Down a narrow lane dotted with flower pots and old buildings, Ugaya Guesthouse in Nara is a cozy haven for those visiting one of Japan's oldest and most revered former capitals. Since it opened in 2008, the guesthouse offers travelers a place to rest weary heads as well as running a number of community events. It's a place where one can start to feel the charm of this community and begin to learn why the city is more than just a day-trip from Kyoto.
My husband and I visited Nara on two other occasions, both times as day trips from Kyoto, per guidebook recommendation. Pagodas, giant Buddhas, and temples flew by in a flash, and we barely had time to feed the deer. As we rushed to catch trains or glimpse the perfect sunset from Nagatsu-do, it always seemed like the city had more to offer. Nara, apparently, was just waiting to see when we might have an extra moment to spare. So, this time we ignored the guidebooks and took the city up on its offer.
Our three-day visit was wonderful, and our stay at the Ugaya Guest House set the tone. We arrived in the rain, a not unusual thing for March in Japan, with our folding bikes and backpacks fresh from Koyasan and a steamy train ride. We'd chosen Ugaya for its price, its proximity to Nara Park, and the charming pictures on the internet. It looked comfortable and nice, which is exactly what we wanted for this little get-away of ours.
We were not disappointed.
As we arrived the sprinkling rain turned to a full-fledged downpour, and we ducked inside to register. The sign advertising organic coffee caught my eye immediately, and I happily noticed the 100 yen discount for guests. One item on the agenda already! Concerned about where to safely park our bikes and keep them dry, the clerk grabbed an umbrella and headed out the door with us to show us the parking lot across the street. She helped arrange a cover over them, and then we all dashed back around the corner to finish checking in.
Moments later with my shoes off and drying by the door, I settled on the big sofa in the warmly-lit main room to debate the wisdom of that late afternoon coffee. Mellow (but not so mellow I wanted to take a nap) music played as I took in the dark wooden bookcase across from me, and the raised seating area in front of it. A variety of books, carvings, jewelry, hojicha (roasted green tea that is a Nara specialty), and a handful of other good quality souvenirs caught my eye. I switched my seat to one of the cushions at the low tables in front of the bookcase for a closer look. As the rain poured down, I felt right at home.
Our room, the Japanese-style mixed dorm room just off the Western-style mixed dormitory with its bunk beds, was tidy and pleasant. Clean ivory comforters and thick futons looked pretty tempting even though we still needed to eat dinner and wanted to walk about a bit after our long train ride. The hallway, like all the public areas and restrooms, was cheerfully painted and decorated with a selection of beautiful photos taken by the staff. The women's dorm just across the hall with its sliding door painted bright orange with fanciful patterns was hard to miss and fully occupied that evening. A metal staircase led from the second floor sleeping areas to a roof-top seating area. The shower was wonderfully warm with a big inviting tub.
City regulations don't allow for public cooking, which is disappointing for those like us that occasionally like to cook for themselves while traveling, but also understandable. (Fire is, after all, the major destructive force in Japan right after earthquakes.) A toaster oven, refrigerator and hot water dispenser were all available for guests, although we forgot all about oatmeal once presented with Ugaya's homemade chagayu. Chagayu is rice slow-cooked in hojicha with thin slices of sweet potato mixed in. The smell is contentment incarnate, and the flavor isn't far behind. We ate two bowls each, and Saori, a long-time staff member, laughed at our amazement and shared the recipe on the spot. Paired with two simple slices of pickled daikon, it was well worth the additional 400 yen.
Well-rested and even better fueled, we were ready to head out to meet Nara at last.