me that slightly eerie sensation that it was a set for a Japanese 28 Days Later. It is empty. If you leave the large park where the historic buildings are focused you can wander round the small city which is also embedded with historic buildings.
The other thing you notice when you wander round the deserted streets is how small everything is. Not in a cretinous, “haha, look Japanese people are small” way but in a “this was the second richest country on earth for 30 years of the modern age and yet there is an intense modesty in everything“.
Buildings are still lined by sheet tin and people live so small in footprint.
Finally, the food. As it was the imperial capital and is in the magic region of Nara nestled between two other foodies and cultural cities – Osaka and Kyoto – it means that it also has a long standing history and pride in its food. I visited just two restaurants in the day there but both were exceptional.
Kappou Kitada (1*)
The first, for lunch, was Kappou Kitada which is run by probably the only high level Michelin starred kaiseki chef hanging out on Twitter and Facebook. If you check out the Facebook page you can get an idea of happy ambience of the kitchen and can see Mr Kitada at the far right of the picture, slightly awkward in the picture, encouraging his staff to embrace web 2.0.
The food in keeping with the autumnal nature of the park in December (hello global warming) played off the colours and the seasonality of nature. Once again it came with an education of every single ingredient and fish from the tomes of Japanese cooking.
Finally there was Kotan which is just a couple of minutes walk away in a fine food enclave by the station. This is a husband and wife team and one of the pleasures of the meal is watching the husband stress/focused infront of you working with a lightening intensity and producing every single dish and variety there and then. No help.
He also served my favourite dish of the entire Japan trip: a mochi rice and salmon roe snack of a dish. The salmon roe being fragrantly and lightly fresh and being the ultimate seasoning to some perfectly cooked rice.
My meal at Kotan was one I didn’t want to end so once I had finished the usual set I started adding one more. And then one more. Sucking in my belly to make it look as though I was not full. The food was something I didn’t want to leave. As with Nagahori in Osaka there was also a focus on the nihonshu which meant there was a slight wobble in my step when I left.
As with Osaka I’ll eventually update the above with restaurant details and addresses etc. If you are going before then all the details are on my Everplaces or you can get in contact and I’ll dig them out.