Japan's Nara aims to show it's worth more than a one-day visit

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NARA, Japan -- The five American agents, wearing matching Japanese cotton robes, sat on tassled pillows on the grass tatami mat floor sipping hot sake at Chikurinin Gunpoen, a traditional ryokan inn nestled in the Yoshino hills.

They deftly employed their chopsticks during the multicourse dinner served on lacquered trays. When they got to the palm-sized grilled fish with head intact, their guide demonstrated how to snap the heads off and simultaneously remove the spine.

At the ancient Yakushiji Temple, the East Pagoda has stood for more than 1,000 years. Some passed on the fish, but all agreed that the charm of this elegant inn and the cultural and historical significance of this city -- Japan's first capital -- justify overnight stays to be included in clients' itineraries.

One Nara attraction alone, the Great Buddha, an eighth century bronze statue the height of a five-story building, was enough to convince Janice Welke of Esprit Travel Corp. of Santa Monica, Calif.

"That was like looking into the face of God for the people of that century," Welke said.

"The devotion necessary for people to unite in a common cause and build something like that warms my heart. What do we believe in now like that?"

The Japan National Tourist Organization, which brought the agents here, was hoping for such a reaction.

The trip was aimed at showing agents why Nara warrants more than the typical day trip from Kyoto, according to the JNTO.

The agents praised the tourism organization's selected land operator, Osaka-based Kintetsu International, because of its ability to arrange things such as tours to sections of temples typically closed to the public and led by abbots and priests; museum tours by curators, and craftsmen's private demonstrations of the traditional processes of handmade calligraphy ink, washi paper and bamboo tea whisks.

Such arrangements are vital to Michael Baseman of New York-based Protravel International, which offers tours that include events organized exclusively for its clients.

"We see special collections that are not on display, or chambers of temples that are not open to the public. Usually our ground operators cannot arrange these things for us, so we have to contact each place individually," Baseman said.

The trip allowed him to find some opportunities for exclusive events for his clients, but some remained beyond his reach.

For example, the agents visited the Shoso-in Treasure Repository, a special exhibit of the most prized artistic achievements of the late Nara period, from 710 A.D. to 784 A.D.

The museum curator gave the group a private tour, and the group was ushered past the long line of people waiting to enter. The museum, however, was packed.

During a meeting between the agents and local tourism officials on the final day of the five-night fam, Baseman described his company's needs.

"If we sent a group to see the Shoso-In treasures with a crowd like that, they would be angry because they pay double for special exhibits that most people cannot see in Tokyo and Kyoto. The museums there will open on their day off for our groups," he said.

Masamichi Tokunaga, director of Cultural Affairs and Tourism Division for the Nara Prefectural Government, said the special tour by the curator was the best he could do.

"It is like that for everybody, even high-ranking people. It's impossible to see Shoso-In privately," Tokunaga said.

Suzanne Wren of Siemer and Hand Travel in San Francisco said she was pleased that she gained the contacts to arrange for abbots or priests in traditional attire to guide clients through shrines and temples.

She noted the contrast between that experience and following a tour guide carrying a flag or umbrella.

"It is a very, very beautiful thing to be met and escorted and have the priest describe his own shrine or temple in a very personal way, rather than walking around with a 'guide on a stick,' " she said.

For Peggy Hung-Tsoi of Panda Travel in Honolulu, the trip was her first visit to Japan, although she specializes in selling Japan tours to groups.

She said that although she has sold Japan tours successfully for years, her personal experience will allow her to better convey the area's charms and historical significance and also to prepare clients for challenges.

"Nara is a very small town, and for people from Honolulu, which is a big city, they may not know what to expect," Hung-Tsoi said.

For example, English is not widely spoken, she said. Many of her clients are second-generation Japanese-Americans who speak little Japanese and prefer traveling with a guide who can translate, she said.

The agents said they found a diverse range of accommodations and dining options in the area, from reasonably priced and compact "businessmen's hotels" to the authentic ryokans, to the grandness of the Nara Hotel. The Nara Hotel, nearly a century old, is considered a landmark.

The warmth of the woodwork, the 10-foot ceilings and elegant dining room overlooking gardens make the property reminiscent of the grand lodges of the American West, Baseman said.

The agents said that spending a few days in Nara allowed them to absorb its significance as a political and cultural center of Japan through the end of the eighth century.

It is the place where influences from other Asian nations, particularly China, were introduced, and so it was here that Buddhism first flourished and the Japanese writing system began.

Much of the ancient capital from the sixth through eight centuries remains intact because the capital was moved to Kyoto in 794 A.D., and Nara escaped the damage wrought by civil wars.

The agents began their tour at Horyu-ji Temple, the world's oldest wooden structure and a registered World Cultural Heritage site.

It was built in the eighth century by Shotoku Taishi when he established Buddhism in Japan. It is home to about 1,800 pieces of art and architecture officially deemed "national treasures."

At Yakushiji Temple, the East Pagoda has stood for more than 1,100 years.

Our guide explained that the "medicine Buddha" was created for a regent's dying father.

At Saidaiji Temple, built in the eighth century, the agents participated in the O-chamori tea ceremony. A priest of the Shinto religion prepared green tea in ceramic bowls.

He said this would be a "very informal tea ceremony for sharing happiness and laughter." In the 13th century, however, "tea was not for fun, but was medicine," our guide said.

The priest offered a prayer for a healthy, peaceful new year. Each of the participants was served a cookie shaped like the maple leaves which were turning shades of crimson outside.

The tea ceremony focuses on four concepts: harmony, respect, purity and tranquility or reflection, our guide said.

"After your guests leave the tea ceremony, to lock the door and turn off the light is rude, in case they come back for more tea or to ask you something in private," the guide said.

Instead, the host of a tea ceremony should wait outside until all the guests are out of sight and then take time to reflect.

"You judge yourself, asking, 'Was I really kind?' " she said.

The importance that Japanese culture places on politeness and kindness makes the country uniquely hospitable to tourists, the agents said.

For instance, the agents were delighted to find that often after a visit -- to a craftsman's shop, a restaurant or an inn -- the proprietors bid them farewell at the street and remained outside, waving, until their bus was out of sight.

At Kobaien Co. here, the agents met the 15th generation owner of this sumi ink-making shop.

The agents watched as the four workers of the Kobaien Co. kneaded with their feet and hands a black, dough-like mixture of carbon produced from burnt pine, camellia, grape and sesame oil, together with fish gelatin. Fragrant oils are added before each block is compressed in wooden molds.

The blocks are covered in the ashes of wood to remove the moisture and then dried in the open air.

Finally, workers rub each stick with a shell to create a lustrous finish before they paint each with characters in gold, describing the type of ink. The quality of the ink is important because it is used in the practice of transcribing the Buddhist bible.

The Japan National Tourist Organization
Phone: (212) 757-5640
E-mail: [email protected]

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