As the ancient former capital and with more UNESCO World Heritage sites than any other region of Japan, the deep history of Nara can be seen and felt everywhere. The city of Nara itself is compact and most of the main sights can be reached on foot: from the towering 15m tall bronze Buddha statue housed inside one of the world’s largest wooden buildings at Tōdaiji Temple, to the deer of Nara Park that sometimes may bow to you – in return for a senbei cracker.
But it is beyond the city, way off the typical tourist path in the heart of the Kii Peninsula, where Nara really starts to excite the intrepid traveller. Here the landscape is rugged and mountainous – narrow winding roads pass above crystal-clear rivers in forested gorges, leading to horizon-breaking viewpoints and secluded villages.
One such remote outpost is Dorogawa Onsen, a traditional hot spring village at the foot of Mount Ōmine, one of the highest peaks in Kansai. The area’s natural spring water is renowned for its purity and healing properties, while in the evening, people in yukata wander the charming narrow streets lined with rustic ryokans (Japanese inns).
At Kohryokuen Nishisei guests are welcomed throughout the year with the promise of kaiseki cuisine (many small plates of food), rooms overlooking serene Japanese gardens and indoor and outdoor hot spring baths. Nearby family-run restaurants serve local delicacies – be sure to try sansai udon (noodles with wild mountain vegetables) or shika-katsudon (deep-fried deer cutlet on rice).
The wild mountainous interior of Nara prefecture is the birthplace of Shugendō, a religion mixing Buddhist, Shinto and old folk traditions, and devoted practitioners can still be spotted at shrines and clambering along hiking trails. Eager trekkers can walk the Kumano Kodo, a multi-day pilgrimage route through the mountains, staying at farmhouses and pensions along the way.
Alternatively, rent a car to discover scenic camping grounds and summer fishing spots, or ride the luxurious Blue Symphony train to Yoshino, a hilltop temple town famous for its springtime cherry blossoms. With so much to see and do in Nara, chances are even a week of exploration in this mysterious prefecture just won’t be enough...