The former imperial capitals of KYOTO and NARA are home to a sublime collection of temples, palaces, shrines and gardens. Both cities are deeply revered by the Japanese for their imperial history and renowned for their highly developed traditional arts and centuries-old festivals. Yet each has its own distinct personality. Kyoto is notoriously exclusive, whereas Nara has a more relaxed dignity; as a result, the two cities complement each other well – not least because in Nara you can see the foundations of traditional Japanese culture, which reached its zenith in Kyoto.
Until Emporer Meji decamped for the bright lights of Tokyo in 1868, Kyoto was Japan’s imperial capital, and despite modern trappings the city still represents a more traditional version of the country than the current capital. Kyoto maintains its reputation for cultural finesse – with its cuisine and traditional arts and crafts – and continues to demonstrate its ability to fuse tradition with contemporary innovation. It’s a delight to explore the exquisite temples and gardens, as well as contemporary designer shops and stylish cafés. It’s also rewarding to spend at least a day in the surrounding districts; meander through rice fields in Ohara, tea fields in Uji or view the city from atop Hiei-zan, where the temples of Enryaku-ji are nestled in a cedar forest.
Before Kyoto even existed, the monks of Nara were busily erecting their great Buddhist monuments under the patronage of an earlier group of princes and nobles. In 2010, this relaxed, appealing town celebrated the thirteen-hundredth anniversary of Heijō-kyō, the site close to the centre of modern-day Nara city, where Japan’s first permanent capital was founded in the early eighth century. A surprising number of buildings survive – notably the great Tōdai-ji with its colossal bronze Buddha – but Nara’s real glory lies in its wealth of statues. Nowhere is this more evident than at the nearby temple complex of Hōryū-ji, a treasure-trove of early Japanese art.