Nara

Imai Town

Nara often reminds us of old temples and rural scenery but it has also old towns and altogether it offers cultural and historical landscape of antique Japan. Indeed they are quite well preserved but among them the old towns have particular prospects to preserve. One reason for preservation is historical and archaeological one the way in which evidences of the life of the past are preserved but in addition to that the perishing wisdom of the past still kept in the remains may help to improve the modern living environment.

There are two towns designated as ‘Preservation District for Groups of Traditional Buildings’ in Nara. Imai in Kashihara City and Matsuyama in Uda City are those towns that the Japanese government deems important to preserve. Together with other not designated but well preserved old towns, they reconstruct authentic cultural and historical atmosphere of Nara.

Among them Imai was the largest old town district in Nara. It still keeps about 500 traditional houses which retain the architectural style of the Edo period (1603-1867), spreading over 186 square kilometers of the land: about 600 meters east-west by 310 meters north-south. Imai Town was highly thrived notably in the early Edo period trading various products with other towns. Throughout the 17th century, it was counted as one of the most prosperous area of Japan told that ‘70% of the gold in Yamato (Nara) province can be found within Imai.

The cultural history of the area dates back to the 14th century though, the town was founded in the mid 16th century as a temple town surrounding Shonenji. The temple was affiliated by the Pure Land so called Jodo-Shin-shu sect of Buddhism and created by believers in Ikko-shu, which was a sub-sect of the Pure Land founded by a priest called Rennyo in the 15th century. Those devotees of Ikko-shu often conducted peasant revolt against local governors and Imai was involved in such uprisings and thus it was fortified surrounded by a moat and mounds to protect its autonomy. Contrary to its rigid contour Imai easily gave in and disarmed but it was this surrender which decided the outcome of the town; it successfully converted from a rural town bound by old customs to newly developed self-governed commercial area.

However the prosperity of Imai was gradually declined since the 18th century due mostly to heavy taxation and denial of the privilege of merchandise by the local governor. Current status of Imai dates back to 1955 when the preservation campaign was launched then it began to be restored in 1975 to recover not only the townscape but also the bustle of the early Edo period by creating a place where the past can live with the present. The town is now successfully counted as an archetype of Japan’s preservation district designated as such.

Each old town in Nara has its own particular cultural and historical background. As one of the special preservation districts, Imai Town represents the model which reveals the significance and raison d’etre of old town in this modern world by carefully maintaining the traditional appearance.

The town house

Although the Japanese word ‘Machiya’ may exclusively imply a townhouse of Kyoto, I use the word to suggest a general old urban house found in Nara. Machiya houses are typically aligned running parallel to the street standing close together as shown in still remained old towns. They have particular architectural features derived from the country house and this influence is the most symbolically represented by a Doma; a dirt or earthen floor which adjoins the raised floor used as the main living space. Machiya has taken over the structure of country house and, similarly crossed by timber beams, the space under the high ceiling also reflects its interior construction.

However, Machiya separates its outward appearance from the country house through its peculiar architectural characteristics. It has eaves on both sides but more significantly a gabled and tiled roof which creates the typical contour of the townhouse. The scenery of Imai Town, for example, heavily depends on the use of the costly tiled roof, which signifies the wealth of the household, rarely seen in the rural area. In addition to this, Machiya often has a low ceiling loft space called Tsushi-nikai with Mushiko windows and the facade is decorated with various types of lattice windows.

The width of the facade often marks the wealth of the area. A house stands in relatively prosperous area such as Imai has a wider facade while a typical Machiya’s has a narrow look but instead the building goes back a long way in an extended box shape. One of the reasons for this difference seems to be the system pf taxation of the times; it was charged according to the width of the facade. A house with narrow facade has a Doma called Toriniwa, literally means a garden used as a passage, which leads to its back yard. Regardless of the shape, unlike the country house, Machiya stands also as a place of business therefore the entrance hall adjoins a room where the business will be conducted.

Naramachi

Naramachi is another area which preserves the old town but it adds something more. It is located just adjacent to Nara Park and it covers an area about 1.8 km east to west by 0.9 km north to south. Naramachi is not designated as the preservation district but its popularity far exceeds other old towns in Nara due to the convenient location as well as its attitude in which the town ardently wins various new business sites in its narrow streets. It successfully mixes a new idea with the tradition creating an atmosphere peculiar to this “new” old town.

During the Nara period (710–794) the area where currently occupied by Naramachi was a part of Gekyo of Heijyo-kyo Capital. Gekyo refers to the extended area of Sakyo to the eastern part of the capital where several huge temples such as Todaiji, Kofukuji and Gangoji were founded. Even after the relocation of the capital to Kyoto, those temples and surrounding residential areas for temple workers remained at the place. Towards the middle ages the latter was gradually but drastically transformed into a temple town letting various new businesses into the aria. After the fire of Gangoji in 1451 and on the subsequent decline of the temple, the population especially of the current Naramachi area was further increased and finally reached around 35,000 by the end of the 17th century.

The religious practice of Japanese began to their awareness for nature. This formed an animism based on various natural manifestations such as trees, rocks, river, the sea, and the sun. Shinto (literally Way of the Gods) is a Japan’s indigenous faith developed from such animism and its polytheistic feature eliminates dogma, scriptures, and the certain form. Shinto has supervised familiar conventions and mythologies since time immemorial and every legion dedicates shrines to celebrate deities called Kami native to the area.

Accordingly Naramachi has Shinto shrines which help different people operate closely in this town holding festivals and rituals. For example, Minamiichi-Ebisu-jinja Shrine, located in the north part of the town, was founded in Kamakura period (1185-1333) as a protector of one of five markets thrived in those days. The shrine still holds a festival in January every year to celebrate its subject of worship, Kotoshironushi-no-Kami, generally known as Ebisu who is the commonest Kami for prosperity and wealth in business. As this example suggests, Shinto has had play an important role in organizing the various dwellers.

Since the Edo Period (1603-1867), however, Naramachi has been immersed in peculiar local religious faith called Koshin and it means that the popularization of this belief coincides with the most prosperous time of the town. The History of Koshin, however, dates back to the year 700 when a monk of Gangoji called Gomei saw a Buddhist god known as Shomenkongo while he was praying for an epidemic. Upon the completion of his promise to cease the plague, Koshin worship was established as a reward for his deed setting the god as its main image and holding memorial service regularly on the day of the god’s emergence: the year, the month, and the day of Koshin.

Koshin is in fact the mixed religion also derived from Chinese Taoism which warns that three worms called Sanshi-no-mushi regularly tell the heavenly king the sins of the people. It is therefore the worshipers hold a banquet once every 60 days staying up all night on the day of Koshin with a dish of Konnyaku, devil’s tongue starch, in order to obstruct the worms ascend to the heaven. A set of identical objects hanged under eaves of the houses in Naramachi is the symbol of this belief. Intimately called Migawarizaru, which assimilates the monkey who serves Shomenkongo. The people favorably hang it as a charm with an alternative power of the master.

Places to visit

A mixture of newly emerged and long-established shops - it is the modern view of Naramachi and the reason for attracting more visitors than other old towns. However, overall antiquate atmosphere of the town is supported by those traditional shops which are often more than 100 years old. Below are two examples.

Nakanishi Yosabro is a long-established traditional Wagashi shop which is particularly well known among connoisseurs. It was first founded by Yosabro Nakanishi in 1913 as a mochi manufacturer but later converted into a Wagashi seller. Nakanishi has been a purveyor to foremost Buddhist temples such as Toshodaiji.

Mochi is a pounded rice cake made from sticky rice and is served either savory or sweet. Steamed rice will be prepared to make Mochi, then it is pounded with a heavy mallet until it becomes a paste then molded into a desired shape. Wagashi is a Japan’s traditional confectionery developed from Muromachi to Edo period as the sweets served at tea ceremonies. Wagashi is made from plant based ingredients and its color and motifs reflect the seasons in which it would be served. Wagashi frequently assimilates seasonal flowers for such as azalea, camellia, hydrangea, violet, and wisteria for spring. It is a special sweets which appeals to both the eye and tongue.

Another example also treats edible plants but not as a cake. Kikuoka Kampo Yakkyoku located at the area where once the main hall of Gangoji stood. Yakkyoku means pharmacy in Japanese and Kampo suggests a traditional Japanese medicine. Kanpo is the herbal medicine imported from China in the 7th century. The official law of Kampo lists 165 herbal ingredients and it is actually made from trees, plant roots, leaves etc. Although Kanpo was declined notably in the latter half of the 19th century, it was rediscovered and currently more than 70% of registered physicians prescribe Kampo medicines. The benefits of Kanpo includes acupuncture, moxibustion and food therapy, and is good for whole-body healing and balancing and improvement of physical constitution.

Kikuoka is the longest existing business entity in Nara Prefecture. It was founded in 1184 and is currently operated by the twenty-fourth generation of the same family called Yasumasa. The old house bears a tiled roof with an object called Shoki-san; a talisman which has long been believed to ward off evils. This special tile is called Shoki-gawara and has been found sporadically in Naramachi.

Inside of Kikuoka is like a museum. Being filled with the scent of herbs and products and materials are tidily scattered everywhere. There are, however, a number of real museums in Naramachi such as Nara Kogeikan (a craft museum), Naramachi Museum, Historical Material Preservation House et al. Among them, Naramachi Karakuri Toy Museum allows visitors to play with the exhibits. It displays various wooden toys designed and manufactured in the Edo period. As Karakuri means to trick in Japanese, these toys surprise visitors with their skillful mechanisms. An old Machiya house originally built as restaurant accommodates the museum.

Although Karakuri toys exhibited in this museum are all easy ones for commoners, for many Japanese, Karakuri rather remained traditional mechanized puppets or automata created for the riches during the same period. Based on the European clock-making technology, those dolls, called Zashiki karakuri, perform a dance, beat drums, and even serve tea and sake. In the 19th century two of the most significant puppets were created by Hisashige Tanaka, the founder of famous company Toshiba. One of them shoots a target with a bow and arrow, and another dips a brush into ink and writes characters on paper. They are called Yumi-hiki-doji and Moji-kaki doll respectively.

The area where the Museum stands is called Inyo-cho hence Inyo, or ying-yang, fortune tellers were lived. They were called Onmyoji and generally worked as government officials who were in charge of organizing calendars and rituals. Inyo-cho is also famous for Nanto-koyomi, the first calendar used by the commoners. Just adjacent to the museum, there is a Shinto shrine called Chintaku Reifu Jinja. The shrine was established in 1117 dedicated to Amenominakanushi, the very first deity in Japanese mythology, who was regarded as Kami of all Onmyoji. However, what makes this shrine famous notably for tourists is a pair of Komainu statues. Instead of normal glaring look associated with this pair of A-Un statuary, they welcome visitors with unusual smiling faces.

Imai Town is about 15-minute walk to the south from Yamato-Yagi or Yagi-nishiguchi railway station on the Kintetsu Osaka Line. Naramachi is about 15-minute walk either to the east from Nara railway station on the JR Nara Line or to the south form Nara railway station on Kintetsu Nara Line. Note that museums, shops, restaurants, and other spots in Narachi will be closed especially on Mondays and Tuesdays but a few also on Wednesdays.

Guides and Tours

Guided tours are provided by Kenichi Nakatsu who is an official tourist guide interpreter of Nara Prefecture. Living in the north western edge of Nara, Kenichi works as a guide to introduce relatively unknown along with the famous spots of this insightful region of Japan. Special tours will be made according to the request. For more information and queries, please contact Kenichi Nakatsu.

This website is created and maintained by Kenichi Nakatsu.

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