Nara (奈良) is an ancient capital city in Nara Prefecture, Kansai region of Japan. Throughout 2010 the city celebrated its 1300th anniversary. Overshadowed by its more famous neighbor Kyoto, Nara is omitted from many a time-pressed tourist’s itinerary. However, Nara is home to many important scenic and historical sites, and today preserves its main sights much more attractively than Kyoto within Nara Park and neighborhoods like Naramachi.
Along with the development of Heijōkyō (平城京), the capital of Japan between 710-784 AD, Nara flourished under the influence of Buddhism, leading to the creation of an enormous number of cultural assets, buildings and books, many of which are preserved today. Nara has the largest number of buildings designated National Treasures in Japan.
While the Heijōkyō Palace (平城宮) site turned into plain fields after the capital was moved to Kyoto, the shrines and temples were left on the east side of the palace (called Gekyo (外京)), and Buddhism remained influential throughout the following centuries. Another part of the area developed as a merchant town, notably in the Edo period, known as Naramachi (奈良町) today.
Most of Nara’s sights, including temples, shrines and famously mercenary deer, are concentrated in Nara Park (奈良公園 Nara-kōen), a wide, pleasant space of greenery. According to legend, the god of the Kasuga Taisha came riding a white deer in the old days, so the deer enjoy protected status as envoys of the god; however, based on their current behavior, either the deer have lost the job, or the god has taken an extremely passionate interest in biscuits from tourists (¥150), empty food wrappers and harassing shopkeepers.
Tōdai-ji (東大寺). Nov-Feb 8AM-4:30PM, Apr-Sep 7:30AM-5:30PM, Mar and Oct 8AM-5PM. Home to the famous Daibutsu (大仏), the largest Buddha statue in Japan and one of the largest in the world. The Daibutsu-den, which houses it, is said to be the largest wooden building in the world and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The giant front gate, Nandai-mon, is guarded by two fierce, awe-inspiring protectors. It’s also swarmed by deer, who know this is the best place to come looking for a hand-out. Through the gate is a stone path leading to the outer walls surrounding the Daibutsu-den. Follow the signs to the left to enter the inner courtyard, and if you happen to have a stick of incense with you, join the crowd around the incense offerings before you head onward.
The Daibutsu-den contains four other giant statues. Once you’ve taken in the Daibutsu itself, walk around it to the left to see the other statues, as well as a few old tiles and leftover relics. There’s a stand inviting you to sponsor a tile in order to help with the upkeep of the temple, and English-language fortune scrolls (omikuji) are on sale year-round. Take a final look at the Daibutsu as you leave; don’t let the souvenir stand be your last memory of this incredible sight.
Just before the souvenir area, behind and to the right of the Daibutsu, is a wooden column with a small hole carved through the bottom. Enlightenment is reportedly promised to anyone who can squeeze through this hole. In practice, this means a lot of kids have enlightenment in store (thanks in part to other kids who kick their feet to “help” them through), and all but the skinniest adults can only look on in envy.
To the right of the entrance to the Daibutsu-den is a statue of the Yakushi Nyorai. Though a bit scary-looking on first glance, it’s actually a Buddha of medicine and healing. Touching a part of the Yakushi Nyorai and then the corresponding part of your own body is said to heal any ailments you have there.
Todaiji (“Great Eastern Temple”) is one of Japan’s most famous and historically significant temples and a landmark of Nara.
Todaiji was constructed in 752 as the head temple of all provincial Buddhist temples of Japan and grew so powerful that the capital was moved from Nara to Nagaoka in 784 in order to lower the temple’s influence on government affairs.
Isuien is an attractive Japanese garden with a variety of features, such as the use of Todaiji Temple’s Nandaimon Gate and Mount Wakakusayama as “borrowed scenery”. Isuien means “garden founded on water”, and the garden’s name is derived from the fact that its ponds are fed by the small adjacent Yoshikigawa River. The Yoshikien Garden is located just on the other side of the river.
Kasuga Taisha is Nara’s most celebrated shrine. It was established at the same time as the capital and is dedicated to the deity responsible for the protection of the city. Kasuga Taisha was also the tutelary shrine of the Fujiwara, Japan’s most powerful family clan during most of the Nara and Heian Periods.
Like the Ise Shrines, Kasuga Taisha had been periodically torn down and rebuilt every 20 years for many centuries. In the case of Kasuga Taisha, however, that Shinto custom was discontinued at the end of the Edo Period.
Isuien is divided into two parts, a front garden and a rear garden, with a number of tea houses scattered throughout. The front garden has a longer history, dating back to the mid 17th century. The rear garden, the larger of the two, is more recent and was built in 1899 by a wealthy merchant. Next to the garden there is a museum displaying a personal collection of pottery, seals, mirrors and other artifacts from ancient China and Korea, which is included with admission.