Nara – first Japan’s permanent capital, established in 710. There are 8 treasures listed on the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It’s second only to Kyoto as a repository of Japan’s cultural legacy. Must see is the Todaji temple with the Daibutsu statue (Great Buddha). It is the biggest made of bronze Buddha statue in the world (48,9 ft, over 550k lb). Todajii’s main hall is the world’s largest wooden building.
In the heart of the city centre, there is a large park (over 600 hectares), established in 1880, at the foot of Wakakusa Hill. There are numerous ponds, wide lawns and alleys full of flowers and cherry trees. You can not only walk, rent a rickshaw or relax there but also you can meet there – hundreds of freely living deer. In the Shinto religion, it is believed that deer are messengers of the gods, so nearly 1200 deer living in Nara has become a symbol of the city and are considered as the national treasure.
Fallow deer and roe deer walking the city streets, eat grass, bamboo leaves and buds. They can be also fed by tourists with small, testy deer crackers (Shika Senbei), 150 yen for a small package (1,3$). But be careful, as deer learned how to ask or demand from tourist to buy the cookies and they can do it quite pushy. It has happened in the past, that pedestrians were injured by sharp-pointed horns, so today most of the deer have their horns cut off. There are information boards around the park, which can be easily understood looking at the pictograms, which shows how dangerous can be to have close contact with those wild animals.
How to get from Kyoto to Nara
No surprise, from Kyoto to Nara you can get by train. Depending on which train you will choose, your journey can take between 60-70 minutes. At the Kintetsu Station, you can visit the travel information office. You will find there some city maps, brochures and information about Nara city and its monuments and treasures – all available in the English language.
Please note, that Nara city can be visited on foot (especially recommended on warm, sunny days) or with local bus services. There are two loop buses available, which can take you to most of the shrines and temples.
1 Day Pass, around Nara Park, costs 500 Jen (4,5 $). 1 Day Pass Wide (which covers a bigger part of the city and more temples) – cost 1000 Jen (9 $).
UNESCO – World Heritage List
The Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara (source: UNESCO about Nara) represent a unique testimony to the evolution of Japanese architecture and art. They clearly illustrate the most important period of cultural and political development in Japan when Nara (then called Heiji-kyo) functioned as the capital of the country. During that period – the framework of a united government was created. With the great prosperity of the city – a powerful and centralized state was born together with the national identity, and development of the Japanese culture.
All monuments were listed on the UNESCO list in 1988, and all of them are in the city of Nara. The property includes eight component parts composed of seventy-eight different buildings covering 617.0 ha
At the site of Nara, at the end of the silk route, the town of Heijo-kyo was erected. It has been carefully selected in accordance with Chinese geomantic principles. In China, the elements of geomancy included in Feng Shui philosophy and rules of the environment were used to gain better health, happiness and harmony with one’s own environment.
A grand city plan, based on Chinese knowledge and experience, was laid out, with palaces, Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, public buildings, houses, and roads on an orthogonal grid. The palace itself, located at the northern end of the central avenue, occupied 120 ha. It comprised the official buildings where political and religious ceremonies took place, notably the imperial audience hall (Daigokuden), state halls (Chodo-in), and the imperial residence (Dairi), together with various compounds for administrative and other purposes. In the centre of the city, there was a castle. On the east and west side, there were two markets and two guarded capital temples. Everything was surrounded by a wall.
The UNESCO Heritage List includes an archaeological site (the Nara Palace Site), five Buddhist temples (Todai-ji, Kofuku-ji, Yakushi-ji, Gango-ji and Toshodai-ji), a Shinto shrine (Kasuga-Taisha) and an associative cultural landscape (Kasugayama Primeval Forest), the natural environment which is an integral part of all Shinto shrines. Together, these places provide a vivid and comprehensive picture of religion and life in the Japanese capital in the 8th century, a period of profound political and cultural change.
Nara – Kofuku-ji Temple
The temple was built in 669 in Uji, south of Kyoto. 41 years later, in 710, it was moved to Nara, at the behest of the Fujiwara family, who owned it. The place around the temple grew very fast. In the time of the city’s greatest boom (VIII-XII), the entire complex covered more than 12 thousand square meters and counted 175 buildings. The temple is interesting from the architectural point of view, as it has survived to its present form in an original style called wayo, characteristic of Japan from that period (without Chinese influence).
In 2010, the temple celebrated its 1300th anniversary
Kofuku-ji – what to look for?
- In the central location, there is a five-storied pagoda, Japan’s second-largest pagoda, today’s Nara symbol. The pagoda was rebuilt several times because it burned down five times. The last reconstruction took place in 1426 (about 600 years ago), and it survived to this day.
- Tokondo – is the great Eastern Pavilion, built in honour of Empress Gensho in 726. The pavilion was also several times destroyed by fires, the last reconstruction took place in 1415.
- Kokuhokan is a former refectory, now a vault and temple museum.
- Central Golden Pavilion was destroyed in a fire in 1717. Although a replacement hall was built about 100 years later, the Golden Pavilion was not rebuilt. In recent years, however, it was decided to complete its reconstruction and is now undergoing full reconstruction. The reopening of the pavilion is scheduled for 2018.
- There are also two octagonal halls in the temple area: Northern Round Hall and Southern Round Hall, which contain valuable monuments. The Northern Hall was originally built in 721, as a mausoleum in honour of Nara’s founder and principal sponsor Fujiwara no Fuhito. However, the original building burned down in 1049, and the final reconstruction took place in 1210. The building has survived to this day and is the oldest one in the temple area. Unfortunately, the Southern Hall, built-in 813, has not survived to this day. The building that we can see these days was reconstructed in 1741-1789. The Southern Hall served as the mausoleum and the most important temple for the Fujiwara family. Both halls are open to visitors only a few times a year (The Sothern Hall only once a year: October 17th).
The Tokondo Pavilion can be visited from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Admission ticket is 300 yen (2,7$). Kokuhokan treasury can be visited at the same time as above, entrance fee of 600 yen (5,4$). For both attractions, you can buy a combined ticket for 800 yen (7,2$).
Nara – Todaiji Temple
In 743, under the order of the emperor Shomu, the construction of the largest bronze sculpture of the world, the Great Buddha, began. At the erection of the main building of Daibatsu-den, over 350,000 people worked. Inside the statue (dedicated in 751), it was poured in 8 parts (face and hands separately) for over 3 years. The building was completed in 752 and today the pavilion is the largest wooden building in the world. Moreover, the original building was about 1/3 bigger than the one we know today, but part of the pavilion was damaged by fires. After subsequent reconstructions, the building was reduced to the present size: frontage: 187ft (57m), depth: 165ft (50m), height: 160ft (48.7m).
Architectural curiosities should also be added to the fact that the entire structure of the pavilion was made without the use of nails, and the individual elements were matched by holes, hollows and wooden pegs.
The Buddha’s monument was destroyed several times – mostly as a result of earthquakes. The statue that we can see today was cast in 1692.
Each year the temple is visited by over 3 million tourists.
Todaiji – within the temple you should pay attention to:
- The Great Southern Gate – Nandai-mon, which has five spans and is covered by a double roof. In the pillars of the gate, there are Nio guards (from 1203), symbolizing the beginning and end of life
- The Great Buddha Pavilion – Daibatsu-den, which overwhelms the huge bronze statue depicting the Daibatsu Vairocana. It is a cosmic Buddha, sitting in the position of a lotus flower. Its dimensions are impressive: the entire statue is 48.9 ft high (15m), length of its Head is 17.4 ft (5.3m), each Eye is 3,34 ft long (1m), each Ear is over 8.3 ft (2.5m). The whole weight is about 550k lb US (250k ton). There is also a statue of the Nyoirin Kannon in the pavilion, fulfilling the request, as well as the Kokuzo Kannon, a symbol of wisdom.
- The octagonal lighthouse faces the entrance to the temple. It is estimated that the lighthouse was built in the same period as the first capital of Japan. The lighthouse is made of bronze and is over 15 ft high (4.6m).
- Golden Sorin – spiral column, which crowns the roof of each pagoda. The one standing next to the temple was once placed on the roof of one of the two pagodas built at that time. Each of them was 100 meters high and at that time – they were the highest pagodas in the world. Both pagodas burned down and the only remnant of them was that Sorin. In the park, next to the temple – a gold spiral column stands in the place where one of the pagodas once stood.
From Kintetsu Train Station, you can get to the temple on foot (about 20-25 minutes). In the summer season, it is open from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Admission ticket to Daibatsu-den is 500 yen (4.5$).
Our impressions of visiting the Todaiji Temple
On the day we visited Nara, it was raining. Rain, grey sky and numerous umbrellas over the heads of passers-by, have changed not only our plans for long walks in the park but also our aesthetic perception. Photos of the monuments came out grey and blurred. Many deer living in the park were hiding under the trees and were not willing to be posing in front of the camera. Interesting objects were obscured by the umbrellas. Taking photos from underneath of the umbrella was not easy, and exposed our cameras for getting soaked.
But when we reached the temple of Todaiji, and we saw tourists with colourful umbrellas, we knew it was a real happiness to be here on such a rainy day. Thanks to that, we could pick up other stimuli and appreciate the city’s other values than those seen during sunny weather. What we liked was rain-shining sidewalks, saturated colours of the surrounding nature and much fewer tourists on the streets.
But the most important surprise was the opportunity to be a witness in prayer – in the Temple of Todaiji, which has started with the march of over 1000 monks. They were walking in a long and colourful procession underneath the umbrellas – in groups that were characterized by separate costumes. Monks were singing, praying, playing instruments or talking to each other. All tourists have stopped when they saw marching monks, and so we could take a look at all the participants.
When everyone went inside the temple – we hesitated whether it was still worthwhile to enter it, since 1000 people had just stepped inside. What was our surprise when it turned out that the entire ceremony (prayer) took place on the platform placed in the centre of the pavilion, while the remaining faithful and tourists could calmly continue to enter and walk around a platform with of over 1000 people but also around a statue of the Great Buddha standing on it.
In the temple, there is also an interesting scale model, showing the most important buildings of the ancient city of Nara. Partially, some of them are preserved to this day.
Nara – Kasuga Taisha temple
The road from Todaiji to the Kasuga Taisha temple partly runs by Park Nara, the city and the forest. The buildings of the temple area on the edge of a picturesque, very well preserved primaeval forest. There are picturesque bridges, wooden buildings and stone lanterns.
The Kasuga Taisha Temple was built in 768. It is best known for its 3,000 lanterns, which the faithful have been sacrificing here for centuries. Lanterns stand on the way to the temple – along the main avenue, they also stand in front of it. Lanterns are made of bronze or stone. Inside the temple, lanterns are also decorated in the interior of long corridors – dominated by hanging lanterns in golden or red colours. All lanterns are lit twice a year (night of 14-15 August and 3 February), during the Mantoro festival.
The temple also has a very interesting place – the Fujinami-no-ya chamber. It is a dark room, without light from the outside, and the only source of light comes from the lighted lanterns. The feeling is amazing, although the walk inside lasts only for a while. This small pavilion is in complete darkness, without even seeing people standing in front of us, yet the white, flashing light from the lantern creates a magical mood. The chamber was prepared for those who can’t stay here during the Mantoro Festival. It is supposed to provide the same experiences that can be experienced during the night of the festival. By this example, it is supposed to encourage people to return to the temple in February or August.
In the temple is worshipped deity, who takes care of the city – Takemikazuchi. According to the legend, he came to Nara sitting on a deer. It is a deity in Japanese mythology, considered as a god of thunder and sword. He also competed in what is considered the first sumo wrestling match recorded in history.
The temple can be visited from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. in the summer, or 6:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., from October to March. The admission ticket is 500 yen (4.5$).
Nara – Yakushi-ji Temple
The seat of the Hosso sect, founded in 680 by emperor Tenmui, was transferred to Nara in 718. It is one of the oldest and most worshipped temples in the city. It was severely damaged in several fires, but the final reconstruction took place in 1528.
On the spot, it is worth looking at the originally preserved Eastern Pagoda, named Toto. It is 34 meters high and consists of three storeys. The main Kondo pavilion (from 1635) houses the bronze triad of Buddha Yakushima (from 697).
In front of the temple, there is a stone – Historical Monument of Ancient Nara. It is commemorating the fact of listing monuments of Nara and Yakushiji Temple on the World Cultural Heritage List of UNESCO.
From Kintetsu Train Station, you can get to the temple by train. Take the Kintetsu Nara train and get to Yamato-Saidaiji Station. Then transfer to the Kintetsu Kashihara train and get off at Nisinokyo Station. The whole trip will take about 25 minutes and will cost 260 yen (2.3$).
You can also take a bus: 70, 72 or 97 (about 15 minutes, cost 260 yen – 2.3$) from Kintetsu Train Station. Get off at the Yakushiji stop, but back from the Yakushiji-Higashiguchi stop.
The temple can be visited from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., entrance fee 800 yen (7.2$).
Warning! Some buildings of the temple are partially closed due to reconstructive works. Planned completion of renovation is foreseen for 2018.
In recent years, in preparation for the celebration of the 1300th anniversary of the establishment of the capital of Nara (Heijo-kyo), an attempt was made to partially reconstruct the Heijo Imperial Palace. The main gate (Suzakumon) and Toin Teien Garden, used by the imperial family, were reconstructed on the archaeological site. In 2010 there was also opened the Daigokuden Auditorium with a decorative throne and a ceiling adorned with paintings depicting the Chinese signs of the zodiac and four sides of the world.
Both – archaeological sites and rebuilt buildings can be visited daily (except Mondays), from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., free admission.
Useful links regarding Nara:
So far, my other posts about Japan:
- Japan – how to organise the trip on your own
- Japan – tailor-made travel plan
- my own gallery of Japan photos
- Himeji – White Egret Castle
- Kamakura – the seat of the first Shogun
- Kanazawa – Kenrokuen Garden and Castle
- Kyoto and Kansai region
- Matsumoto – city overshadowed by the castle
- Mount Fuji – the most popular icon in Japan
- Nagano Prefecture – the roof of Japan
- Nara -first Japan’s permanent capital
- Nikko – the light of the sun
- Tokyo – western capital