Japan City Guides: Nara
- population: 360,000.
- Japan's ancient capital is a must-see and an easy day trip from Kyoto or Osaka.
- historic center with hundreds of serene temples, gardens, and shrines. A handful of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
- a smaller and more compact version of Kyoto.
- home to the Japanese imperial family from 710 to 794.
- site of the world's largest wooden building - Todaiji Temple - and the world's largest gilded bronze Buddha, housed in Todaiji.
- recognised birthplace of Japanese civilization.
Shinto rites of purity decreed that with the death of an emperor, the capital must be relocated. It was around Nara that all of Japan's orignal capitals were established between the third and eighth centuries. From 710 Nara was made the 'permanent capital', a permanence that lasted, however, for only 84 years before the capital was moved to what was then called Heiankyo, now Kyoto.
Elegant testiments to Nara's ancient status remain mainly in the form of temples, and, of course, the rites and festivities that they have been the focus of for over a thousand years.
Todaiji Temple in Nara is the world's largest wooden building and houses the world's oldest gilden bronze Buddha - Daibutsu
The five-storey pagoda at Kofukuji Temple in Nara
Nara Park is notable for the hundreds of tame deer it is home to. Rice crackers (sembei) are on sale at 150 yen to feed them: a favorite photo opportunity. Also, nestled amongst the trees of Nara Park and visited by deer is the traditional ryokan (inn) of Edosan.
In Nara Park is the Nara National Museum, home primarily to works of art and archaeological artifacts related to Buddhist art.
Todaiji Temple (a World Heritage Site) is a complex of buildings that includes the world's largest wooden structure, the 48m (157 foot)-high Daibutsu-den, built in 743 and which houses the 15m (49 foot) gilt bronze Daibutsu (Great Buddha), cast in 749: also the largest of its kind in the world.
Over 9000 of Todaiji's priceless cultural treasures are on display in another of its many buildings, the Shoso-in Hall which is, architecturally, a treasure in its own right.
The famous five-story pagoda (go-juu-no-toh) located inside Nara Park is the most famous relic of the almost 180 buildings that once made up Kofukuji Temple: a temple founded originally in Kyoto by the ancient and powerful Fujiwara clan, and later moved to Nara when the city became the capital in 710A.D.
Also inside Nara Park is the Kasuga Taisha Shrine, one of Japan's most prominent Shinto shrines originally built, like Kofukuji Temple - but 99 years later in 768, by the Fujiwara family. However, like the Great Shrine at Ise, Kasuga Taisha Shrine is destroyed and rebuilt every 20 years in accordance with the purity precepts of the Shinto religion.
Todaiji Temple in Nara is a UNESCO World Heritage listed site
Sika Deer in Nara Park, Japan
Gangoji Temple, originally known as Hokoji Temple, is said to be Japan's first true Buddhist temple. Its establishment was of such significance that the King of Paekche in Korea sent artisans to help with its construction - which took place in the then capital of nearby Asuka. It was moved to Nara when the city became capital and the original temple is now split into two: a 'Gangoji' in the city's Chuin-cho area, and another 'Gangoji' in the Shibanoshin-ya-cho area. The Chuin-cho Gangoji is a World Heritage site and is notable for its Hondo (main hall) and Zenshitsu (zen room).
Like Gangoji Temple, Yakushuji Temple was also built in Asuka and later moved to Nara. It is notable for its pituresque restored East Tower (Toh-toh), which is the only remaining original building of this temple. However, work over recent decades has restored Yakushiji to a state befitting this head temple of the small "Consciousness-Only" Hosso sect of Buddhism.
There is much to see in the countryside surrounding Nara including the cherry blossoms at Yoshino and the sacred pilgrimage site of Mt. Omine. Also of interest are the ruins at Asukamura.
Horyuji Temple, about 10km south west of Nara in Ikaruga, contains the world's oldest surviving wooden buildings.
Founded, according to the wishes of his dying father, in 607 by Prince Shotoku, Horyuji is a UNESCO World Heritage site, the first to be so designated in Japan.
Horyuji ("Temple of the Flourishing Law") supposedly burnt down in 670 and the ancient wooden structures in the temple complex are thought to date to that time.
Most striking is the 32.5m-tall Five-Story Pagoda (Goju-no-to) - the oldest five-storied pagoda in Japan. Inside the building is a collection of clay statues from the Nara Period (710-794).
Main Hall (Kondo) Horyuji Temple, Hall of Dreams (Yumedono) Horyuji Temple, Nara
The Main Hall (Kondo) contains the main sacred statues of the temple. These priceless Buddhist images include a bronze Shaka Triad showing the historical Buddha and two bodhisattvas, dating from 623. To the right is the Yakushi Nyorai - the Buddha of Healing - to which the temple is dedicated. A 12th century Amida Buddha commemorates Prince Shotoku's mother.
The eastern precinct (Toin Garan) added in 739 contains the octagonal Hall of Visions (Yume-dono). This delightful, wooden building contains the Kuse Kannon (Avalokitesvara), said to be a life-size statue of Prince Shotoku.
Horyuji Temple Access
To reach Horyuji Temple, which is located in the Ikaruga district take a JR Yamatoji Line Osaka-bound train to Horyuji Station and then walk the 20 minutes to the temple of take a local #72 bus. Alternatively, take a bus from Nara to Horyuji-mae bus stop. Bicycles can be hired at the information near the bus stop on National Highway 25 at the entrance road to the temple.
Tourist information center in JR Nara Station: 0742-22-9821; Kintetsu Nara Station: 0742-24-4858. Nara City Tourist Association (on Sanjo Dori): 0742-22-3900. Goodwill Guides are available free of charge: Nara S.G.G. Club (0742-22-5595, English, French, German, Chinese, and Thai); Nara YMCA (0742-45-5920, English) Nara Student Guide (0742-26-4753, English)
Visit a Japanese family - Kyoto Home Visit Program
Nara's hotels are mainly clustered around JR Nara Station and Kintestu Nara Station. Well-priced hotels to stay in Nara include the Comfort Hotel Nara, the Nara Washington Hotel Plaza or the People's Inn Hanakomichi.
The venerable Nara Hotel dates from 1909 and offers something different for the discerning traveler. Visiting dignataries who have stayed at the Nara Hotel include Bertrand Russell, King Edward VII, Charlie Chaplin, Charles Lindbergh, Puyi - the Last Emperor of China - Richard Nixon, Audrey Hepburn and the Dalai Lama.
International credit card ATMs
Along Sanjo Dori, the narrow shopping street that runs from JR Nara Station to Nara Park, there are several banks that will change money and have ATMs that can be accessed with credit cards issued overseas:
-Nara Bank: Diners Club, MasterCard, Visa, AmEx, JCB; 8:45am-7pm, 9am-5pm weekends (closed Jan 1st 3rd).
-Mizuho Bank Diners Club, MasterCard, Visa/Mastercard, AmEx; 8:45am-7pm, 9am-5pm weekends (closed Jan 1st 3rd).
-Sumitomo-Mitsui Bank: Diners Club, MasterCard, Visa/Mastercard, AmEx; 8am-9pm (closed Jan 1st 3rd).
Airport limousine services to Kansai International Airport or JR train and change at Tennoji Station in Osaka.
Access to Osaka on JR West (about 45 minutes on the express) or Kintetsu Line from Namba and Tsuruhashi. Access to Kyoto on either Kintetsu Railways (35 minutes on the Super Express Tokyu) or JR West (40 minutes on the Miyakojima Express).
There are overnight bus services to Shinjuku in Tokyo.
Tourist Information Center
Nara City Tourist Information Office
Tel: 0742 24 4858
Kintetsu Nara Station
View Nara Map in a larger map