Before Kyoto became the capital of Japan in 794 AD, this honour was held by NARA (奈良), a town some 35km further south in an area that is regarded as the birthplace of Japanese civilization. During this period, particularly the seventh and eighth centuries, Buddhism became firmly established within Japan under the patronage of court nobles, who sponsored magnificent temples and works of art, many of which have survived to this day. Fortunately, history subsequently left Nara largely to its own devices and it remains today a relaxed, attractive place set against a backdrop of wooded hills. Its greatest draw is undoubtedly the monumental bronze Buddha of Tōdai-ji, while Kōfuku-ji and several of the smaller temples boast outstanding collections of Buddhist statuary. However, even these are outclassed by the images housed in Hōryū-ji, a temple to the southwest of Nara, which also claims the world’s oldest wooden building. The nearby temples of Yakushi-ji and Tōshōdai-ji contain yet more early masterpieces of Japanese art and architecture.
Nara has the added attraction of packing all these sights into a fairly compact space. The central area is easily explored on foot, and can just about be covered in a long day, with the more distant temples fitting into a second day’s outing. Many people visit Nara on a day-trip from Kyoto, but it more than deserves an overnight stop, not least to enjoy it once the crowds have gone. If at all possible, try to avoid Nara on Sundays and holidays.
More a large town than a city, Nara is an enjoyable place to explore. The grid street system is well signposted in English, and the main sights are all gathered on the city’s eastern edge in the green expanse of Nara-kōen. The route outlined below starts with the most important temples, Kōfuku-ji and Tōdai-ji, before ambling south along the eastern hills to Nara’s holiest shrine, Kasuga Taisha, and splendid displays of Buddhist statuary in two historic temples, Sangatsu-dō and Shin-Yakushi-ji. With an extra hour or two to spare, it’s worth wandering the streets of southerly Nara-machi, a traditional merchants’ quarter where some attractive old shophouses have been converted into museums and craft shops.
During the fifth and sixth centuries a sophisticated culture evolved in the plains east of Ōsaka, an area known as Yamato. Close contact between Japan, Korea and China saw the introduction of Chinese script, technology and the Buddhist religion, as well as Chinese ideas on law and administration. Under these influences, the regent Prince Shōtoku (574–622) established a strictly hierarchical system of government. However, he’s probably best remembered as a devout Buddhist who founded numerous temples, among them the great Hōryū-ji. Though Shōtoku’s successors continued the process of centralization, they were hampered by the practice of relocating the court after each emperor died, in line with purification rites. In 710 AD, therefore, it was decided to establish a permanent capital modelled on China’s imperial city, Chang’an (today’s Xi’an). The name chosen for this new city was Heijō-kyō, “Citadel of Peace”, today known as Nara. In fact, Heijō-kyō lasted little more than seventy years, but it was a glorious period in which Japanese culture began to take shape. A frenzy of building and artistic creativity during this period culminated in the unveiling of the great bronze Buddha in Tōdai-ji temple by Emperor Shōmu in 752 AD. But beneath the surface things were starting to unravel. As the temples became increasingly powerful, so the monks began to dabble in politics, until one, Dōkyō, seduced a former empress and tried to seize the throne in 769. In an attempt to escape such shenanigans Emperor Kammu decided to move the court out of Nara in 784, and eventually founded Kyoto.