Tag Archives: Nara Hotel

Nosing Around Naramachi

Waiting to get into our room, Lynn and I decided to have a snack in the Nara Hotel lounge.  The room hadn’t been updated in decades; it was dreary and the carpet was stained and worn.

The menu was geared to westerners.  We ordered a very expensive platter of sandwiches which comprised of crustless, doughy white bread smeared with the thinnest layer of cucumbers and tomatoes and cut into triangles.  The mixed nuts were reliably salty and filling and the black tea was served with real cream.

“I can’t see us eating here every night if these prices are indicative of the food joints,” I said. Throughout the hotel, we’d seen a cafe, a restaurant, a bar, this lounge, and other eating and drinking establishments.

“But if you noticed from the taxi on the way in,” Lynn replied, “There’s nothing nearby. We’ll have to figure out where the nearest restaurants are.  If we have to take taxis to get to them, we may as well eat here.”

A young woman escorted us to our room.  “Down two levels, in the basement,” she pantomimed as she pulled a trolley with our cases down several long hallways.

“There are windows?” I asked, alarmed.

“Oh yes!” she replied, laughing as she pressed the elevator button.  “It will take time,” she said, and walked away.  As we waited, we tried to decode a sign promoting beers on a rooftop terrace.

“Forty thousand yen?” I said in disbelief.  “That’s about forty bucks … for a beer?  I’m sure the view is very nice, but ….”

Our girl guide returned.  The “modern” wing of the hotel was very 80s style, in teal, grey, and mauve. There were more long hallways. I noticed vending machines selling beer for 2,500 yen—$2.50.

The room was geared to feel familiar to the western visitor, complete with a fake fireplace with plastic logs.

“It’s very spacious,” Lynn commented.

“Yes, and clean.”  A sliding glass door lead out to a cement patio without furniture. “This will be a good place to hang washing.”

I had read an article about Nara in Conde Nast Traveler which mentioned the Nara Hotel. You could walk down a set of stone steps (of course!) to the “atmospheric” Naramachi neighborhood of tiny streets and houses.

“It sounded really easy in the article,” I told Lynn as we reached the bottom of the steps.

“Don’t believe it!” she replied.

We did find it, despite ourselves, and I can’t say it was as I’d expected.  It was a typical urban neighborhood with streets, narrow alleys, and houses and shops.  Kind of like west St. Paul.

Why does the same place strike one person as “unforgettably atmospheric” and another as ho hum?

We accidentally found a temple, the Gangoji.  It had a beautiful inner shrine and nice collection of Buddha statues in an air-conditioned building.  No photos were allowed.

The courtyard was strewn with lotuses.  Would they stay in pots all summer?  There wasn’t a body of water nearby that I could see.

“You know how Taro had us use lotus root in our stir fry?” I reminded Lynn.  “I wonder if you can just go out in a kayak and pull them up?  We’ve got millions of ‘em in Minnesota.”

“Oh I should think not,” she replied.  “Wild ones are probably full of parasites.”

Not oishi.  As it turns out, harvesting wild lotuses in Minnesota is not allowed; I don’t know it it’s because of parasites or something else.

The only other photo I took at Gangoji was of a workman setting up a dicey-looking ladder.  I mean really—a three-legged ladder?

We walked back out into Naramachi and I may have startled Lynn when I expressed a great deal of excitement over a little housewares shop.  Inside, it was about the size of my bedroom and packed to the rafters with pots, straw brooms, plastic tub sets, and clothes-drying contraptions, most of it covered in dust.  An ancient woman sat behind a smeared glass counter; she didn’t move and her expression never changed.  Was she dead?  I found an omelet pan for about $5 but the mood for buying one had passed.

On to Nara

Nara was the capitol of Japan before Kyoto, which was the capitol before Tokyo.

Over a tasty Japanese breakfast at Shijo Station, we discussed whether to make a detour to the iconic shrine, Fushimi Inari-taisha. It’s in all the guides.  It really is iconic.

But it would not be empty.  “I hate to say it, but I’m inclined to save it for next time,” I said.  “I’m kind of shrined out.”

“Shrined out” was a term I’d seen frequently in reference to Japan.  Now I was living it.

There comes a point where you just cannot appreciate one more dragon fountain or anything that is the Largest, Oldest, or contains The Most gates, bodhisattvas, or peony carvings.

“But I’ve been here a week longer than you, and I’ve been to Nikko, where I saw I-don’t-know-how-many shrines.”

Lynn was fine with skipping it. She’s spent a lot of time working in Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, and China. She’s been to Bhutan and India, many times. She knows from shrines.

“I don’t remember things anyway,” she reminded me.  I think she does, but I know what she means. The brain can only store so many memories.

Nara is ninety minutes from Kyoto by local train.  The seats faced in, for maximum people watching.  A tough-looking young woman sat across from me.  I guessed she was American, and when we made eye contact I asked where she was from.  “Pittsburgh,” she grunted, then stared at her screen for the rest of the journey.

A Japanese man with boils the size of ping-pong balls covering his arms boarded and sat diagonally from me.  Despite the sweltering heat he was wearing a scarf to cover his neck and half his face.  More boils, I thought.  What a terrible condition, whatever it was.  He fell asleep.

A Japanese girl of around 17 boarded, sat next to the man with the boils, and recoiled almost imperceptibly when she glanced down at his arm next to hers.  Would she get up and move somewhere else?  No.  She sat ramrod stiff and stared straight ahead.  She was wearing a sailor outfit with a skirt so short I had to avert my eyes.

“Did you see that guy with the giant boils?” I asked Lynn when we got off in Nara.  “And the girl with the cutesy sailor’s outfit, and that tough broad across from us?  She was from Pittsburgh.”

“No,” Lynn replied.  Did she think I was making up these characters?  “I must have dozed off.”  I envy her ability to sleep anywhere.

A friendly man at Nara Station Information Desk told us we could catch a free shuttle to Nara Hotel.  I had booked the room and they hadn’t sent any information about this.  We stood where he pointed although there was no sign.  After 20 minutes we gave up and hailed a cab.

At the hotel we were handed a shuttle schedule; it ran every half hour.  I suggested that they send this information to guests ahead of time.  It could have saved us ten bucks.  The desk clerk smiled and nodded but clearly nothing was going to change.

The Nara Hotel is a grand old dame celebrating her 100th anniversary this year.

After two weeks in cramped, basic rooms, I had thought it would be nice to splash out.  The photo montage on their webpage was extraordinary.  They’d hosted many famous guests—there was even a photo of Albert Einstein playing the piano in their lounge.

“The old part of hotel is closed for earthquake proofing,” the clerk said.  “We put you in modern wing.”

Rats. I hoped it wasn’t too sterile or modern.  We couldn’t get into the room for a couple hours so we had a nose around the lobby.  There was a timeline of famous visitors.  Charlie Chaplan!  Helen Keller.  Richard Nixon, the Dalai Lama, Marlon Brando, Joe DiMaggio (his wife Marilyn Monroe cancelled; things must not have been going well).  Multple visits by Japanese, British, and European royals.

Then there was this.

“1941: The Pacific War Broke Out.”

I really, really wanted to peel off that strip of paper and see if it said, “Japanese starts Pacific War by attacking Pearl Harbor” underneath.