Originally known as Yamato, Nara is Japan’s first permanent capital from 710 to 794. Before that date, the capital used to be moved to a new location whenever a new emperor ascended to the throne. However, as the influence and political ambitions of the city’s powerful Buddhist monasteries grew to become a serious threat to the government, the seat of the Emperor was moved to Nagaoka and later Kyoto. Rich in ideas and technology from Europe, China and Korea via the Silk Road, Nara is a living museum with 1,300 years of art and architecture to offer.
Todaiji is one of the country’s most historically significant temples and plays a major role in Japanese history through the ages. This landmark of Nara was constructed in 752 as the head temple of all provincial Buddhist temples of Japan. Until recently, Todaiji's main hall, the Daibutsuden (Big Buddha Hall), held the record as the world's largest wooden building. The massive building houses one of Japan's largest bronze statues of Buddha (Daibutsu). Cast from over 400 tons of bronze and originally gilded, the Daibutsu is seated at 15m high. The grounds around the main temple are also well worth visiting. There are extensive gardens and several museums and treasure halls. Activities: Temple visit Fee: JPY 600 (Daibutsuden Hall) Time required: 1 hour
The most beautiful garden in Nara, Isuien is easily accessed on foot from Todaiji Temple. Isuien means "garden founded on water", and the garden's name is derived from the fact that its ponds are fed by the small adjacent Yoshikigawa River. The front garden was created for a wealthy textile merchant, with a villa and tea house for his leisure. The back part is a strolling garden, connected to the front by a large tea house that offers lunches and sweets. The garden uses shakkei, the traditional concept of borrowed scenery, with Nara's mountains and the Nandaimon (Great South Gate) of Todaiji Temple.
Activities: Garden visit, Photo stop Fee: JPY 1200 Time required: 1 hour
Horyuji is one of the country's oldest temples. Founded in 607 by Prince Shotoku, who is credited with the early promotion of Buddhism in Japan, this World Heritage temple features unique Chinese and Korean architecture, over 300 of Japan’s best Buddhist carvings and a pagoda that is said to be the world’s oldest wooden building. Horyuji's temple grounds are spacious and separated into two main precincts, the Western Precinct (Saiin Garan) and the Eastern Precinct (Toin Garan). The whole area is compact and rural, ideal for walking or cycling.
Activities: Temple visit Fee: JPY 1500 Time required: 1 hour
Kofukuji Temple was founded in 669 by the powerful Fujiwara clan. While most Japanese temples contain just a single nationally recognized treasure, Kofukuji contains four: a five-story pagoda, a three-story pagoda, the Hokuendo, and the Tokondo. Besides, it has received recognition by UNESCO as a World Heritage site. Two of the curiosities of the site are the octagonal halls, Hokuendo and Nanendo, created in wood by Buddhist monks. Although the mound-like stupa typically has a smooth, round shape, the unusual shape of these halls has made them a popular part of the temple.
Activities: Temple visit Fee: Varies (JPY 300-JPY 900) Time required: Minimum 1 hour
Kasuga Taisha is Nara’s most celebrated Shinto shrine. It was built in 768 by the Fujiwara clan, which dominated Japanese politics until the 11th century. Kasuga Taisha is best known for its hundreds of stone lanterns that are dedicated by famous historical figures. If you pay the entrance fee, you can enter the main shrine building, and see the lanterns up close. Just near the shrine entrance, Kasugataisha Shrine Museum (fee JPY 500) has an excellent collection of some of the most important words, suits of armour and other items dedicated to the deities since the 8th century.
Activities: Temple visit Fee: JPY 500 (inner area) Time required: Minimum 1 hour
Gangoji is an ancient Buddhist temple that is registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Although Gangoji Temple has been in its current location since 718 AD, it was the first temple in Japan, partly built in Asuka around 588 AD, before being relocated when Heijokyo became the new capital. The main attractions of the temple are found in the main hall. These include four mandalas, Buddhist works of art. The largest of these pieces features scenes of paradise with children on lotus flowers and treasure trees. Next to the mandala is a large Sanskrit letter representing the letter "A" in front of which visitors are encouraged to meditate.
Activities: Temple visit Fee: JPY 500 Time required: 45 minutes
Built in a Chinese style around 680, Yakushiji Temple was constructed by Emperor Tenmu in the late 7th century for the recovery of the emperor's sick wife. One of Japan's oldest temples, Yakushiji has a strictly symmetric layout, with the main hall and lecture hall standing on a central axis, flanked by two pagodas. Its historical and architectural significance has earned it World Heritage status. The main hall is comparable to a cathedral in size and impact, housing a Yakushi Nyorai (Buddha of healing) seated on a stand decorated with various motifs from the Silk Road. (Image via Japan Guide) Activities: Temple visit Fee: JPY 1100 Time required: 45 minutes-1 hour
Toshodaiji was founded by Ganjin, a Chinese priest who was invited to Japan by the emperor to train priests and improve Japanese Buddhism. Most of the buildings have been declared World Heritage Monuments, due to their age and unique architectural styles. The whole complex is beautifully landscaped, with tree-lined paths leading to lodgings for the temple monks. Follow the paths to a mossy forest and a small island housing the grave of the temple’s founder, the famous monk Ganjin. The grounds are especially beautiful in autumn and cool in summer.
Activities: Temple visit Fee: JPY 1000 Time required: 45 minutes
During most of the Nara Period (710-794), Nara served as the capital of Japan and was known as Heijo-kyo. Built on a grid in the style of Tang Chinese capital Xi’an, The Heijo Palace covered around 30 square kilometres, with the palace at the north end. It served as the site of the emperor's residence and government offices. After the capital was moved to Kyoto, Heijo Palace and the surrounding buildings were abandoned and fell into disrepair. For its great historical and cultural importance, the palace site is included as one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Nara. The palace buildings are free to enter, wheelchair/stroller accessible and contain some explanations in English. Activities: Temple visit Fee: None Time required: Minimum 1 hour
Mt. Kasuga Primeval Forest
Untouched for thousands of years, Mt. Kasuga Primeval Forest stretches out across an area of around half a kilometre, behind Kasuga Taisha Shrine. With logging and hunting prohibited since AD 841, this is a rare ecosystem with over 175 types of trees, wild animals, rare birds and insects. There are hiking courses in the forest that pass a waterfall and small caves carved with Buddha figures. You can climb up Mt Wakakusa for spectacular views over the city. It is also possible to drive along the Nara Okuyama Driveway which snakes across Mt Wakakusa and looks out over the forest expanse. (Image via Visit Nara)
Activities: Hiking, Photo stop Fee: None Time required: Minimum 1.5 hour – 2 hours
Stretching over about eight square kilometres, Nara Park encompasses major sites like Todaiji Temple, Kohfukuji Temple and Kasuga Taisha Shrine, along with museums and almost 1,400 deer. The approach to Todaiji Temple is lined with cafes and souvenir stores, as well as rickshaws (jinrikisha). Considered the messengers of the gods, Nara's deers have become a symbol of the city and have even been designated as a natural treasure. Deer crackers are for sale around the park, and some deer have learned to bow to visitors to ask to be fed. The park itself offers pleasant strolling paths with plum and cherry blossoms in the spring and beautiful multi-coloured leaves in the autumn. Activities: Park visit Fee: None Time required: Minimum 1 hour
Literally “Nara Town,” Naramachi is the former merchant district of Nara, where several traditional residential buildings and warehouses are preserved and open to the public. Boutiques, shops, cafes, restaurants and a few museums now line the district’s narrow lanes. (Image via Japan Hoppers)
Located in Yoshino, Nara, Ominesanji Temple belongs to the Shugendo sect of Buddhism who rigorously practised their faith by isolating themselves in the mountains. It was built on top of Mt. Ominesan which located 1700 m high. The temple is a part of Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range of the UNESCO World Heritage. Starting from the Heian Period until now, women are prohibiting from entering the temple. It is the most sacred place for Shugendo followers. Sometimes, you may hear the sound of the conch and spot a monk conducting his religious practices.