Overshadowed by its more famous neighbors, the city of Nara is usually omitted from the itinerary of many time-pressed travelers. But as Japan’s first permanent capital, Nara boasts many important scenic and historical sites. Thus, it’s definitely worth spending one or two days here to enjoy the atmosphere of ancient Japan.
To many visitors to Japan, Nara (奈良) is a mere day-trip destination less than one hour from Kyoto and Osaka. It’s widely known for the iconic temple of Todai-ji and the Nara Park where hundreds of sika deer freely roam. But more than 1300 years ago, this city was actually the first permanent capital of Japan.
A Brief History of Nara
Prior to the Nara Period, the seat of the Japanese government had been frequently moved from place to place. In fact, it was customary for the capital to be relocated at the beginning of each new reign. This practice changed when Empress Genmei established the imperial court in Heijō (currently Nara) in 708. Her successors also followed suit, and thus the city had become the capital of Japan for over 80 years.
The capital of Japan for over 80 years.
During this period, Buddhism was declared as “guardian of the state” and actively promoted throughout Japan. Buddhist monks, therefore, became authoritative figures, gaining a lot of respect and influence. Nevertheless, the political ambition of the Buddhist temples in Nara was so immense that it became a serious threat to the government. As a result, Emperor Kammu decided to move the capital to Nagaoka in 784, and a few years later to Kyoto in order to lower the temple’s influence on state affairs.
Although its heyday is long gone, Nara is still able to retain its ancient atmosphere. Many of its historic treasures remain in good condition, including artifacts dating back to the Nara period, as well as some of Japan’s oldest and largest buildings. They are mostly located in Nara Park (奈良公園) – an expansive green area in the center of the city.
Presiding over the vast Nara Park, Tōdai-ji (東大寺) is the city’s most recognizable architecture and one of Japan’s most famous temples. It was constructed in 752 as the central administration for all six provincial temples of different Buddhist schools in Japan at that time.
Extending over 2850 m², the current temple’s main hall was one of the world’s largest wooden structures. However, the hall is still 30 percent smaller than its original version which was unfortunately destroyed by fire.
Positioned at the center of the temple is the Daibutsu – a 16-meter high, gilt bronze statue of Vairocana. It was the centerpiece of various rituals, such as prayers for the peace of the nation, protection against epidemics, bountiful crops, as well as worldly prosperity. Both sides of the statue are flanked by two seated Bodhisattvas, and there are Four Heavenly Kings standing at the corners of the main hall. The Buddha was also identified with the Sun Goddess, reflecting a syncretism of Buddhism and Shinto.
2. Kasuga Taisha
Characterized by a sloping roof extending over the front of the main building, Kasuga Taisha (春日大社) is Nara’s most celebrated Shinto shrine. It’s dedicated to the four guardian deities of Japan and consists of multiple buildings. The shrine is located in the southern part of Nara Park and was established at the same time as the capital.
As the tutelary shrine of the Fujiwara – Japan’s most powerful clan during most of the Nara and Heian periods, Kasuga Taisha was, therefore, an object of imperial patronage. That’s why it was rebuilt several times over centuries, similar to the Ise Shrines in Mie. In the case of Kasuga Taisha, however, this custom was discontinued at the end of the Meiji Period.
The Lanterns of Kasuga Taisha
Kasuga Taisha is also famous for its lanterns, which have been donated by worshippers to express their gratitude and support for the shrine. There are 3,000 stone lanterns lining the path that leads up to the shrine. They symbolize the guiding light of Shinto. The number 3000 represents the 3000 branches of the Kasuga shrine spreading throughout Japan.
Adding to that are hundreds of bronze lanterns hanging inside the inner buildings. These lanterns are only lit twice a year during two Lantern Festivals: one in early February and one in mid-August. But visitors to Kasuga Taisha can still see some lit-up lanterns inside a small room at the back of the temple.
3. The Nara Deer
When speaking of Nara, the image of a freely roaming deer might come up in many people’s minds. Worshipped as the messengers of the Shinto kami, the deer has long been an unseparated part of Nara. The city hosts more than 1,200 sika deer which often gather in and around Nara Park. Visitors can encounter them virtually everywhere, from the ground of the Tōdai-ji, the Wakayama hills to the lantern-lined entrance of the Kasuga Taisha. Even the receptionist at our ryokan jokingly recommended: “Follow the deer and you will be able to see all of Nara’s main attractions.”
Similar to the deer in Miyajima, Nara’s deer have become accustomed to humans. That’s why they are generally tame. However, some might turn aggressive if they think you will feed them. Some are wiser and have learned to bow to visitors to ask to be fed. And good behavior usually brings more rewards. The deer’s favorite snack is crackers that are sold for 150¥ per pack.
Tips for visiting Nara
- Nara is easily accessible by trains from both Kyoto and Osaka. It takes less than one hour and you can choose either the Japan Railways (JR) or Kintetsu Railways.
- The advantage of taking the JR train is that the fare is covered by JR Pass. But a trip with Kintetsu will take less time and the station is much closer to Nara Park than JR station.