Nara and Kyoto are the two biggest tourist destinations in Japan. Kyoto, the more famous of the two, is home to both the remaining geisha and the iconic golden pavilion. Nara, however, is the heart of Japanese Buddhism. Its temples are not just world heritage sites, but are often the largest, oldest and most sacred of their type. Standing among the pagodas and cherry trees it is possible to imagine Japan before cell phones, neon lights and the tsunami of concrete. Nara was Japan’s first permanent capital, and remains as one of the world’s great cities.
Nara is not a large city and nearly all the historic sites are located in and around Nara Park. Tour groups on a day trip often complete a brief circuit of Kofuku-ji Temple, Todai-ji Temple and Kasuga Taisha Shrine in a matter of hours before returning to Kyoto or Osaka. Visitors, who prefer to travel without a megaphone wielding guide, would be better off spending two or three days on a tranquil journey of discovery, rather than an afternoon playing follow my leader.
In the northeast of the city are 1235 acres of grass and woodland known as Nara Park. It is the largest city park in Japan and home to around 1500 deer. The deer, once thought to be messengers of the gods, roam the area in search of food. Vendors sell shika sembei (deer rice crackers) to visitors for around ¥100, and the deer are not timid when it comes to getting a free meal. They crowd anyone holding food, jostling for position until all the crackers have been eaten. If you walk away with food still in your hand, you will probably find yourself being stalked by half a dozen frustrated deer. Unlike Kyoto, where busy roads bisect many of the popular areas, Nara Park’s traffic-free tree-lined paths connect the major temples and shrines. It creates a far more tranquil atmosphere, and if walking all day seems too arduous, there are groups of lithe young men with rickshaws who are more than willing to do the hard work for you.
Kofuku-ji was the ancestral temple of the powerful Fujiwara family. There were once 175 buildings in the complex, but now only a few remain standing, most notably the three and five story pagodas. The five story pagoda was built in 1426 and is one of the most recognizable symbols of Nara.
Nearby is the Sarusawa Pond, and on windless days the pagoda is reflected on its surface. At dusk, when the pagoda is floodlit, young couples admire the view from benches along the water’s edge.
Emperor Shomu hoped that the construction of Todai-ji temple would consolidate Nara’s position as both Japan’s capital and as a center for Buddhism. The sheer scale of the building was a sign of imperial power and the piousness of the Emperor. The Vairocana Great Buddha that sits at the centre of the temple is 49ft (15m) high and is the largest bronze sculpture in the world. It is estimated that 290 pounds of gold went into its construction, almost bankrupting the country. The Great Buddha is flanked by statues of two bosatsu (enlightened beings), while in the back corners heavenly guardians glare down at the people below. Behind the Buddha is a stout wooden column with a hole around a foot in diameter running through its base. It is believed that those who can fit through the hole are assured of achieving nirvana. It is an easy task for children and a squeeze for all but the slimmest adults.
The Great Buddha, bosatsu and guardians are housed in the Daibutsu-den Hall. The huge wooden structure is a 1709 reconstruction, and is, in fact, only two-thirds the size of the original. The present Daibusteu-den, however, still holds the title of the largest wooden building in the world.
A short walk east from Todai-ji Temple are the Nigatsu-do and Sangatsu-do Halls. Nigatsu-do is famous for the view from it’s balcony at dusk, and the Omizutori Festival. The festival is held at midnight in March and involves monks parading around the temple balcony with fiery torches. The glowing embers rain down on the spectators below, purifying them.
The Isuien landscaped garden is a site of national scenic beauty and has been described as the pinnacle of Japanese garden design. Several small ponds and a meandering stream are surrounded by sculpted trees and stone lanterns, but the garden’s finest feature may be its use of “borrowed landscape.” A guest sitting in the teahouse can gaze over the koi carp and lily pads, but the view continues on to the roof of Todai-ji Temple and then the forested slopes of Mount Wakakusa. The designer of Isuien managed to create a small city garden with a vista that extends to the horizon.
Kasuga Taisha Grand Shrine
In the eastern section of Nara Park, a lantern lined path winds its way through the forest to Kasuga Grand Shrine. The Shinto shrine is of the Chinese style, it’s vermilion pillars contrasting with white walls. Like many other Shinto shrines the main structure was demolished and rebuilt every twenty years. The practice however lost popularity and Kasuga’s main building has stood since 1863. Kasuga is considered one of Japan’s most important shrines and is surrounded by around two thousand stone lanterns while another thousand bronze lanterns hang from the eaves of the buildings. The lanterns are lit twice a year during the February Setsubun and the August Obon Festivals.
Emperor Tenumu built Yakushi-ji Temple as a place to pray for the recovery of his sick wife and therefore is dedicated to the Buddha of medicine. The main attraction is the 3 story East Pagoda, which, due to intermediary roofs, appears to have 6 stories. The 19th Century American scholar Ernest Fenollosa after visiting Yakushi-ji described the unique structure of the East Pagoda as “frozen music.” The pagoda is, in fact the only original building that remains from the temple’s construction in the 8th Century. The importance of the pagoda lead to it being designated a national treasure and the whole temple complex being placed on the World Cultural Heritage List.
Horyu-ji is Japan’s oldest temple and home to the oldest wooden buildings in the world. The five story pagoda was constructed in 693 and contains several sculptures of Buddha. The Kondo or Main Hall is another original wooden structure that has survived more than 1,300 years. The temple complex has a huge number of items of historical importance, of which some are on display in Horyu-ji’s Gallery of Temple Treasures, while others are now at Tokyo’s national museum.
Within Nara prefecture, but about 90 minutes by train from Nara city is Yoshino. The small village is built on the side of a remote valley and for most of the year it receives very little attention. In April, however, it becomes one of Japan’s most popular sites for viewing cherry blossom. Over a 100,000 cherry trees cover the slopes of Yoshino Mountain. Starting in the valley bottom a wave of pink petals moves slowly up the mountain. Unlike the rest of Japan where cherry blossom comes and goes in two weeks, the changes in altitude mean that Yoshino has blossom somewhere on the mountain for the whole of April.
When to Go
The best times to see Nara are during the bloom of cherry blossoms in early April and when the leaves are changing color in autumn. Another option is to time your visit with one of the major festivals e.g. the Lantern Festival at Kasuga Shrine held in February and August or the Omizutori Festival at Nigatsu-do hall held mid-March. The disadvantage with going at these times is that it can be crowded and accommodation is often filled well in advance.
Nara is located 20 miles (32km) east of Osaka. International flights land at Kansai International from where there are train and limousine bus connections to Nara. Itami, Osaka’s domestic airport, is slightly closer. Limousine buses from Itami to Nara take about 70 minutes and cost ¥1,440. From Kyoto and Osaka there are regular train connections to Nara. If you are not using a Japan Rail Pass then it is better to use the privately owned Kintetsu Lines as the Kintetsu Nara Station is closer to Nara Park than the JR station.
It is possible to walk to all the main sites around Nara Park. Yakushi-ji temple or Horyu-ji temple can be reached by train or bus in about 30 minutes and 60 minutes respectively. Yoshino is further away, but can be reached using the Kintetsu Yoshino Lines in around 2 hours.
Where to Stay
The guidebooks usually advise people to come to Nara on a day trip and stay at the hotels and ryokans in Kyoto. This is a good idea if you are visiting both cities and don’t want to lug enormous suitcases around. Nara does, however, have more than enough sites for a two or three day stay, especially if you are going to visit the outlying temple of Horyu-ji or the cherry blossom at Yoshino. The other big reason to stay in Nara is that it gives you the opportunity to arrive at the most popular sites when they open and beat the bus tours and school groups. Once the hordes have left at four or five you can also enjoy a relatively quiet stroll in the park before heading up to Nigatsu-do Hall for the sunset.
There are a variety of business and tourist hotels along with traditional ryokan in Nara. If you can forgo having a western bed for one night, a stay at a ryokan is a memorable experience. On arrival the hostess will usually show you to your room and serve you with green tea. While you are eating dinner the staff will lay out the futons on the tatami matting that had been your living room floor. If your muscles are sore from walking, many ryokan even have their own hot spring pools.