Nara draws on a rich history to build a sustainable future
As Japan’s first capital, Nara has perfected sustainable practices, striking a balance between preserving traditional culture and fostering innovation.
Take the time to stroll through the streets of areas like Naramachi, Imaicho, Gojo, and Gose, and you will find restored machiya houses reborn as art and craft galleries, cafes, breweries, and design studios. Many traditional businesses are finding new life: sake and soy sauce breweries, public baths, and traditional inns have been returned for a new audience seeking authentic experiences and places imbued with history and character.
Life in Nara follows the rhythms of the seasons and much of the prefecture is semi-rural, dotted with picturesque villages that are ideal for exploring on foot or two wheels. In the past few years, increasing numbers of Nara’s young professionals have made the U-turn, returning from bigger cities like Osaka and Tokyo, drawn back to start new businesses and enjoy Nara’s more relaxed pace of life, natural beauty, and openness to new ideas.
The pure air and water, wide plains, and thickly forested mountains of Nara create the perfect environment for growing fresh produce. These conditions have fostered a commitment to protecting the environment and food heritage, through traditional agricultural practices, natural food preservation methods, and slow food. Centuries of shojin ryori, the mostly vegetarian cuisine served in Buddhist temples, have nurtured a deep respect for natural ingredients and careful preparation.
Restaurants across Nara work with local producers to support sustainable farming methods. Chef Kinji Ogawa of Le Benkei in Yamato Koriyama is a member of Slow Food Japan and works closely with local producers to bring produce directly from farm to table. Surrounded by rural scenery in Sakurai, L’Auberge de Plaisance takes a similar approach, working with local producers.
Some of Nara’s signature dishes make use of natural preservation methods that have been practiced here for hundreds of years. Narazuke pickles preserve Yamato Yasai vegetables in sake lees, creating a delicious way to enjoy the vegetables in all seasons, without artificial preservatives. A similar approach is the use of Kakinoha Zushi takes a similar approach to sushi, using the natural anti-bacterial properties of persimmon leaves to improve the preservation of seafood.
One of the joys of exploring Nara is walking through history. Ancient byways, rural hamlets, and merchant towns have barely changed over hundreds of years. Factors that were once considered negatives such as secluded locations far from big cities and a lack of heavy industries are now the reasons these areas are so attractive to visitors and locals alike.
Modern conveniences have certainly made life easier and more comfortable, but the ancient respect for the land remains. In the mountainous south, areas like Totsukawa, Mitarai Valley, and Dorogawa Onsen offer a taste of rural village life to visitors, while balancing the needs of the local community. Practices like Shugendo, a syncretic religion combining elements of Shinto and Buddhism with ascetic mountain training, have existed in these mountain hamlets for over a thousand years.
Hatenashi Village is another settlement that has benefited from its isolation. High in the mountains on one of the more difficult trails of the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Routes, Hatenashi is known as a “village in the sky,” and is famed for its friendly senior residents who still practice traditional farming, and welcome weary hikers from the wide wooden porches of their houses.
Sustainable tourism is an important measure to revitalize Nara’s traditional towns and rural areas. Where old houses and public buildings might once have been demolished, many are now being restored and repurposed. Omorinosato is a renovated folk house in the mountains above Totsukawa, where guests can slow down and enjoy the simple pleasures of village life; farming and fishing, learning to make local dishes, or just relaxing in the fresh mountain air. A nearby former school has been preserved as a museum and hosts a famous Bon-dance every August.
For a luxury experience in a rural community, Sasayuri Ann is a spacious, restored farmhouse overlooking rice fields in Uda. Guests can enjoy activities including guided nature walks, organic farming, and tea picking, among many sustainable options.
Traditional towns have also seen a new lease on life, thanks to thoughtful accommodation projects. NIPPONIA HOTEL Nara Naramachi is a former sake brewery and historical home that has been renovated to serve as guest rooms and a restaurant in the heart of Nara’s traditional sake district. Guests can enjoy exclusive sake and sake-based products in partnership with Nara Toyosawa Sake Brewery. In the small town of Tawaramoto, Maruto Soy Sauce Brewery, founded in 1689, has been revived after being dormant for 70 years. The former storehouse and home have been converted into attractive accommodations. Guests at NIPPONIA Tawaramoto Maruto Shoyu can try cuisine made with the brewery’s soy sauce, enjoy the relaxed pace of the surrounding area, and walk the ancient Yamanobe-no-Michi trail.
Sustaining the forests
Valuable Japanese Cedar and Japanese Cypress trees have been commercially grown in the Yoshino area for around 500 years. Planted one by one, each tree takes more than a human lifetime to mature. This long-term commitment to quality has produced Yoshino wood, which is prized for its high quality and beautiful color. Continuous forest maintenance enriches biodiversity and helps to preserve the local environment, including the plants and animals that live in the forest. Yoshino wood forestry and processing supports the local community and the wider community of artisans and builders. Learn more about the history and sustainable processes of Yoshino Wood at the dedicated website. Experience the beauty of Yoshino wood with a stay at "Yoshino Cedar House", on the bank of the Yoshino River. The structure is a hybrid community space and homestay, designed as a shared experience for guests and local residents. Members of the community manage the space, and a large percentage of the earnings go directly to community projects.