Japan is a country with rich history and Nara definitely takes an important place in that history. Nara used to be the capital of Japan from 710 to 784. During that period, in the prosperous city of Nara, Japanese culture started to emerge and Japanese political system began its development.
Six temples (five Buddhist and one Shinto Shrine), one Palace (the Heijō Imperial Palace) and a Primeval Forest are inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List with the collective name “Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara”. The entire site is located in the modern city of Nara, which is easily reached from Osaka or Kyoto with a short train ride. The railway station is a good point to start visiting the monuments, as five of them (Kōfuku-ji, Gangō-ji, Tōdai-ji, Kasuga-Taisha and Kasugayama Primeval Forest) are located on the east of the station and the other three (Heijō Palace, Yakushi-ji and Tōshōdai-ji) on the west. The monuments are spread on a very vast area that can’t be completely covered on foot but several city buses run around the city and reach every monument. Unfortunately the forest can be explored only superficially from the city because it’s very big and without a car it’s impossible to reach the main entrance. Nevertheless a walk in the initial part of the forest is almost a mystical experience.
Most of the monuments are located in the area of Nara Park, which is a pleasant 1.5-km stroll along Sanjo Dori from Nara JR station. Gangō-ji can be reached by making a right turn at the pond on Sanjo Dori and walking for about 600 m.
Kōfuku-ji is the first Buddhist temple found along the way, at the entrance of the Park. It can be recognized by the five-storied pagoda.
Keep walking along Sanjo Dori will eventually lead to the main path of the park. The park is beautiful with its museums, sakura trees, ponds, meadows and hundreds of deer.
Something that almost everyone does is to buy cookies and feed the deer. I obviously did that too. I found the deer cute and funny but other people told me that they’re naughty and greedy, they’ll come next to you and inspect your pockets for cookies. I guess the truth is in the middle.
The most recognizable temple in Nara Park is doubtlessly the massive Tōdai-ji, in the northern section of the park. To reach Tōdai-ji there’s a path that goes north from the centre of the park through the Nandaimon, the Great Southern Gate.
The main pavilion of Tōdai-ji is the Daibutsuden (Great Buddha Hall) that houses the Daibutsu, a massive statue of Buddha sitting between two smaller golden statues and others wooden statues and artifacts.
The south-eastern corner of Nara Park is where Kasugayama Primeval Forest begins. The beautiful path through the forest is lined traditional Japanese stone lanterns and it leads to what is my favourite place in Nara: Kasuga-Taisha Shinto Shrine. The path keeps going from the shrine deep into the forest.
The shrine is completely immersed in the forest and it’s painted in the typical bright orange of many other shrines around Japan. It wasn’t as crowded as the other temples, as this one is isolated from the others. I loved the peace of the place. There was some sort of ceremony in traditional dressed going on when I was there. I tried to ask around but nobody was able to explain what it was, it might just have been a traditional wedding, but I still ignore it.
The Heijō Palace was the residence of the emperor when Nara was the capital of Japan. After the decline of Nara, when the capital was moved, the palace burned a few times, ended up disappearing, and was built over for agriculture. It was indeed protected for a long period under rice paddies that preserved the authenticity of the building. Unfortunately, nowadays not much is left to see. Some parts have been rebuilt, others are still underground and the only structures that are on the site now are some platforms were the pavilions stood, the remains of a garden and the reconstructed gates and Great Hall of State.
Just outside Nara Park there are a few Japanese gardens that are free to visit. I visited Yoshikien Garden and it was a good way to spend some very quiet time by myself.
I didn’t have a chance to visit Yakushi-ji and Tōshōdai-ji because I spent too long admiring the temples in the park and Kasuga-Taisha shinto shrine and the weather was getting too bad to be outside.
Reasons for being inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List
Nara Monuments are an incredible testimony of Japanese architecture and urban planning. These monuments are an outstanding example of the early development of Japanese culture and the temples have been continuously open since the construction. The restoration of the buildings are still carried out maintaining original design, materials and construction techniques. Everything that needs to be replaced is still done by using the same materials and techniques that were originally used by the first builders. The Kasuga-taisha is routinely rebuilt according to the tradition. I was amazed by the state of conservation of these temples that were built in the early 8th century.
What is really amazing is the preservation of the Kasugayama Primeval Forest that, since 841, is protected as sacred forest and therefore no hunting and tree-felling is permitted. This means that the forest still feels exactly like it was over 1000 years ago.
How long is long enough?
Despite its size, Nara Park can be covered on foot and it’s a great place to spend a few hours immersed in nature, history and enjoy the company of the numerous deer that populate the park. The Primeval Forest can be entered from Nara Park but with a car it’s possible to reach the main entrance of the Primeval Forest easily, and that would make it much easier to hike to interesting sights, such as the rock carvings, too far to get to on foot from the park.
If the plan includes to visit the remains of the Palace and the two temples on the west of the city, more time is needed as they are a bit far from the railway station, although they can be reached quite easily with public transport.
The day I spent in Nara was fantastic. The peace of the park, the wonderful temples, the nature that surrounds you all the time and the mystical aura of the forest made my day unforgettable. It is true that Japan is a country that offers so much to visitors, so many different choices; but Nara shouldn’t be missed. If you have a spare day when in Osaka or Kyoto, Nara would be the place to go. If you don’t have a spare day, find it! Jump on a train and visit the Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara.