Long known as the cradle of Japanese culture, Nara City is located in the center of Honshu in the south of Lake Biwa in an idyllic setting surrounded by high hills, dense forests and farmland. With a wealth of historic buildings and its treasures of art, it attracts over a million visitors every year, making it one of Japan’s most popular cities. Highlights of a visit include wandering its many charming streets lined with numerous old buildings, all in an ideal setting that can be easily viewed from nearby Mount Mikasayama.
Managing the preservation of a small town atmosphere, the city has become something of a cultural destination and is one of the country’s leading craft centers, famous for its carved wooden dolls (Nara-ningyo), laqueurs (Nara-shikki), fans (Nara-uchiwa) and pottery ( Akahada-yaki).
Nara Park and Chodai-ji Temple
In the heart of the city, Nara Park is home to history, culture and nature. Highlights include watching the park’s roe deer roam the forest and lawns while visiting many of the historic buildings, including the magnificent Kofuku-ji Temple next to the large Sarusawa Pond, as well as Uneme Shrine, Japan’s largest such park (and one of the oldest, dating back to the 1300s), Nara Park is home to the 8th century Todai-ji (Great Oriental Temple), the most famous of the seven great temples of Nara.
Other sights of Todai-ji include a huge bronze statue of the Great Buddha (Daibutsu) abandoned at Nara in 749 CE; its Great South Gate (Nandaimon), a two-story structure built on 18 pillars with two statues of Nio eight meters high guarding the entrance to the temple; and the Big Buddha Hall (Daibutsuden), the world’s largest timber building and home to the Great Buddha (Daibutsu). In addition to its many other historically significant buildings, the site also has beautiful gardens and water features, including ponds, bridges, and pagodas.
Another of the seven great temples of Nara also in Nara Park, the Kofuku-ji temple complex consisted of 175 buildings in its heyday. Established in 669 CE, surviving buildings include an octagonal hall, Nan-endo, built in 813 AD and home to the Fukukenyaku-Kannon statue carved in 1188, as well as the very fine statues of the four heavenly guardians and the six patriarchs of the sect Hosso.
In front of the hall is a ninth-century bronze lantern with an inscription attributed to Kobo-daishi, as well as a three-story pagoda. Other notable buildings are the North Hall (Hoku-endo), also octagonal and built for Empress Gensho in 721 AD and famous for its 13th-century wooden Hroku-bosatsu statue; East Hall (To-kondo) with its 15th-century Yakushi-nyorai statue, along with old eighth-century statues; and a magnificent five-story pagoda erected in 730 AD, 50 meters away is the second largest pagoda in Japan, containing many historically significant statues.
Ishien Garden, home to small but interesting Neiraku Art Museum, opened in 1969 and landscaped in the famous Japanese Shakkei style, literally translated as “borrowed landscape”, in which the garden environment is included in the overall effect. Together with the museum, it makes an incredible walk, especially if you visit the two tea houses in the closest part of the garden, in Seishuan and Sanshutei (be sure to visit the Teishuken waiting room).
The older back of the garden, laid out in 1899, has the south gate of Todaiji and the Wakakusa Mountains as a backdrop, and on its island in a small lake is stone from the foundations of the Buddha Hall, the stones are old millstones used in making fabric dyes. Hot Tip: If you are a tea drinker, be sure to visit another teahouse for the site, Hyoshintei Straw, for excellent green tea.
Founded in 759 AD, Tshshdai-ji was built as the main temple of the 30 temples of the Ritsu sect. While only two of the original buildings remain – the Main Hall and the Lecture Hall – the site has retained much of its original layout and is delightful to explore. The Main Hall (Kondo), the largest and finest example of Tempio architecture preserved in Japan, is famous for its extensive gallery and the large seated statue of Rushan-butsu and its magnificent halo decorated with 864 small Buddhas.
The Lecture Hall (Kodo) is also worth exploring and contains many fine sculptures, including a row carved from a single piece of cypress wood. Other notable buildings are the priestly quarters (Higashimuro), the Cult Hall (Raido) and the Drum Tower (Koro), where the Uchimaki festival is celebrated every May.
The main temple of the Hosso sect, Yakushi-ji was originally built in the seventh century and still contains statues from that period. Dating back to AD 680 during the reign of Emperor Temmu, only the East Pagoda remains, with other structures seen here today dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries. Highlights include the Main Hall (Kondo), which houses the famous Akushi Trinity, a figure of almost three meters high with Chinese and Indian influences, surrounded by nobles and dated 697 AD.
The original three-story Eastern Pagoda, 38 meters high and topped with a unique metal pinnacle, is the only surviving example of Buddhist architecture from the seventh century. Behind the pagoda is the East Hall, built in 1285 and containing a two-meter bronze figure of Sho-Kannon, a gift from the King of Baekje (Korea). Other notable buildings are Bussokudo with its stone bearing the footprint of the Buddha; a bell tower with a Korean bell; and a treasure chest containing two beautiful paintings of Kichijo-ten, a goddess of beauty and a Chinese priest.