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.Read More
For many people Nara is synonymous with Tōdai-ji (東大寺). This great temple was founded in 745 by Emperor Shōmu, ostensibly to ward off the terrible epidemics that regularly swept the nation, but also as a means of cementing imperial power. In doing so he nearly bankrupted his young nation, but the political message came across loud and clear; soon an extensive network of sub-temples spread throughout the provinces, where they played an important role in local administration. It took more than fifteen years to complete Tōdai-ji, which isn’t surprising when you learn that the main hall is still the world’s largest wooden building. Even so, the present structure (last rebuilt in 1709) is only two-thirds the size of the original. Avoid visiting Tōdai-ji at weekends, especially during the spring and autumn, the two peak times for visiting Nara, when the temple is overrun with thousands of tourists and school groups.
The main entrance to Tōdai-ji lies through the suitably impressive Nandai-mon (南大門), or Great Southern Gate. Rebuilt in the thirteenth century, it shelters two wonderfully expressive guardian gods (Niō), each over 7m tall. Beyond, you begin to see the horned, sweeping roof of the Daibutsu-den, the Great Buddha Hall (大仏殿), which houses Japan’s largest bronze statue. A 15m-tall blackened figure on a lotus throne, the great Buddha (Daibutsu) seems to strain at the very walls of the building. It depicts Rushana (later known as Dainichi Nyorai), the Cosmic Buddha who presides over all levels of the Buddhist universe, and was a phenomenal achievement for the time. Not surprisingly, several attempts at casting the Buddha failed, but finally in 752 the gilded statue was officially dedicated by symbolically “opening” its eyes. To achieve this, an Indian priest stood on a special platform and “painted” the eyes with a huge brush, from which coloured strings trailed down to the assembled dignitaries, enabling them to participate in the ceremony. Not only were there hundreds of local monks present, but also ambassadors from China, India and further afield, bearing an amazing array of gifts, many of which have been preserved in the Shōsō-in treasury – as has the original paintbrush.
The Buddha has had a rough time of it since then. As early as the ninth century an earthquake toppled his head, then it and his right hand melted in a fire in 1180 and again in 1567. As a result, only tiny fragments of the original statue remain intact, the rest being made up of patchwork parts put together over the centuries. Nonetheless, the remodelled giant is definitely large, and it’s hard not to be impressed by the technological triumph involved in re-creating it. As you walk round the hall, don’t be surprised to see people trying to squeeze through a hole in one of the rear supporting pillars – success apparently reserves you a corner of paradise.
Walk west from the Daibutsu-den compound and you’ll find the more modest Kaidan-in (戒壇院), which was established in 754 as Japan’s first, and foremost, ordination hall. It was founded by a Chinese high priest, Ganjin, who Emperor Shōmu hoped would instil some discipline into the rapidly expanding Buddhist priesthood. He had to be patient, however; poor Ganjin’s ship took six attempts to arrive here, by which time the priest was 67 years old and completely blind. His ordination hall was rebuilt in the Edo period, but the statues inside include eighth-century representations of the Four Heavenly Kings (Shi-Tennō), crafted in clay.
Kasuga Taisha (春日大社; Kasuga Grand Shrine) was founded in 768 as the tutelary shrine of the Fujiwara family and, for a while, held an important place in Shinto worship; indeed, the emperor still today sends a messenger here to participate in shrine rituals. The four sanctuaries are just visible in the inner compound, while the thousand beautifully crafted bronze lanterns hanging round the outer eaves are easier to admire. Donated over the years by supplicants, they bear intricate designs of deer, wisteria blooms, leaves or geometric patterns. The best time to see them is when they are lit up twice a year for the Mantoro (“Ten-thousand lantern”) festivals – on February 3 marking setsubun, the beginning of spring, and during Obon, the festival of souls, in mid-August (Aug 14–15) for the Chugen Mantoro festival. The bronze lanterns and the nearly two thousand stone lanterns, which line the path leading up to the shrine, are lit at dusk. Just before the entrance to the inner shrine is the Kasuga Taisha Shin-en garden (春日大社神苑 萬葉植物園), especially charming in early May when the dozens of varieties of wisteria are in bloom. The garden is also a living museum of over nine hundred flowers, herbs and other plants mentioned in the verses of the Manyōshū (“Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves”) poetry anthology, compiled in the Nara and early Heian periods.
Festivals and annual events
Festivals and annual events
Several of Nara’s festivals have been celebrated for well over a thousand years. Many of these are dignified court dances, though the fire rituals are more lively affairs. In spring and autumn the New Public Hall in Nara-kōen stages a series of nō dramas, while the biggest cultural event of the year is undoubtedly the autumn exhibition of Shōsō-in treasures at the National Museum.
January 15 Yama-yaki
(Grass-burning festival). On a winter evening at 6pm, priests from Kōfuku-ji set fire to the grass on Wakakusa-yama – supervised by a few hundred firemen. The festival commemorates the settlement of a boundary dispute between Nara’s warrior monks.
February 3 Mantoro Lantern Festival
To mark setsubun, the beginning of spring, three thousand stone and bronze lanterns are lit at Kasuga Taisha (from 6pm).
March 1–14 O-Taimatsu and O-Mizutori
(Torch lighting and water drawing). A 1200-year-old ceremony that commemorates a priest’s dream about Kannon drawing water from a holy well. The climax is on the night of March 13 when, at around 6.30pm, priests on the second-floor veranda light huge torches and scatter sparks over the assembled crowds to protect them from evil spirits. At 2am the priests collect water from the well, after which they whirl more lit flares round in a frenzied dance.
May 11–12 Takigi Nō
Outdoor performances of nō dramas by firelight at Kōfuku-ji.
August 14–15 Chugen Mantoro
To celebrate Obon, the festival of souls, Kasuga Taisha’s lanterns are spectacularly lit.
September Uneme Matsuri
On the night of the harvest moon, this festival takes place at the Sarusawa-ike Pond as a dedication to Uneme, a court lady who drowned herself here after losing the favour of the emperor. At around 7pm two dragon-bowed boats bearing costumed participants and gagaku musicians commemorate the lady’s death in multicoloured splendour. The festival lasts until 9.30pm.
Early to mid-October Shika-no-Tsunokiri
(Antler cutting). This is the season when the deer in Nara-kōen are wrestled to the ground and have their antlers sawn off by Shinto priests. It all takes place in the Roku-en deer pen, near Kasuga Taisha. Check locally for exact dates.
December 15–18 On-matsuri
At around midday a grand costume parade sets off from the prefectural offices to Kasuga Wakamiya-jinja, stopping on the way for various ceremonies. It ends with outdoor performances of nō and courtly dances.