"Everybody does Nara wrong," wrote Jay and Sumi Gluck in the classic travel guide Japan Inside Out. They lamented day-trippers who rushed through Nara's attractions and almost certainly missed out on its food.
Cha-gayu - rice flavored with green tea and seasonal vegetables - is the dish most Japanese associate with this very old city. Nara-zuke, the Nara-style pickles served with cha-gayu, can be sampled throughout the city, their zesty flavor a product of the sake used to preserve them.
For those short on time, many restaurants adjoining Nara Park serve a lunchtime mini-kaiseki menu for under Y4000. If you're staying overnight, have a full kaiseki dinner, served with the hospitality Nara is known for. And be warned: Nara is the domain of some two thousand divine messengers - the deer who roam the park and nibble at everything.
Most Nara restaurants take cash only and the locals dine early, so last orders are often taken between 7:30 and 8pm.
Uma no Me
Uma no Me is in a 1920s farmhouse just north of Ara-ike pond in Nara Park. The pottery-lined walls afford a glimpse of pre-tech Japan. Everything at Uma no Me is prepared in the time-honored way and from scratch.
Recommended is the Y3500 prix-fixe lunch with seasonal vegetables, tofu, and fried fish. Even the ordinary bancha tea at Uma no Me is exotic and comes from Tsuwano in Western Honshu.
The intimacy of a private room, with views of the Nara Hotel and stunning hand painted fusuma (padded sliding doors), is well worth the extra Y1000 per person at lunch. Dinner is full kaiseki - Y9000 per person. As there is no a la carte menu ordering is uncomplicated.
Takabatakecho 1158, Nara Park area, reservations appreciated for lunch, essential for dinner. Open 11:30am-2:30pm (LO), 5:30-8:30pm. Closed Thursdays. Tel: 0742-23-7784
From the outside Yanagi-ja-ya looks unassuming, but the signs for warabi mochi lure tourists and entice the locals. Morsels made from warabi (bracken fern root) are tossed in soybean flour and sweetened with brown sugar syrup. In tandem with a bowl of matcha (green tea) it's a quintessential Japanese dessert.
Yanagi-ja-ya is a few minutes walk north past the Five-Story Pagoda and as such is a popular morning and afternoon tea spot. Lunch sets, Y4000-6000; warabi mochi and matcha set Y750.
Teraojicho 48, Nara Park area. Open 11am-7pm, lunch 11:30am-5pm, national holidays, 11am-7pm. Closed Mondays. Tel: 0742-22-7560
To-no-chaya means "tearoom of the pagoda" and was named for its views of the Five-Story Pagoda of Kofuku-ji. During the day To-no-chaya serves a light meal of cha-gayu with sashimi and vegetables, plus a few sweetened rice cakes for dessert. Reservations are essential for cha-gayu in the evenings.
Noboriojicho 47, Nara Park area. Open 11:30am-9pm, chagayu bento Y2000-4000, 11:30am-4pm. Closed Tuesdays. Tel: 0742-22-4348
Pungent nara-zuke will lure you off the street into this well-known shop and adjoining restaurant. Inside the shop, immaculate white-capped staff prepare packages of pickles to take away. Don't miss the baby watermelons! Stock up on local sake while you sample the fare. Mini-kaiseki from Y4000. Nara Kintetsu Station and Nara Park are within a five-minute walk.
Minami-machicho 5 Higashi-muki Dori, Nara Park area. Open 11:15am-8:30pm (LO), closed Mondays. Shop open every day 9am-9pm. Tel: 0742-27-3715
At Hiraso try kakinoha-zushi, sushi wrapped in a persimmon leaf, eaten whole. Takeout sushi is available from 10am-8:30pm. The rest stop behind the Nigatsu-do is a retreat for picnickers who wish to dine without antlered messengers.
A seasonal Nara delicacy is kakisuga, dried persimmon, dusted with kuzu (flour made from the east Asian kudzu vine) and cooked tempura style. Most of the set menus at Hiraso include cha-gayu. Hiraso has tables and chairs but the tatami alcoves are more intimate. Expect to pay between Y1000-3000 per person.
If you have a few hours to spare, take the wooded path up to Tsukihitei deep in the forest behind Kasuga Taisha Shrine. From the privacy of your own tatami room experience the beautiful presentation and delicate flavors of a full kaiseki lunch or dinner; as Helen Keller did when she dined at Tsukihitei in 1948. The lunch sets cost between Y10,000-15,000, while dinner averages Y20,000.
Kasuganocho 158, Nara Park area, reservations essential. Open 11:30am-3pm, 5pm-7:30pm (LO). Tel: 0742-26-2021
At the foot of Wakakusa-yama and down some stone steps is Wakakusa-yama Mizutani-chaya, an old thatched-roofed farmhouse. You can order simple noodle dishes and matcha here. Alternatively, enjoy a cold beer under the canopy of maple trees. Good for regrouping before or after a visit to Kasuga Taisha Shrine. Noodles are under Y1000.
Kasuganocho 30. Open 11am-4:30pm; closed Wednesdays. Tel: 0742-22-0627