Holy Days 3- Capital of Good Fortune
I rounded things out during my New Year’s by visiting Nara, a city I had only seen briefly during my student days, and with a dead camera to boot.
In a landscape of historical cities, Nara is one of the most ancient, founded in the year 704 as the capital of what grew into Japan, before Kyoto was anything more than a few farms and the odd mountainside shrine. It lies on the other side of the mountain ridge that defines the eastern edge of Osaka, in a land once known as Yamato- a name that has almost become synonymous for Japan itself. Nara faded into obscurity after the imperial house moved to Kyoto in 794, but grew back up into a modest but significant city in the 1600s as Japan urbanized under the Tokugawa rule. Now it finds itself with some 360,000 or so people, a small city but one with a reputation beyond its size.
The last great destruction to visit Nara occurred during the medieval struggles of warlords, so Nara is a city of history and artifacts. The whole east side of downtown has become something of a vast holy park, where ancient temples and shrines abut each other amidst greenery, and deer freely roam in public. How they keep them from disrupting traffic, I don’t know. Considering how much is here, I decided to choose places I hadn’t seen before.
But I didn’t just come for ancient temples. I have an interest in cities, and wanted to see just a little of the place that had grown up around these old precincts. I was especially interested in Nara because I think of it as a counterpart to Wakayama, which I had visited earlier. They both have around the same population, and are both well-known regional cities in rural, mountainous areas neighboring Osaka.
Wakayama, as I mentioned in an older post, is a city with a strange feeling of emptiness. The streets are massively broad, the spaces between the buildings are wider than most Japanese cities, and in a city with only 360,000 people it made me feel as if the city had been built for a much larger populace than can fill all the space.
Nara is a much different place. Downtown is a little more “traditional” Japanese in that the streets are narrow and the buildings smaller but densely packed. Nara has enjoyed an upswing in status over the past century, while Wakayama has steadily declined from its former place as one of Japan’s greatest cities. These factors combined made Nara feel like a far more lively…and urban city. I’m starting to judge a city by how much I could enjoy moving there, and living in Nara wouldn’t be bad. Small, but busy enough and full of history and nature.
Speaking of cities…
The Japanese don’t really have the notion of a skyline the way we Americans do. Their big cities are all surrounded by other dense cities, so there’s no moment of open highway where one gets to see the whole city from a distance, a la Chicago or New York. Besides, their skyscrapers have never been quite as big, possibly because of the threat of earthquake.
And yet, as the train to Nara ascended into the mountains on the edge of Osaka Prefecture, I caught a rare glimpse. Yes, the skyline of Osaka, captured.