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.

Brief history of Nara

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.

Nara’s 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.

Kasuga Taisha

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.

Nara-kōen

The most pleasant route into Nara-kōen (奈良公園) is along Sanjō-dōri, which cuts across the central district and brings you out near Sarusawa-ike (猿沢池) with the Five-Storey Pagoda rising from the trees to your left. The pagoda belongs to Kōfuku-ji (興福寺), which in the eighth century was one of Nara’s great temples. Founded in 669 AD by a member of the Fujiwara clan, it was moved to its present location when Nara became the new capital in 710.

The prime draw here is the fine collection of Buddhist statues contained in the Tōkon-dō (東金堂) and the Kokuhōkan (国宝館). The Tōkon-dō, a fifteenth-century hall to the north of the Five-Storey Pagoda, is dominated by a large image of Yakushi Nyorai, the Buddha of Healing. He’s flanked by three Bodhisattvas, the Four Heavenly Kings and the Twelve Heavenly Generals, all beady-eyed guardians of the faith, some of which date from the eighth century. Perhaps the most interesting statue, though, is the seated figure of Yuima Koji to the left of Yakushi Nyorai; depicting an ordinary mortal rather than a celestial being, it’s a touchingly realistic portrait.

The modern Kokuhōkan is a veritable treasure-trove of early Buddhist statues. The most famous image is the standing figure of Ashura, one of Buddha’s eight protectors, instantly recognizable from his three red-tinted heads and six spindly arms. Look out, too, for his companion Karura (Garuda) with his beaked head. Though they’re not all on display at the same time, these eight protectors are considered to be the finest dry-lacquer images of the Nara period. The large bronze Buddha head, with its fine, crisp features, comes from an even earlier period. Apart from a crumpled left ear, the head is in remarkably good condition considering that the original statue was stolen from another temple by Kōfuku-ji’s warrior priests sometime during the Heian period (794–1185). Then, after a fire destroyed its body, the head was buried beneath the replacement Buddha, only to be rediscovered in 1937 during renovation work.

Nara-kōen’s deer

The large, grassy areas of the park are kept trim by more than a thousand semi-wild deer. They were originally regarded as divine messengers of one of Kasuga-jinja’s Shinto gods, and anyone who killed a deer was liable to be dispatched shortly after.

During World War II their numbers dwindled to just seventy, but now they’re back with a vengeance – which can make picnicking difficult and presents something of a hazard to young children; try to avoid areas where vendors sell special sembei (crackers) for feeding the deer.

Around Nara

Even before Nara was founded, the surrounding plains were sprinkled with burial mounds, palaces and temples. A few of these still survive, of which the most remarkable is Hōryū-ji, an historic temple about 10km southwest of Nara in Ikaruga district, which also includes the Chūgū-ji nunnery. Closer to Nara, the two temples of Nishinokyō district, Yakushi-ji and Tōshōdai-ji, continue the story of the transition from Chinese to Japanese art and architecture. The route described below starts at Hōryū-ji and then works back towards Nara. All of these temples are served by the same buses (routes #52 and #97) from Nara’s JR and Kintetsu stations.

Hōryū-ji

As you walk round the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Hōryū-ji (法隆寺), completed in 607 AD, it’s worth bearing in mind that Buddhism had only really got going in Japan some fifty years earlier. The confident scale of Hōryū-ji and its superb array of Buddhist statues amply illustrate how quickly this imported faith took hold. One of its strongest proponents was Prince Shōtoku (574–622), the then-regent, who founded Hōryū-ji in accordance with the dying wish of his father, Emperor Yōmei. Though the complex burnt down in 670, it was soon rebuilt, making this Japan’s oldest-surviving Buddhist temple.

The main approach to Hōryū-ji is from the south, which takes you past the helpful information centre (). Walk north from here along a wide, tree-lined avenue to Nandai-mon (Great South Gate), which marks the outer enclosure. Inside lies a second, walled compound known as the Sai-in Garan, or Western Precinct. Within the Sai-in Garan’s cloister-gallery, the Five-Storey Pagoda will inevitably catch your eye first. This is Japan’s oldest five-tier pagoda, and inside you can see the early eighth-century clay images of Buddha entering nirvana. However, it’s actually the right-hand building, the Kon-dō (Golden Hall), which is Hōryū-ji’s star attraction. This is the world’s oldest wooden structure, dating from the late seventh century, and although it’s not very large, the building’s multi-layered roofs and sweeping eaves are extremely striking.

Entering the Kon-dō’s east door, you’re greeted by a bronze image of Shaka Nyorai (Historical Buddha) flanked by two Bodhisattvas still bearing a few touches of original gold leaf that they were once covered in; this Shaka triad was cast in 623 AD in memory of Prince Shōtoku, who died the previous year. To its right stands Yakushi Nyorai, the Buddha of Healing, to which Hōryū-ji was dedicated, and to the left a twelfth-century Amida Buddha commemorating the Prince’s mother.

Exiting the Sai-in compound, walk east past two long, narrow halls, to the Daihōzō-den (Gallery of Temple Treasures), which houses Hōryū-ji’s priceless temple treasures in two halls. Look out for the bronze Yume-chigae Kannon. This “Dream-Changing” Kannon is credited with turning bad dreams into good, and has a soft, secretive smile. Connecting the two museum halls is the Kudara Kannon Dōi, which houses the wooden Kudara Kannon statue, thought to date from the seventh century. Nothing is known about this unusually tall, willowy figure, but it has long been recognized as one of the finest Buddhist works of art in Japan.

The Hidden Buddha of Hōryū-ji

Tō-in Garan is the eastern precinct of Hōryū-ji, which was added in 739. At its centrepiece is the octagonal Yume-dono (Hall of Dreams), with its magnificent statue, the Kuze Kannon. Until the late nineteenth century, this gilded wooden figure, said to be the same height as Prince Shōtoku (perhaps even modelled on him in the early seventh century), was a hibutsu, a hidden image, which no one had seen for centuries. Somewhat surprisingly, it was an American art historian, Ernest Fenellosa, who in the 1880s was given permission by the Meiji government, against the wishes of the temple, to unwrap the Kannon from the bundle of white cloth in which it had been kept. He revealed a dazzling statue in an almost perfect state of repair, carrying a sacred jewel and wearing an elaborate crown, with the famous enigmatic smile of the Kon-dō’s Shaka Nyorai on its youthful lips. Unfortunately, the Kannon is still kept hidden for most of the year, except for brief spells in spring and autumn (April 11–May 15 & Oct 22–Nov 22).

Tōshōdai-ji

The weathered, wooden halls in Tōshōdai-ji's (唐招提寺) shady compound are superb examples of late eighth-century architecture. The temple was founded in 759 by the eminent Chinese monk Ganjin – he of Nara’s Kaidan-in – when he was granted permission to move from the city to somewhere more peaceful.

The first thing you’ll see on entering the south gate is the stately Chinese-style Kon-dō (main Hall), which has recently been restored. Craftsmen who accompanied Ganjin from the mainland are responsible for the three superb dry-lacquer statues displayed here. The Kō-dō (Lecture Hall) behind the Kon-dō also dates from the late eighth century, and is more Japanese in styling. During the Nara period, this hall was a major centre of learning and religious training. On the compound’s east side is the concrete Shin-Hōzō, where, each spring and autumn, Tōshōdai-ji’s treasures go on display. Again, these are mostly statues, of which the most celebrated is a headless Buddha known as the “Venus of the Orient”. Just once a year – on June 6, the anniversary of Ganjin’s death – the doors of the Miei-dō (Founder’s Hall), in the northern section of the compound, are opened to reveal a lacquered image which was carved just before he died in 763 at the grand age of 76. He’s buried next door, in the far northeast corner of the compound, in a simple grave within a clay-walled enclosure.

Yakushi-ji

Six kilometres northwest of Hōryū-ji, the Nishinokyō area is home to two great temples that are again famed for their age and wealth of statuary – Yakushi-ji and Tōshōdai-ji.

The older of the pair is southerly Yakushi-ji (薬師寺). Emperor Tenmu first ordered its construction sometime around 680 AD when his wife was seriously ill. Although she recovered, Tenmu himself died eight years later, leaving the empress to dedicate Yakushi-ji herself in 697. Over the centuries, fires have destroyed all but one of the original buildings, though the statues themselves have fared better.

The only building of historical note in Yakushi-ji’s inner compound is the three-storey East Pagoda, which was famously described as “frozen music” by Ernest Fenellosa. He was referring to the rhythmical progression of the smaller double roofs that punctuate the pagoda’s upward flow. It’s the sole surviving remnant of the original temple and contrasts strongly with the spanking red lacquer of the new West Pagoda, the Daikō-do (Great Lecture Hall) and the Kon-dō (Golden Hall), all of which have been rebuilt during the last thirty years. However, inside the Kon-dō the temple’s original seventh-century bronze Yakushi triad sits unperturbed. Past fires have removed most of the gold and given the statues a rich black sheen, but otherwise they are in remarkably fine condition.

Continuing through the outer compound you come to a long, low wooden hall on your left, the Tōin-dō. Rebuilt around 1285, the hall houses a bronze image of Shō-Kannon, an incarnation of the goddess of mercy, which dates from the early Nara period. This graceful, erect statue, framed against a golden aureole, shows distinctly Indian influences in its diaphanous robes, double necklace and strands of hair falling over its shoulders.

The last building, in the compound’s northeast corner, is the Daihōzō-den, a modern treasure hall. It’s only open for three short periods each year, and during two of those periods a rare, Nara-period painting of Kissho-ten, the Buddhist goddess of peace, happiness and beauty, is the prime attraction. She is portrayed as a voluptuous figure with cherry-red, butterfly lips, and dressed in an intricately patterned fabric whose colours are still remarkably clear.

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