Long celebrated as the cradle of Japanese culture, the city of Nara is located in central Honshu south of Lake Biwa in an idyllic setting surrounded by high hills, dense forests and farmland. Thanks to its many historic buildings and art treasures, it attracts more than a million visitors every year, making it one of Japan’s most popular cities. Highlights of a visit include walking through the many charming streets lined with numerous ancient buildings, all in a picture-perfect setting that can be easily viewed from nearby Mikasayama Mountain. The town has managed to maintain a small-town atmosphere and become somewhat of a cultural destination, and is one of the country’s leading craft centers, famous for its carved wooden dolls (Nara-ningyo), lacquerware (Nara-shikki),
1 Nara Park en Tōdai-ji-tempel
In the heart of the city, Nara Park is home to history, culture and nature. Highlights include watching the park’s deer through woods and lawns, while visiting the many historic buildings, including the beautiful Kofuku-ji Temple adjacent to the large Sarusawa Pond, as well as Uneme Shrine. The largest park in Japan (and one of the oldest, dating back to around 1300), Nara Park is home to the eighth-century AD Todai-ji (Great East Temple), the most famous of the seven great temples. from Nara. Other highlights of Todai-ji Temple include the huge bronze statue of the Great Buddha (Daibutsu), cast in Nara in 749 AD; its Great South Gate (Nandaimon), a two-story building on 18 columns with its two Nio statues standing eight meters high, guarding the entrance to the temple; and the Hall of the Great Buddha (Daibutsuden), the world’s largest wooden building and home to the Great Buddha (Daibutsu). In addition to the many other historically significant buildings, the site also features beautiful gardens and water features, including ponds, bridges, and pagodas.
Address: 406-1 Zoshicho, Nara, Nara Prefecture 630-8211
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Another of Nara’s seven major temples in Nara Park, the temple complex of Kofuku-ji consisted of 175 buildings in its heyday. The surviving buildings were founded in 666 AD and include an octagonal hall, the Nan-endo, built in 813 AD and home to a statue of Fukukenjaku-Kannon from 1188, along with very fine statues of the four celestial guardians and the six patriarchs of the Hosso sect. In front of the hall is a ninth-century bronze lantern with an inscription attributed to Kobo-daishi, as well as a three-storied pagoda. Other notable buildings include the Northern Hall (Hoku-endo), also octagonal and built for Empress Gensho in 721 AD. And famous for its 13th century wooden statue of Miroku-bosatsu; the East Hall (To-kondo) with its 15th-century statue of Yakushi-nyorai, along with older eighth-century statues; and a magnificent five-storey pagoda erected in AD 730, at 50 meters the second tallest pagoda in Japan with many historically significant statues.
Address: Noboriojicho, Nara, Nara Prefecture 630-8213
Official site: www.kohfukuji.com/english.html
3 Isuien Garden
The Isuien Garden, home to the small yet interesting Neiraku Art Museum, opened in 1969 and is landscaped in Japan’s famous Shakkei style – literally translated as the “borrowed landscape” – incorporating the garden’s surroundings into the overall effect. Together with the museum, it makes for a fantastic outing, especially if you visit the two tea houses in the closest part of the garden, the Seishuan and the Sanshutei (be sure to check out Teishuken’s waiting room as well). The older back part of the garden, created in 1899, has the South Gate of the Todaiji and Mount Wakakusa as a backdrop, and on its island in the small lake is a stone from the foundations of the Buddha Hall, while the stepping stones are old millstones used in the manufacture of fabric dyes. Hot Tip:If you’re a tea drinker, head to the site’s other tea house, the straw-covered Hyoshintei, for its excellent green tea.
Address: 74 Suimoncho, Nara, Nara Prefecture 630-8208
4 Tōshōdai-ji temple
Founded in AD 759, Tōshōdai-ji was constructed as the main temple of the 30 temples of the Ritsu sect. While only two of the original buildings survive – the Great Hall and Lecture Hall – the site retains much of its original layout and is a joy to explore. The Great Hall (Kondo), the largest and finest example of Tempyo architecture to survive in Japan, is famous for its huge pillared gallery and large seated statue of Rushana-butsu and its magnificent halo decorated with 864 small Buddhas. The Lecture Hall (Kodo) is also worth exploring and contains many fine sculptures, including several carved from a single piece of cypress wood. Other notable buildings include the Priests’ Quarters (Higashimuro),
Address: 13-46 Gojocho, Nara, Nara Prefecture 630-8032
The main temple of the Hosso sect, Yakushi-ji was originally built in the seventh century and still contains statues from that period. Begun in AD 680 during the reign of Emperor Temmu, only the East Pagoda survives, with the remaining structures seen here today dating to the 12th and 13th centuries. Highlights include the Great Hall (Kondo) with the famous Akushi Trinity, a nearly three-meter-tall Chinese and Indian-influenced figure flanked by noblemen and dating from AD 697. The original three-storied East Pagoda, 38 meters high and topped by 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 featuring a two-meter-tall bronze statue of Sho-Kannon, a gift from the king of Paekche (Korea). Other buildings of interest are the Bussokudo with its stone with a Buddha footprint; the bell tower with a Korean bell; and the treasury with two beautiful paintings of Kichijo-ten, goddess of beauty, and a Chinese priest.
6 Kasuga Taisha Shrine
Founded by Fujiwara Nagate during the eighth century, Kasuga Shrine consists of four separate buildings dedicated to the deities Takemikazuchi and Futsunushi, along with the ancestral gods of the Fujiwara family, Amenokoyane and his consort Hime-okami. The buildings of this UNESCO World Heritage Site are characteristic examples of the Kasuga-zukuri style, differing from early wooden buildings in brightly colored red beams, the white cladding of the walls and the curved roofline. Every 20 years until 1863, the buildings were demolished and re-erected in their original form, as is still the case with the Ise Shrines; nowadays this process of renewal is limited to the roofs. In Deer Park, deer roam freely and are believed to be sacred messengers of the Shinto gods who inhabit the shrine and the surrounding mountainous region. Also interesting is the adjacent oneKasugayama Primeval Forest , a stunningly beautiful reserve, untouched since the ninth century, known for its rare birds, trees and wildlife.
Address: 160 Kasuganocho, Nara, Nara Prefecture 630-8212
Official Site: www.kasugataisha.or.jp/guidance/main_sanctuary.html
7 Nara National Museum
Built in 1895, the National Museum is the city’s main museum and houses numerous important works of art, particularly from the Nara period of the eighth century. In addition to periodic temporary exhibitions of exhibits from the museum’s vast stocks, the permanent collection includes a number of galleries devoted to archaeological finds and fine displays of sculpture, painting, and calligraphy. Of particular interest to those who have visited the city’s many fine temples are the collections of important religious objects, including numerous Buddhist statues and paintings. English manuals are available.
Address: 50 Noboriōji-chō, Nara, Nara Prefecture 630-8213
Official site: www.narahaku.go.jp/english/index_e.html
The oldest fully preserved temple complex in Japan, Hōryū-ji is a beautiful example of the architecture of the Asuka period from 552-45 AD. Featuring masterful artwork that spans the entire range of Japanese history. Built in 607 AD as one of the seven great temples of Nara, Hōryū-ji became the great center of Buddhism in Japan, from which the new faith was carried across the country (in those days the road from the Imperial Court to the coast beyond the temple site). The main temple of the Shotoku sect consists of 45 buildings, 17 of which are classified as Major National Treasures. Divided into two parts – the To-in or Higashi-no-in (the eastern part) with 14 buildings and the Sai-in or Nishi-no-in (the western part) with 31 buildings – it can take the best part of a day to explore. Particular highlights include the Great South Gate (Nandaimon), from which a path leads to the Middle Gate (Chumon) with its covered passageways and two guard figures representing light and darkness from AD 711. The spectacular Great Hall (Kondo), a two-stories wooden structure, it is said to be the oldest surviving wooden building in the world.
Address: 1-1 Horyuji Sannai, Ikaruga, Ikoma District, Nara Prefecture 636-0115
Official site: www.horyuji.or.jp/horyuji_e.htm
9 Shin-Yakushi-ji Tempel
Founded by the Empress Komyo in 747 AD to secure the help of the gods in curing an eye ailment suffered by her husband Shomu, the Shin-Yakushiji Temple is a classic example of the Late Nara style. Derived from the Healing Buddha (Yakushi) to whom it is dedicated, this important religious site contains a large statue of Yakushi-nyorai carved from a single piece of wood, along with a statue of the eleven-headed Kannon surrounded by 12 pottery figures of tutelary goddesses (June- shinsho), all masterpieces of late Nara image. Also noteworthy is the Great Hall (Hondo), the only part of the original temple to survive from the Nara period.
Address: 1352 Takabatakecho, Nara, Nara Prefecture 630-8301
10 The Manyo Botanical Garden
With over 150 different species of flowering plants and famous throughout Japan for its inclusion in the ancient Manyo-shu collection of poems, the lovely Manyo Botanical Garden – also called Kasuga Taisha Garden – is well worth a visit. Flower species of particular interest here include Japanese Andromeda, as well as Japanese Irises and Wisteria, which bloom from season to season. Also of interest are special stone monuments with references to poems related to each plant. Another worthwhile tourist attraction nearby is Rekishi Kyoshitsu, the Exhibition Hall of Historical Materials with its displays related to the cultural history of Japan from the Jomon to the Nara periods from approximately 3000 BC through 794 AD. Exhibits include picture panels of ancient tombs, temples and pagodas as well as full-scale replicas of Nara’s major annual events.
Where to Stay in Nara for Sightseeing
We recommend these highly-rated hotels in Nara near top attractions like Nara Park and Todai-ji Temple:
- Nara Hotel: luxury guest house, turn of the century building, famous guests, tea room, well-trained staff.
- Hotel Nikko Nara: mid-range price, convenient location, next to Nara station, modern decor.
- Hotel New Wakasa: affordable rates, friendly staff, Japanese-style rooms, a short walk from Tōdai-ji Temple.
- Super Hotel Lohas JR Nara-eki: budget hotel, compact rooms, pillow library, hot tub, healthy breakfast included.
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