Spring, when the bitter cold weather is gone and flowers of sakura (cherry blossom) trees come in full bloom, is the perfect season to go to Nara and visit temples and shrines, or go for a walk around hills and fields. Here are five things that every visitor in Nara can do during spring.
1. Attend the Shunie at Todaiji Temple's Nigatsudo Hall
Held in early February under Japan’s old lunisolar calendar, Shunie is a traditional Buddhist ceremony where monks of Todaiji Temple pray for peace and security for the country and for the happiness and well-being of its people. It has been held every year without interruption since it began in 752. This ceremony is currently held for two weeks starting March 1st, with 2017 marking the 1,266th time that it will be held. Shunie comprises of a wide range of activities, but probably the most famous one of them is the Otaimatsu, in which where flaming torches called “taimatsu" are brandished at the stage in Nigatsudo Hall. The “omizutori” (ceremony wherein water is drawn from the well located under Nigatsudo Hall to be offered to Kannon, the Buddhist deity of compassion) that is held on March 12th is a thrilling event with 11 huge “kago taimatsu” torches lit up! You have to experience Shunie at Todaiji Temple's Nigatsudo Hall, which has come to be loved as the event for ushering in spring in Nara, the ancient capital of Japan.
※In 2017, Shunie will be held on March 1st (Wed.) – March 14th (Tues.)
2. Climb Mt. Wakakusa in spring
Mt. Wakakusa is a 342-meter mountain covered with grass that has become a symbol of Nara. It is also called Mt. Mikasa because it looks like three overlapping bamboo hats ("mi" is one way to say "three," and "kasa" is a conical bamboo hat). This mountain is closed during winter to protect the grass, but it is open in spring and you will be able to explore this mountain just by paying the entrance fee. When you go there for a hike, you will see deer playing everywhere, as well as a wealth of beautiful nature in every season, such as cherry blossoms in spring, fresh verdure in summer, and autumn foliage in fall. There are two gates leading to this mountain, the North and South Gates, and it will take 30 to 40 minutes to get to the summit. The “Uguisuzuka kofun” found at the top of the mountain is an ancient tomb that is said to have been built around the 5th century, so this is a spot that ancient history buffs should definitely check out. From the top of the mountain, you will get a panoramic view of the Yamato Basin, and at night, a spectacular vista will spread in front of you. Don’t miss the chance to marvel at this superb view that has been chosen as one of the new three major night views of Japan!
※The mountain is usually open from the third Saturday of March until the second Sunday of December
Entrance fee: 150 JPY for adults, 80 JPY for children (3 years old and above)
Opening hours: 9:00 am - 5:00 pm
※Guests are not allowed to enter the mountain on foot at night. If you want to see the nightscape, please come by car or taxi via the Nara-Okuyama Driveway (510 JPY round-trip).
3. Walk around Nara Park
Nara Park is a prominent sightseeing spot that represents Nara. This vast park that spans 660ha in size is dotted with places that are home to various historical and cultural assets, such as Todaiji Temple, Kofukuji Temple and Kasuga-Taisha Shrine, and is a very popular spot where about 1,200 deer live. It is also famous for its cherry blossoms, having been chosen as one of Japan’s top 100 cherry blossom viewing sites. There are around 1,700 cherry blossom trees inside the park, including someiyoshino and yaezakura (double cherry blossoms) trees, so there are a lot of spots that will be perfect for hanami (cherry blossom viewing). Out of all these spots, though, the most recommended is the Ukimido Hall in Asajigahara area. The hexagon-shaped hall that is floating in Sagi Pond is covered in cherry blossoms and the beautiful image that is reflected on the water is truly spellbinding. The hall also serves as a space for quick breaks, so you can go there for some rest after touring Todaiji and Kofukuji.
4. Visit Mt. Yoshino
Mt. Yoshino, the most famous spot for cherry blossoms in Japan, is a place where 30,000 cherry blossom trees of about 200 varieties are planted, centering on the shiroyamazakura variety. With a mountain ridge measuring around 8km from north to south, this mountain is divided into four cherry blossom-filled areas, comprising Shimo Senbon (lower 1,000 trees), Naka Senbon (middle 1,000 trees), Kami Senbon (upper 1,000 trees) and Oku Senbon (inner 1,000 trees). Each of these areas translates to the “luxury of seeing a thousand trees in a single glance.” and cherry blossom trees are so densely concentrated in all of them that they are even called “Hitome Senbon” (place where one can see a thousand trees at a glance). When the trees are in full bloom, it looks like the entire mountain is covered with a pale pink carpet. The cherry blossom trees bloom in sequence from Shimo Senbon at the lowest elevation to Oku Senbon at the summit, so you can see cherry blossom trees in full bloom for a longer period of time. What a treat for travelers!
5. Check out the illuminated cherry blossoms at Ishibutai Kofun
Ishibutai Kofun, which is found in the Asuka Historical National Government Park, is the one of the largest burial mounds (the top view is the square-shaped ancient burial mound or tumulus) in Japan as it was apparently built in the early 7th century. The embankment on top of the mound eroded and the top portion of the enormous stone chamber that became exposed looked like a big, flat stage, so this spot came to be known as “Ishibutai” (literally means “stone stage”). The approximately 30 pieces of small to large granite that are used on the tumulus weigh about 2,300 tons altogether, and the stone ceiling alone weighs around 77 tons, suggesting that the best civil engineering and transport technologies were used at the time that it was built. There are many cherry blossom trees planted around Ishibutai Kofun and in spring, the burial mound will almost look like it is blanketed by sakura flowers in full bloom. This area is lit up at night for a limited time, too, creating a magical scene that is very different from how it looks during the day. If you look from a distance, it looks like the cherry blossom flowers are floating in pitch black darkness, so it could be very romantic.
※The nighttime illumination of the cherry blossoms usually takes place from late March until early April (depending on the bloom condition of the trees)
Nara in spring is a place that is filled with many must-see places. So, please check out the places that you find interesting and feel the coming of spring.
*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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