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Even the most unlikely corners of Japan can be spellbinding. Venture beyond the tourist trail, says Pico Iyer, and you’ll encounter a wealth of hidden wonders.

Pico Iyer
November 14, 2018

I’ve just slipped out of an exquisite jewel-box combination of moss garden, pond garden, and camellia garden that is virtually deserted on this brilliant autumn afternoon. At Yoshiki-en (60-1 Noboriojicho), admission is free for foreigners with passports, and right next door is Isui-en, an even more ravishing and spacious garden, complete with thatched-roof houses and a pond. Having basked in the dazzling scarlets and oranges and yellows of turning leaves, I head off across a park, past groves of wild plum trees and a 16th-century storehouse for Buddhist texts.

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Deer peer at me through the trees. Others stroll up to check if my shoulder bag is edible. There are hundreds roaming untethered through Nara, a sprawling city 20 miles south of Kyoto that was Japan’s capital for most of the eight century. With night beginning to fall, I amble past a series of fairy-tale cottages — the rooms of the Edosan Inn — as women in kimonos glide among them, bearing dinner in lacquered boxes. Then I make my way down to Ukimido, a floating pavilion on a pond ringed by hills, as the rising moon evokes a traditional Japanese painting come to life. Following a path beside an orange-gated shrine, I arrive at the 109-year-old Nara Hotel, with a safe as tall as an NBA star behind its wooden front desk. A hidden flight of stairs along the hotel’s driveway takes me down into Naramachi, a maze of thin, lantern-lit lanes lined with Meiji-era wooden houses, once family homes, that now burst with handicrafts and cones of yuzu ice cream and bottles of local sake.

I still can’t quite believe that all these treasures lie only 40 minutes from my apartment in Nara’s modern suburbs. But what my friends can’t believe is that I’ve spent this magical afternoon in the city without once stepping into any of its A-list sights: the largest wooden temple in the world, one of the most sacred Shinto shrines in the land, and the second-tallest pagoda in Japan, all accessible via a gentle saunter through the deer park. The oldest wooden building in the world, a structure within the temple complex known as Hōryū-ji that dates from 607, is just a 12-minute train ride southwest of Nara’s central station.

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Is there anywhere as dense with treasures as Japan? In 44 years of continual travel I’ve never found such. That’s one reason why Japan has been my adopted home ever since I left New York City 31 years ago. When friends visit, I take them along this quiet trail in Nara, bypassing the crowds around Tōdai-ji, the central temple, and then point out that this storehouse of wonders is, in fact, an afterthought, often seen only on a day trip from radiant Kyoto, an hour away. It’s Kyoto that pulls in newcomers with its more than 1,600 temples, 17 unesco World Heritage sites, whisper-soft geisha districts, Zen gardens, and international manga museum. But Japan has so much to offer that even a city such as Nara, which became the land’s first Buddhist capital 84 years before the court moved to Kyoto, can be thought of as a side trip. If countries were soccer teams, Japan would be the one with a crowd of all-stars that could still field a second 11 to keep up with almost any rival.

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Everybody knows that Tokyo is one of the sleekest and most futuristic cities on the planet, a streamlined web of hidden sushi bars and fish markets and cosplay cafés and outlandish fashions. No one wants to miss Kyoto, the capital for more than a thousand years and cradle of so many of the traditions that make Japan unique. But I remind friends that they can also go to Takayama, three hours northeast of Kyoto by train, and enjoy street after street of wooden houses, with bridges over picturesque canals leading to hills ringed with temples. Or they can make the pilgrimage to Hiroshima’s piercing Peace Memorial, two hours in the other direction, and follow it with a 10-minute ferry ride to Miyajima, a compact island of temples (and more deer), with a haunting shrine, Itsukushima, that’s been jutting into the water for 14 centuries. If they want to see how a forgotten community can be made new by art, I tell them they can’t afford to miss Naoshima, the island in the Inland Sea, less than four hours from Hiroshima, that has, over the past quarter-century, been turned into a complex of museums that are forward-looking yet serene — the ultimate Japanese combination.

You will have heard that Japan has become irresistible to travelers in the past few years. Since 2003 the number of international visitors has rocketed by more than 500 percent, and this year it is predicted to top 28 million. The declining yen has made $15 three-course lunches possible (no tax or tips required). As the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (and the 2019 Rugby World Cup) approach, there are more and more announcements in English. And as Japan’s neighbors across Asia have already discovered, the country has the best shopping around, from cartoon mugs to lacquer boxes, for both high-end goods and uniquely Japanese products. Even the convenience stores are crammed with miniature marvels that prepare you for the inexhaustible food basements in the department stores.

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Sometimes it feels as if all those visiting millions are converging around the well-known temples in Kyoto. Go to the postcard venues listed in guidebooks and you’ll understand why parts of Kyoto are now nicknamed “Chinatown” (almost all the young women in kimonos in the streets are in fact excited tourists). But on my walk around Nara I remember that just five minutes from the clatter of buses and clicking cameras around its central temple are beauties that the majority of visitors have neither the time nor the inclination to visit.

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Wandering around the country I like to claim as my own, I sometimes recall the first days I ever spent in Japan in 1983 and 1984. Never had I seen somewhere so different from the world I knew, so rich in secrets and so much like the elegant woodcuts I’d admired in museums. India is more intense, Cuba has better music, and Iran is more glamorous. But when a friend says she wants to go somewhere exotic and yet safe, unfathomable and yet kind, transporting and yet clean, honest, and efficient, I pick up the phone and make a reservation for her at the Nara Hotel.

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