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.
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,
"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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
The importance that Japanese culture places on politeness and
kindness makes the country uniquely hospitable to tourists, the
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
The Japan National Tourist Organization
Phone: (212) 757-5640
E-mail: [email protected]