Nara is a small city in the Kansai region that, in spite of its size, has a very long and illustrious history, and is an easy day-trip from Kyoto or Osaka.
In ancient times, Shinto rites of purity decreed that, with the death of an emperor, the capital must be relocated. So it was around Nara that all of Japan's original capitals were established between the third and eighth centuries. From 710 Nara was declared the "permanent capital," only for the Imperial family to be moved 84 years later to what was then called Heiankyo, now Kyoto.
Hundreds of serene temples, gardens, and shrines, and a handful of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, remain as slegant testiments to Nara's ancient status. The most famous is Todaiji Temple, site of the world's largest wooden building and with the world's largest gilded bronze Buddha.
Things to see and do 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 among the trees of Nara Park and visited by deer is the traditional ryokan (inn) of Edosan.
The Nara National Museum is also in Nara Park and houses primarily works of art and archaeological artifacts related to Buddhism in Japan.
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.
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 to the west. Gangoji was moved to Nara when the city became the capital and the original temple is now split into two: a 'Gangoji' in the city's Chuin-cho area in Naramachi, 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 or Contemplation Hall).
Like Gangoji Temple, Yakushuji Temple was also built in Asuka and later moved to Nara. It is notable for its picturesque 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. Access is by bus or Kintetsu Line train from Yamato-Saidaiji Station to Nishinokyo Station.
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).
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 Nara Kotsu 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.
Asukadera Temple in the Asuka district is a very ancient Shingon Buddhist temple founded in the sixth century A.D. It is most famous for its Asuka Great Buddha of bronze and gold, and also has a display of archaeological treasures unearthed on the temple grounds.
Nara Palace Site
Nara Palace Site or Heijo Palace, just west of Nara Park, is where the imperial capital moved to in 710 A.D., a move that heralded the Nara Period of history. Until the 1970s it was farmland, but excavations then began, and, in the 21st century, full-scale reconstructions of how the original buildings are believed to have looked. Chief among the rebuilt structures is the imposing Great Hall of State, the two-story Suzaku Gate, and the East Palace Garden. The Nara Palace Site Museum documents the archeological excavation of the site. Read more about Nara Palace Site.
The Mitsuki Umashi Festival (みつきうまし際) takes place on the first weekend of November at the Nara Palace Site, and is a revived autumn festival recreating the sights, moods and sounds of the Nara Period when Nara was the capital of Japan. Enjoy old-style food and drink, and numerous performances of old Japanese music, dance and theater, and even performances by groups invited from overseas.
Hotel Accommodation in Nara
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.
If you wish to stay in a traditional Japanese ryokan complete with tatami flooring and a hot tub while in Nara there are a number to choose from: Ryokan Kosen is right opposite Kofukji Temple and virtually next door is Sarusawaike Ryokan. Also in this area close to Nara Park is Daibutsukan and the luxurious Asukasou. Other ryokan in Nara include Tsubakiso, Nara Hakushikaso, and the good-value Hasegawa Inn.
See our map of Nara for a comprehensive list of places to stay.
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).
Access - Getting to Nara
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 Yokohama, Shinjuku and Tokyo Station in Tokyo. There are also Meitetsu highway buses from Nagoya Meitetsu Station bus center to JR Nara and Kintetsu Nara stations. The journey time is approximately 2 hours, 40 minutes (4,100 yen return fare).
Book a highway bus from the Tokyo area to Nara. Buses (night) depart from Shinjuku Express Bus Terminal calling at Tokyo Station, Yokohama City Air Terminal (YCAT) then Kyoto Station, JR Nara Station and Umeda Station. Buses to the Tokyo area leave from Umeda Station calling at JR Nara Station and Kyoto Station with stops in Yokohama (YCAT), Shinjuku Express Bus Terminal and Tokyo Station.
Tourist Information Centers in Nara
Nara has four tourist information centers.
Nara City Tourist Information Office
1082 Sanjo-honmachi, Nara
Tel: 0742 27 2223
On Sanjo-dori Avenue, in front of Nara Station.
Kintetsu Nara Station Tourist Office
Kintetsu Bldg. 1F, 28 Higashimuki Nakamachi, Nara
Tel: 0742 24 4858
JR Nara Station Tourist Office
Tel: 0742 22 9821
Nara City Information Center
23-4 Kamisanjocho, Nara
Tel: 0742 22 3900
On the corner of Sanjo-dori and Yasuragi-no-michi, at Kami-sanjo-cho intersection.
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)
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