Discover Nara Japan’s first capital
Like the sound of discovering ancient Japan? Here we tell you all about Nara – Japan’s fascinating historic capital.
Japan is nation with two faces. On the one hand, it is one of the world’s most modern, forward-thinking and technologically advanced countries. On the other, it is steeped in history and tradition – and it is this that you can discover in Nara.
Nara – historic treasure, seat of culture
The first true capital city of Japan, Nara reigned from 710 to 784. While its status as capital city may not have lasted long, Nara became something of an epicentre for emerging Japanese culture – and what remains of this ancient capital today gives visitors exciting insights into the changing Japanese culture of the 8th century.
Easily visited on a day trip from Kyoto (another of Japan’s most fascinating cultural destinations), Nara is a small place that is relatively quick to explore. Its key sites include beautiful temples and shrines, while the city as a whole demonstrates how early capitals were planned – as well as the typical architecture they possessed.
Once its time as a capital came to an end, Nara was abandoned – but thankfully, its shrines and temples have stood the test of time and provide a wonderful window into the past for travellers today. Indeed, Nara is a captivating place to travel to and is particularly rewarding to explore.
Nara is perhaps most famous for Daibutsu or Great Buddha – a vast statue that measures some 15 metres in height. Cast in bronze and gold, this celebrated statue is, arguably, the number one thing to see during your time in Nara.
However, the complex where you will find it, Todai-ji, is just as big an attraction. Indeed, this large complex is Nara’s key tourist destination, as well as one of its grandest temples. Even from the gates you can see amazing things; at Nandai-mon, which is a grand gate, you can see two restored wooden carvings by famous 13th-century sculptor Unkei that are widely regarded as among the finest statues of their kind in the country.
Entering the grounds of Todai-ji, you will be in a park known as Nara-koen. Should you have any time to spare, it is worth taking a moment for a relaxing stroll here – the park is filled with beautiful greenery, and you can even see tame deer nibbling on the grass.
Turning back to the temple itself, however, there are a number of buildings to explore here. The highlight for most is Daibutsu-den Hall, which is where you will find the aforementioned Daibutsu. Having originally been cast in 746, Great Buddha was recast in the Edo period and is one of the world’s largest bronze statues. Look very closely and you’ll notice a slight colour difference between its head and body – the two have in fact between severed on a number of occasions due to natural disasters and fires.
Also known as the Kasuga Grand Shrine, the Kasuga-Taisha dates back to 768. The buildings here have been restored and even rebuilt at points, but their architecture adheres to tradition – for example, you will notice they are roofed with cypress-bark shingles.
And indeed, this kind of roofing provides yet another fascinating cultural clue. Shinto shrines such as this always aim for harmony with the natural environment. This, and several others, can be found in the Kasugayama Primeval Forest, which is considered to be a sacred forest.
Another building worth visiting is Toshodai-ji, which has, unlike many other structures in Nara, made it through the years without sustaining much damage from disasters such as fire. It was built by a Chinese high priest in 759 and, as such, is one of the attractions that is indicative of 8th-century Nara’s links with China and Korea.
The Kondo or main hall is an excellent example of Japanese temple architecture, while the Kodo or lecture hall is, interestingly, the only example from the old Nara Palace that has survived intact.
The wonderful thing about Nara as a whole is that it allows you to experience the magic of stepping into a past era – you cannot help but be enchanted by it.
Located only an hour away from Kyoto, Naru is included on a number of Cox & Kings’ Japan itineraries. Visit the website, or call a Far East specialist on 020 7873 5000 for more information or to create your own personalised Japan holiday.