Nara’s History and Yamazaki’s Whisky

Deer and biscuits
Yummm, biscuits!

You could be forgiven if you thought that we had had enough history lessons after 4 days in Tokyo and Kyoto. But on day 5 we visited Nara, and this was really historical Japan. Only Japan can claim that their first “permanent” national capital was set up in 710 AD. Prior to setting up this ancient capital, says the Lonely Planet guide, Shintoism brought with it the belief that when a new emperor reigned, the capital must also be moved. (Continuing to rule where a past regent died was a bad omen, to say the least.)

In Nara, a park encapsulates the ancient sites of where this first capital was born. The largest Buddha sculpture I have ever seen was on display at the Todai-ji temple. Surrounding it was multiple holy buildings, gates, and pagodas. It was truly a magnificent slice of history that is being proudly preserved for the coming generations to enjoy.

I would be remissed to leave out the most playful and people-friendly wild deer which greet visitors around these historical sites. For $1.50 I got to share “biscuits” with these awesome animals. And when I wasn’t looking, my map got bitten twice! The 1200 deer that romp around the area are a major highlight of this park. I should actually say “town” because they would occasionally walk around the bus stops, enter shops, and pose for photos along the paths. 

With the weather staying a bit chillier than expected, Jake and I decided we should try to make a brief afternoon stop at Yamazaki. This town is home to arguably the best single-malt whisky in the world, and they have the medals to prove it! Suntory, made known to Western audiences in the movie Lost in Translation, tells their story in the museum they house onsite at their most famous whisky distillery. Sadly, we couldn’t get in the tour when we arrived because they were booked solid that day. But when life gives you rye, you’ve gotta make whisky!

We ended up in the self-guided Suntory museum which ended at their Whisky Library, a open space which contained shelves of various whiskies produced around the world, by various makers since the 1980s. The best vintages were kept on a large shelf next to a retired whisky still. As part of the library there was a whisky bar with varying makes, colors, and prices. All were served without ice at the 15 ML line of their classy drinking glasses. Some whiskies were $5 a drink, some were $20, and a few were $40…

We spent that rainy afternoon in the Yamazaki distillery trying various vintages, mostly labelled, and some not. That was the beautiful part – we got to try stuff from the walls of the library! (A luxury you certainly have to pay for.) When we were about finished, an older Japanese man came up to us and asked us where we were from. He couldn’t speak much English, but he did say Thank You – thank you for coming to Japan, learning about his culture, and appreciating their fine whisky!

In the rain and chilly air, with warm Yamazaki in our bellies, Jake and I made our 3rd stop of the day – Himeji, home of the oldest surviving castle in Japan and the most beautiful piece of living feudalism I’ve ever seen…