The Sleepy Ancient Capital

Foodie hotspots: Nara city, Yume-Kaze Plaza, Naramachi; Sakurai.

 Foodies Look Out For: Kakinohazushi mackerel sushi; Narazuke pickles; shojin-ryori vegetarian cuisine; ancient so 'cheese'; ramen.

The Basics: A short hop on the train from Osaka or Kyoto, Nara prefecture is famed for its Daibutsu giant Buddha statue, Todaiji temple, and the deer that roam the parks of its main city (also called Nara).

Foodies Go Nara: Nara has long had a reputation as being something of a gourmet wilderness, largely due to a popular saying that translates along the lines of 'Nara's got a Great Buddha, and nothing good to eat'. This is rather harsh, but it is true that the eateries near Nara city's most popular attractions cater to the school trip tour busy and in-a-hurry tourists. One needs to search around for good food.

The covered arcades around Kintetsu Nara station, and the 'old quarter' backstreets of Naramachi provide the best hunting grounds. The soba buckwheat noodle specialist Gen is a longtime favorite, and offers you the chance to experience dining in a traditional Japanese house. Be warned however that since it received plaudits from the folks at Michelin, it tends to be crowded. Warabe Yorokobi An, in the Yume-Kaze Plaza near the entrance to Todaiji temple, is a good alternative option.

Kakinohazushi is a type of sushi peculiar to Nara in which salted mackerel (or, less often, salmon) is pickled in sweetened vinegar and served wrapped in a persimmon leaf. It is a favorite in summer. Izasa, also in Yume-Kaze Plaza is a specialist.

The best-known dish however is Narazuke. These are a form of tsukemono pickles in which bitter gourd, cucumber, ginger, and even watermelon, are repeatedly pickled in new sake lees and mirin for up to two years. It is an ancient dish with a history of over 1300 years and is ubiquitous at Nara ryokan inns, hotels and washoku restaurants. Foodies will want to give it a try, but be aware that the mix of sweetness and fermented vegetables is something of an acquired taste.

Nara is also renowned for its thin white noodles known as somen when served cold, and nyumen when served hot. These are a whole lot more accessible to most palates than Narazuke. Sakurai city is home to the variety known as Miwa Somen, and the best places to try it are Senjutei Somen Chaya and Miwa Chaya.

If you are in the vicinity of the ancient ruins at Asuka, look out for so. It's an ancient foodstuff made from fermented milk, probably using techniques brought from Mongolia. It's the nearest we can find to ancient Japanese cheese, and is being made by the farmers at the Nishii Bokujo/Asuka Milk Kobo.

 The Nara Budget Gourme Look out for Yamato yakisomen, Daibutsu purin (Big Buddha pudding), Tenri ramen, noppe and Asukanabe hotpots, Nara chazuke. The senbei rice crackers sold in Nara Park are strictly for the deer, by the way.

The Ramen Professor Recommends: If you don't mind your charshiu pork on the 'rare' side, head to Menya Noroma in the South of Nara city near the Aeon Big Extra shopping mall for its torisoba white chicken broth noodles. Its big rival is Ramen Mitsuba off West in Tomio Motomachi, but we prefer the Asahikawa stylings of Baikohken out near Omiya station. Here's one to avoid: the locals seem to like Tenri Ramen, but each time we've tried it, it was way too garlicky and full of boiled cabbage. Steer clear.

 FGL Favorite Tipple: Nara is the birthplace of sake brewing in Japan, dating back into the mists of time, when the drink was largely used in religious ceremonies at the Imperial court. For a more modern drop try Nara's Shouhei, Morohaku, and Tsugemuro, Ikoma city's Kitcho or Sakurai city's Mimurosugi. They all use the ancient Bodai-moto yeast developed by monks at Shoryakuji temple on Mt. Bodai.

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