An ancient community born inside the confines of a temple today hides a history older than Kyoto.
Naramachi, just a 15-minute walk south from Kintetsu Nara Station, is one of the old districts of Nara and hides a history older than Kyoto in its many “machiya” (town house) style wooden homes.
The name Naramachi refers to the area surrounding the ancient Gango-ji Temple, a World Heritage site. Incidentally, the area comprising Naramachi today is said to have been within the grounds of Gango-ji Temple up until about 1,000 years ago.
The townscape of streets lined with machiya homes in the traditional architectural style has been maintained thanks to the strong commitment towards preservation of the people who live here.
In recent years, interest in machiya refurbished as stylish cafes and shops has been growing, and many tourists have become captivated by the rhythm of modern daily life surrounded by this historical context.
Representing both beauty and function, the Migawari Zaru hang from the eaves of the lattice fronted machiya homes that embody centuries of local wisdom.
Walking through Naramachi, you will notice bright red dolls called “Migawari Zaru” (substitute monkeys) hung from the eaves of many of the beautiful lattice fronted machiya homes. The Migawari Zaru is a talisman meant to protect the homes from evil, and began as part of the Koshin folk belief system that was popular with the common people during the Edo period (1603 to 1868).
Today, these talismans are kept alive by the prayers of the townspeople, and serve as substitute recipients of bad fortune, which explains their name.
In the center of Naramachi you can find the Koshindo Shrine, which is Nara’s base of the Koshin folk belief system. Commonly known as “Koshin-san”, the roof of this shrine is guarded by the Three Wise Monkeys known throughout the world as “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”.
“Machiya” is the name given to the style of home of a merchant or craftsman. The notable difference with machiya homes in Naramachi is that the side facing the street is quite narrow, but the depth of the homes is great.
This was mainly the result of the tax policy of the Edo period that fixed the tax rate to the width of the home’s front wall, but it was also partly due to the desire of merchants and craftsmen to have the entrance facing the street.
The characteristic latticework serves to filter wind and sound from the street, and provides some degree of privacy. The unique latticework in Naramachi is much thicker than in other regions, while the interval between slats is also wider, making it relatively strong.
This design was intended to protect the home fronts from crazed deer during the regular event of cutting deer horns that took place in the middle of the street. Indeed, it was simply a practical way of dealing with deers that played a deep role in the lives of the people, and were considered messengers of the gods.
The long and narrow homes also have features to ensure that light and breeze reach the back, such as inner gardens (naka-niwa) or “passage gardens” (tori-niwa) that combine a garden with a hallway. Other examples of the time-honored techniques used to get maximum use of the narrow spaces can be found throughout the home, such as box stairs that eliminate the wasted space under stairwells.
The joy of exploration awaits you in Naramachi. What will you discover in this maze of narrow alleys?
The Naramachi Koshi no Ie (Naramachi Lattice House), a structure that reproduces the traditional machiya style described so far, is located just 15 minutes south of Gango-ji Temple. Along with the Naramachi Nigiwai no Ie (Naramachi House of Bustle) opened to the public in a 100-year-old machiya, the two buildings serve as a spot where visitors can enjoy an unhindered look at the machiya lifestyle for free.
There are many other free and small museums in the area, such as the Naramachi Museum, the Naramachi Karakuri (Mechanical) Toy Museum, and the Nara Kogeikan (Craft Museum), providing many opportunities for you to interact with the culture of the town.
The availability of numerous attractions within easy walking distance among the tightly packed machiya, and the maze-like alleys between them, is what makes Naramachi so fascinating. Here, cafes and guest houses in remodeled machiya can be found right next to solemn temples and shrines built over 1,300 years ago.
It is an eclectic mix of venerable merchants that have been in operation for many generations, with artsy workshops and boutiques displaying their own unique character. What might you find at the other end of the next alley? You will be sure to make new discoveries hiding in this historic townscape where a traditional taste of beauty is still very much alive.