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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

English guide looks to put Nara in reach


Staff writer

OSAKA — Those who live in Nara and welcome guests from all over the world are aware of how often arriving friends are surprised by what they see in the ancient capital, then disappointed that they hadn't budgeted enough time to explore.

News photo
Cut to the chase: Aya Okubo, editor of Nara Explorer, holds the premiere edition of the free magazine for foreign visitors earlier this month. ERIC JOHNSTON PHOTO

Such visitors commonly lament that if they had only known how much Nara has to offer, they would have rearranged their itinerary.

Knowing Nara's true nature has always been a problem for foreign visitors. Most English guidebooks are chock full of information about modern Tokyo and traditional Kyoto, but Nara tends to get short shift. A nice day trip if you have time is how certain overseas guidebooks sum up the city and prefecture.

Or an expert on Asian and Nara's history will write in the thorough but turgid prose favored by too many academics but hardly suitable for the neophyte.

With the launch of Nara Explorer this month, there is now an English magazine that introduces the area's long and complex history in a clear and concise way and offers practical information to overseas visitors that is hard, if not impossible, to find elsewhere. The quarterly publication is free and available in the city.

The premiere issue introduces cultural attractions like the Great Buddha at Todaiji Temple, natural wonders like the Mount Kasuga Primeval Forest and a calendar of summer events in the city and prefecture.

Gourmets will appreciate the list of restaurants ranging from small shops serving plum-flavored noodles to a cafe offering dishes with "kodai-mai," an ancient rice variety symbolic of Nara. Nara Explorer also has advertisements for English-language walking tours and practical information for the foreign traveler on where to exchange money or get more information in English.

The creative forces behind Nara Explorer are two natives, Aya Okubo and Ryo Yonehara. Okubo, a 2004 graduate of Kyoto's Ritsumeikan University, was working as a translator for Kyoto Visitors' Guide magazine when she and friend Yonehara decided Nara needed something similar.

"Yonehara has a shop in Nara and wanted to get the word out in English about Nara. But he didn't have the experience in editing. I did. So we got together and he's in charge of sales while I take care of editorial content. We cover not only the city of Nara but the entire prefecture," Okubo explained.

"Nara is very conservative, but Nara Gov. Shogo Arai is eager to promote international tourism. It was tough in the beginning to get the magazine started, as we approached a number of different organizations for financial support but were rejected. Finally, we received support from the Nara Tourism Federation," she said.

The timing for an English publication was also right. In 2010, Nara celebrates the 1,300th anniversary of the founding of the capital of Heijyo-kyo, now the city of Nara.

For nearly a century, the capital was the easternmost point along the Silk Road. It was here Buddhism and the culture of China's T'ang Dynasty flourished. Celebrations to commemorate this history are planned for 2010, with a number of leaders from Asia expected to attend.

Nara officials hope the 2010 celebrations also lead to a greater influx of foreign tourists, but the Kansai region's foreign community and Japanese tourism officials have long identified three roadblocks to Nara becoming a major international tourism destination.

The first is the general lack of easily accessible public transport compared with Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. The second is a scarcity of accommodations compared with Kyoto and Osaka.

"Nara has relatively few hotels. Despite the fact Nara is one of Japan's most historical cities, it ranks nearly dead last among the 47 prefectures in terms of the number of hotel rooms," Okubo said.

The third drawback is that Nara, compared with Kyoto, has little information in foreign languages.

Due to all three reasons, Kyoto, about 50 minutes away from Kintetsu Nara Station on the fastest trains, had about 1.3 million foreign visitors in 2006 while the city of Nara drew only 352,000.

Nara Explorer, therefore, is a big step toward addressing the lack of English-language information. In addition, there is a Web page travelers can access at www.naraexplorer.jp

Foreign guests will thus be able to do a bit more advance planning and spend less time trying to figure out what to do when in Nara and more time actually doing it.



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