The city where the deer roam free
In the city of Nara, Japan, the 1200 resident deer have free reign to go where they please, much to the delight of visitors. Video: Craig Platt
Nara, Japan, is considered by some to be the new Kyoto – a place with much of the history and beauty its better-known neighbour offers, but without yet being overrun by tourists (possibly because it is not on the shinkansen – bullet train – route, though it can still easily be reached by train from Kyoto or Osaka in under an hour). However, I'm told after arriving in the city, "Nara is not the new Kyoto, Kyoto is the new Nara." That's because Nara predates Kyoto as Japan's former capital city, having held the title from 710 to 794.
The hotel is about 20 minutes' walk from Nara station, or five minutes' walk from the other Nara station (There are two stations with the same name, on different rail lines – JR and Kintetsu – which can be confusing for your phone's maps app).
The Noborioji Hotel is part of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World Group and it definitely is small: There are just 15 rooms. Guests are ushered into a library-cum-lounge upon arrival and offered a welcome drink and a hot towel while they relax on leather chairs.
There's an old-world charm to the hotel and the staff – mostly older Japanese gentlemen – are gracious and charming. The hotel offers a classic, dark whisky bar and a fine dining restaurant. There's a small gym. Wi-Fi is fast and reliable.
The hotel might have only 15 rooms, but those rooms are huge by Japanese standards. My room offers a king-size bed that's wider than it is long, a desk, chaise lounge, big-screen TV and extensive mini-bar that includes drinks and snacks. The decor leans more western than Japanese, with a European feel.
The bathroom is also large, with a separate shower and bath (the latter with its own TV). The toiletries are from French company Algotherm, though we're told by our bellman that if we prefer Japanese toiletries these can be provided. Beyond just providing robes, we find hotel pyjamas laid out for us on the bed when we return from dinner.
The restaurant, with menus by executive chef Masahide Sasaki, is French-themed, but each dish comes with its own Japanese twist. The seven-course set menu features dishes such as a terrine using sashimi grouper rather than pork or duck, while the indulgent fourth course of lobster and foie gras comes in a sake bisque.
The main dish is an incredibly tender and delicious beef fillet "pie" with a red wine and wasabi sauce. All of the dishes are excellent and make the hotel restaurant a destination in itself (which it is for visitors not staying in the hotel). It's also where we take breakfast. The restaurant is also open for lunch and high tea.
You could spend a full day, at least, in nearby Nara Park. The vast space is home to several World Heritage-listed sites. Of these temples, the most impressive is the Todai-ji. One of the biggest wooden buildings on the planet, its scale is mind boggling (particularly when you discover an earlier, older version of the building was even bigger). Inside you'll find the world's largest bronze buddha.
The other highlight of the park are the resident deer. About 1200 of them live in Nara, mostly within the park grounds, though they roam freely. They're not shy and can be fed by hand. You can purchase "deer cookies" from vendors throughout the park for about 150 yen, though the hotel will give you some for free (be warned, though, some of the larger deer may aggressively pursue you if you have a stack of these biscuits in your hand. The deer also have a tendency to stick their snouts into open handbags and pockets in search of edible goods, which can include paper).
If the weather is fine, hike to the top of Mt Wakakusa for fantastic views over the park and city (you'll find deer at the top too).
While the building itself may seem nothing special, the Noborioji's quality rooms, location and especially the service live up to its luxury reputation.
Rooms at the Noborioji Hotel start from Y68,310 ($803) for a standard twin. See slh.com/noborioji
The hotel has the complete package: location, comfort, service and food are all top notch.
Although we can see the park beyond, our room overlooks the carpark.
The writer stayed as a guest of Small Luxury Hotels of the World.