Nara was the capital of Japan before it was moved to Kyoto, and it is home to many cultural heritage sites that will make you feel their historical air. Here are five sightseeing spots that you have to check out when you visit Nara.
Todaiji temple symbolizes the prosperity of the capital city of Nara, which is lovingly known for being "as dignified as a aromatic flower in bloom". The Daibutsuden (Great Buddha Hall), where the Rushanabutsuzazou (image of the Birushana Buddha, the temple's principal object of worship) is enshrined, is the world’s largest wooden building, standing at 57.5m-wide, 50.5m depth, and 49.1m height. The Hokkedo, the oldest structure at Todaiji Temple, is one of the last few surviving buildings built during the Nara period that still remains at the temple. This building houses 10 Buddha statues from the Nara period (710 – 784), all of which have been recognized as national treasures. Aside from those, the temple precinct is also filled with a lot of other interesting spots that are worth checking out, including the Nigatsudo hall that serves as the venue for the “omizutori" (ceremony for drawing sacred water) that heralds the coming of spring, and the Todaiji Museum where the treasures of Todaiji Temple are put on display. You can spend an entire day enjoying this temple.
Nigatsudo, where the omizutori ceremony is held
2. Nara Park
Nara Park is a main tourist spot in Nara that is visited by as many as 13 million guests annually. Its vast park area is dotted with valuable cultural heritage sites such as Todaiji Temple, Kofukuji Temple, and the Kasuga Taisha (Kasuga Grand Shrine). There are no walls and fences around its property that is covered in lush greens, so guests can freely stroll around. And at night, the string of buildings and facilities at the park are lit up, including Kofukuji Temple, Sarusawa Pond, Ukimido Hall, and Todaiji Temple (only in the summer). You have to see for yourself the magical sight of the 5-story pagoda at Kofukuji Temple floating against the night sky and the Ukimido Hall reflected on the surface of the water.
The wild deer that you will see all over the park have been recognized as national natural treasures of Japan. These animals will apparently bow at you when you feed them the shika senbei (rice crackers for deer) that are sold inside the park. Why not test it?
※The deer at Nara Park are accustomed and friendly to people, but they are still wild, so be careful when you feed them.
Heijokyuseki (ruins of Heijo Palace) is lined with a number of government offices along Heijo Palace, which is located at the center of the northern part of ancient Nara and stands on a site that spans approximately 1.3km from east to west and around 1km from north to south. Some of these government offices are the Dairi where the emperor resided and the Daigokuden and Chodo-in offices where national ceremonies and political events were held. Aside from the Daigokuden Hall, Suzakumon gate and Toin Teien garden that have been restored, Heijokyuseki is also full of various other spots that history buffs would surely enjoy, including the Excavation Site Exhibition Hall that showcases the relics and remains that have been dug up, and the Heijo Palace Site Museum that offers easy explanations about Heijo Palace. The view from this place is also spectacular, as you can see the mountains surrounding the basin of Nara, and the statue of the Great Buddha and Nigatsudo Hall at Todaiji temple.
Built in Fujiwara-kyo (the capital of Japan during the Asuka period) in late 7th century, Yakushiji Temple is the head temple of the Hosso sect of Buddhism. Following the transfer of the capital to Heijo Palace in 710, the temple was moved to its current location in 718. Yakushiji Temple lost a majority of its buildings from a fire in 973 and a fire caused by the war in 1528. It remained as a temple that was provisionally reconstructed for more than 400 years, but the Kondo (Main Hall) was rebuilt in 1976, followed by the Saito (West Pagoda), Chumon (Central Gate), and Daikodo (Great Lecture Hall), thereby bringing back the color and radiance that the temple possessed at the time it was built. The Kondo houses the Yakushi Nyorai (the Buddha of Healing) that is one of the most famous masterpieces depicting Buddha in the 7th-8th century. The Buddha’s pedestal is engraved with designs of Greek grapevines, Persian lotus flowers, the Indian god of power and the four Chinese gods that rule over the four directions, giving guests a glimpse into Japan’s relationship with Greece, Persia and other countries along the Silk Road. The Toto (East Pagoda), the only building at the temple that has kept its original structure, has been under construction since 2009 with a plan to turn it into a beautiful structure that will be known as “Frozen Music," to be completed around 2020.
Toshodaiji Temple is a temple that was built in 759 by the Chinese monk Jianzhen who came to Japan to transmit the precepts of Buddhism from the Tang Dynasty. The Kondo that will be standing right in front of you after you pass through the Nandaimon (Southern Grand Gate), which is the entrance to the temple, was constructed in the latter half of the 8th century and is now the only surviving Kondo that was built during the Nara period. The eight pillars standing in front of the temple are arranged in an entasis design wherein the pillar at the center is slightly raised, so distance between pillars is widest at the center and then narrows toward the end pillars, giving the structure a sense of solid breadth. Originally the Higashi Choshuden (Eastern Morning Audience Hall) that was moved from Heijo Palace and then rebuilt, the Kodo (Lecture Hall) that is right behind the Kondo is an extremely valuable building as it is the only remaining building of court architecture from the Nara period. Toshodaiji Temple is filled with impressive sites that are truly worth seeing, as apart from the above, it is also home to many cultural assets.
Kondo (Main Hall)
Kodo (Lecture Hall)
Nara was the capital of Japan for just about 70 years, and the cultural heritage sites that remain there now speak of the glory from those days. There are still a lot more beautiful sites in Nara, so try to go around several times to check them out. A wonderful encounter surely awaits you.
*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.
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