By Mary Kawai
Part of the charm of visiting the ancient capital of Nara is to slow down to the pace of life here. When you let go of the stresses of urban life and breathe in the fresh air from the surrounding mountains and tea plantations, you can sense the peace and tranquillity of the old houses and gardens that dot this city.
Being a compact place with relatively car free streets arranged in a grid like pattern, Nara is an ideal place to get around by bicycle, with many stores also stocking children’s or electric bicycles. While the main street of Naramachi can be crowded, cycling the back streets afford glimpses into the old machiya townhouses in a relaxed manner.
Whether you come here by design or accident, chances are you will ride past Naramachi Karakuri Toy Museum, a townhouse with lattice wood details and white stone walls in the kura or warehouse style from the Edo Period. Built in 1823, it usually draws a small crowd, chatting or peering inside the tatami rooms. Drop in to discover the joys of hand-made mechanical toys from the last century.
Cycling here is best done in the seasons of spring and autumn, when the temperatures are kinder and the colours more vibrant. In early April the Cherry blossoms fill the skies above you in the tree lined avenues along the old town. In autumn come here for the changing of the colours, with various shades of red, orange and yellow giving the streets a soft glow. Summer is a time of festivals in many parts of this bucolic prefecture, bringing folk music and throngs of joyous people on the streets, many wearing traditional summer yukatas in pastel colours. The heat can be oppressive, so be sure to take plenty of water and avoid the heat at noon. Winter is also another time for festivals, such as the Setsubun Mantoro, with more than 3,000 lanterns lit up at the Kasuga Taisha Shrine. There are other places further afield that are worth riding to, these include the Shin Yakushi temple, with its intricate sculptures of ancient generals.
Nara is just over three hours from Tokyo by the Tokkaido bullet train, with a change at Kyoto. You can come here as a day trip, but if you take your time, its charms would work its magic after a few days. Fall into a heavenly trance at the baths at the Subaru Hotel, and you may never want to leave.
Nara Rent-a-Cycle, which is 2 minutes’ walk north from Exit 7 of Kintetsu Nara station is a convenient spot to hire a bicycle, while many hotels or guesthouses also rents bicycles to guests. The Hotel Nikko Nara is convenient for guests travelling to and from JR Nara Station.
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