Japan’s first permanent capital was established in the year 710 at Heijo, the city now known as Nara (奈良). Before that date, the capital used to be moved to a new location whenever a new emperor ascended to the throne. However, as the influence and political ambitions of the city’s powerful Buddhist monasteries grew to become a serious threat to the government, the capital was moved away from Nara to Nagaoka in 784 and a few years later to Kyoto. Nara is located less than one hour from Kyoto and Osaka. Due to its past as the first permanent capital, the city remains full of historic treasures, including some of Japan’s oldest and largest temples.
Places to visit in Nara
1. Nara Park and Todai-ji Temple
Todaiji is one of the most impressive temples in Japan, and plays a major role in Japanese history through the ages.
You approach Todaiji Temple through the Nandaimon (Great Southern Gate), where you are confronted by the fierce Nio figures that guard the approach to the Great Buddha. Carved by famous sculptors Unkei and Kaikei, around the 12th century AD, they are two of the finest examples in Japan. The Daibutsuden (Great Buddha Hall), one of the world’s largest wooden structures, is breathtaking in its scale and architecture. Standing in front of the hall, you will see a large octagonal bronze lantern: one of the temple’s oldest treasures.. Completed around 752 during the Nara Period, this World Heritage temple was commissioned by Emperor Shomu to bring peace to a tumultuous period: in addition to losing his infant son, there had been a smallpox epidemic, crop failures and an attempted coup.
2. Kofuku-ji Temple
Kofuku-ji Temple is among the most famous temples in Nara and is one of the city’s eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Its spectacular five-storied pagoda is as much a symbol of the city as the adorable deer wandering around in front of it.
The temple was founded in 710 – when Nara became Japan’s capital – by the powerful Fujiwara family. At the height of their influence, Kofuku-ji was a sprawling complex of over 150 buildings, although unfortunately fires and the anti-Buddhist policies of the Meiji period have since greatly reduced this number to the 11 that remain today.
3. Nara Park
Nara Park is a large park in central Nara. Established in 1880, it is the location of many of Nara’s main attractions including Todaiji, Kasuga Taisha, Kofukuji and the Nara National Museum. It is also home to hundreds of freely roaming deer. Considered the messengers of the gods, Nara’s over 1000 deer have become a symbol of the city and have even been designated as a natural treasure. Deer crackers are for sale around the park, and some deer have learned to bow to visitors to ask to be fed. Nara’s deer are surprisingly tame, although they can be aggressive if they think you will feed them, so make sure not to tease them with food. Nara Park is a five minute walk from Kintetsu Nara Station or about a 20 minute walk from JR Nara Station. Alternatively, the park can be reached by bus. There are multiple stops around the park.
4. Isuien Garden
5. Kasuga Taisha
Kasuga Taisha is an ancient Shinto shrine located in a forest east of Nara, capital of Japan between 710 and 784 CE. Founded in 768 CE, the site has four main shrines in honour of four Shinto-Buddhist deities, one of which is the ancestor god of the important Fujiwara clan. The complex, including its surrounding forest with wild deer, is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
6. Nara National Museum
Nara National Museum, Japanese Nara Kokuritsu Hakubutsukan, in Nara, Japan, art museum devoted primarily to Buddhist art. Exhibits include dry-lacquer works, wooden statues, and lacquered wood from the earlier and later Heian periods. There are Kamakura sculptures, including Jizō-Bosatsu, and a relief of 1327 from Kōchi of Kobo Daishi (Kūkai), one of the best-known Buddhist saints in Japan. Pieces on display include a fine gilded-bronze halo of the Asuka period from the statue of the Nigatsudo.
Omizutori is the commonly used name for Shunie, a series of events held annually from March 1 to 14 at Todaiji Temple. This collection of Buddhist repentance rituals has been held every year for over 1250 years, making it one of the oldest reoccurring Buddhist events in Japan. Omizutori is performed at Nigatsudo Hall, a sub-complex of Todaiji, which stands not far from the temple’s main hall on the slope of a hill. Nigatsudo literally means “second month hall”, referring to the second month of the lunar calendar, when Omizutori has traditionally been held. The second month of the lunar calendar roughly corresponds to March of the solar calendar.
Omizutori is held at Nigatsudo, a ten minute walk uphill from Todaiji Temple’s main building.