Todaiji guardian
NARA (30 minutes by train from Osaka and Kyoto) was once the capital of Japan and is even older than Kyoto. When Nara was at its peak, 1,200 years ago, it was spread out over a much larger area than it is today. Many of the magnificent palaces and temples have disappeared, but some structures remain in their original scenic surroundings and are wonderfully preserved as museums.

In 1998, eight Nara sights were declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Todaiji Temple, Kofukuji Temple, Kasuga Taisha Shrine, the virgin Kasusayama Forest, Gangoji Temple, Yakushiji Temple, Toshodaiji Temple and the Heijokyu ruins. area. Todaiji Temple, Kofukuji Temple and Kasuga Taisha Shrine are in 502-hectare Nara Park.

Modern Nara is a typical small Japanese city with about 350,000 people. The nice thing about Nara, compared to Kyoto, is that the main places of interest are fairly concentrated and can easily be reached by train and explored on foot and have some distance between them and urban Nara. In the rural areas outside of Nara city are a number of ancient tombs, ruins and other historical relics. Many of these can be reached by train from Nara Station.

History of Nara

Nara was capital of Japan from A.D. 710 to 784. Modeled after the Chinese capital Xian, it was the source of Japan's earliest art and literature and the locale for many early Japanese historical events and myths. Buddhism first flourished here and became such as strong political force, the emperors felt threatened and moved the capital to Kyoto. Of the eight empresses that have ruled Japan, six reigned during the Nara period.

Nara era clothes
The Nara Period (A.D. 710-794) began with the completion of initial construction of Heijo (Nara), Japan's first true capital and first true city, in 710. Before Nara was made the capital the capital was changed with each new emperor so that he would not jinxed by the death of his predecessor.

In 710, when the capital of Japan was moved 18.4 kilometer from Fujiwara-kyo to present-day Nara city, a unprecedented construction boom ensued. The temples Yakushji, Asuakdera (now Gangoji) and Daikandaiji (now Daianji) were moved to the new sites and Kofukiji was built by Fujiwara Fuhito, the nobleman who orchestrated the move to Nara.

The Imperial family resided in Heijo and gradually extended their authority over the country. Early governments at Nara, and later Kyoto, were modeled after the Chinese imperial government, with a civil service system, and a court and nobles underneath the emperor. Initially Buddhism was promoted, especially by Emperor Shomu, who ordered the construction of Todaiji Temple and Daibutsi (Great Buddha) in Nara, and issued a decree for the construction of state Buddhist temples in each province.

Emperor Shomu was deeply religious. He believed that he could overcome the epidemics and unrest that occurred during his reign with the power of The Buddha. Buddhists monks played a prominent role in the imperial administration. They served as engineers helping to build roads, bridges and irrigation systems and worked as clerks and scribes. They instructed people to build reservoirs as a countermeasure against famine and advised people how to build houses and gave advice on medicines. In return the imperial court helped Buddhism spread to provinces by decreeing that each should establish a monastery for at least 20 monks. The Kegon (Huayen in Chinese) sect was the dominant sect.

About 100,000 people are thought to have lived in Nara, with the royal family and nobles numbering about 100. The grounds of the one-kilometer-square Heijo Palace was located in the north. It was encircled by a roofed earthen wall. Inside were the Imperial domiciles, business quarters, gardens and other areas. Some of the buildings were built in a Chinese style. Nara city itself was modeled after Changan (Xian), the capital of Tang Dynasty China. The city was divided into western capital and eastern capital, which together measured 4.9 kilometers from north to south and 4.3 kilometers from east to west. Geyoko, an extension of the eastern side of the eastern capital was 2.1 kilometers from north to south and 1.6 kilometers from east to west.

The Nara period was a golden age for Japanese sculpture. Masterpiece from this period include the Yakushi Triad, which can be viewed at Yakushi Temple in southern Nara and the Ganjin statue at Nara's Toshodaiji Temple. Outstanding religious cave murals were also produced in these period.The Nara period ended when the Emperor moved the capital to several location and finally Kyoto to diffuse the power of the Buddhist elite. The Japanese imperial family viewed the sometimes meddlesome Buddhist clergy as a threat. Heijo-kyo (Nara) was Japan’s first full fledged capital. To celebrate the 1,300 anniversary of Nara in 2010 Heijo Palace was rebuilt.

See History, Religion...; Ancient History.


Nara Tourist Information

The Nara City Tourist Center (☎ 0742-22-3900). is located near JR Nara Station and Kintensu-Nara Station. This office has a friendly, helpful staff and lots of brochures, guides and maps to give away. They can also arrange free guided tours in English and other languages. There are smaller tourist information offices at JR Nara Station and Kintensu-Nara Station. The TIC office in Kyoto can also supply you with information about Nara.

Websites:Nara Prefecture site ;Nara City site Map: Japan National Tourism Organization JNTO ;Nara City site Hotel Websites: Nara Prefecture site ; Nara City site ; Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: Nara is accessible by air via Kansai or Osaka airports. It is not on the main shinkansen line. The closets shinkansen station is about 20 minutes away in Kyoto. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Nara Park

Nara Park (10 minute walk from Nara Station) is a fine, open green space with forests and lawns and some of Japan’s greatest historical buildings. Also known as Deer Park and Todaji Park, is home to the great Todaji Buddha and over 1,200 deer, who wander through the park and are tame enough to fed by hand by visitors.

The Nara deer have been designated as national natural treasures and referecnes to them have ben found in Japan’s oldest historical records the Kojiki .and Nohongi. In the evening they are called to a feeding area by the blowing of a trumpet. Tourists feed them shikaenbei (“discs of food”) that can be bought in the park. According to legend the deer are offspring of a sacred white deer from Kashima Shrine in Ibaraki Prefecture and are messengers of the gods.

The park was created in 1880 and designated a place of scenic beauty in 1922. Most of Nara's most famous temples and cultural relics are conveniently located in the park, which is flanked by a Wakakusa-yama Hill and Mt. Kasuga and measures two kilometers from north to south and four kilometers from east to west.

Most of the temples in Nara park are Buddhist structires whose designs are based on designs that came from India and Korea in the 8th century. The top of Wakakusa-yama Hill is covered in grass and offers wonderful views. There are numerous hiking trails from the park to the mountains on the east side of the park.

During the summer 11 designated spots in Nara, many of them in Nara Park, are illuminated from 6:00pm to 10:00pm. The walkway from the Nara Station to the park is lined with interesting shops, restaurants and street vendors. Website: Japan Guide

Temples and Shrines in Nara Park

Kokofuji pagoda in the 19th century
Kofukuji Temple (on the west side of Nara Park) contains a 170-foot-high, five-level pagoda that is reflected in Sarusawa Pond. Founded in 710 by the Fujiwara family and rebuilt seven times, it is regarded as one of the most photogenic sights in Japan.

The entire temple complex contains only about two dozen of the original 175 building that once stood here. The treasure house contains 20,000 objects, the most famous of which is the wooden statue of Ashura, carved in the 8th century. In 1998, Kofukuji Temple was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Kofukuji is regarded as the birthplace of Noh drama. I hosted Noh performances as far back as A.D. 869. Today the temple hosts two major noh events---Takigi O-noh in May and Toei-Noh in October. Both are held outdoors at night. Kofukuji was originally built in Kyoto in 669 before being moved to Nara in 710. Between the 10th and 12th centuries it was integrated with nearby Kasuga Shrine. The pagoda is said to have been built in 730 on the orders of Empress Komyo. The other a pagoda at Kofukuji, a three-story, 19-meter-high structure, was built in 1143. The 1.5-,meter-high statue of shura was made in 734. It is displayed in the Kokuhokan national treasure hall,

Many houses from the Edo period still stand in the Naramichi area on the south side of Sarusawa Pond in front of Kofukuji Temple. To win merit people release fish kept in captivity into the pond. Websites: Kofukuji site ; Yamasa ; UNESCO World Heritage site: UNESCO website

Kasuga Taishi
Kasuga Taisha Shrine (in Nara Park) is considered one the "Three Great Shinto Shrines in Japan." Built by Fuhito Fujiwara in 710 as the Fujiwara clans tutelary shrine, it contains a classic red inner sanctuary, a treasure house with relics and armor from the Heian and Kamakura Periods. About 3,000 lanterns---2,000 made of stone, the rest bronze---line the paths and hang from the trees were donated by the clan from the 11th century and then later by ordinary people as an expression of their faith. During Lantern Festivals on February 3rd and August 4th, the lanterns are lit, producing a wonderful glowing atmosphere.

Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998, Kasuga Taisha Shrine is rebuilt from scratch every 20 years like other important shrines in Japan such as the ones in Ise. Kasuga has been rebuilt 57 times. The shrine is surrounded a thick forest. The garden at the shrine contains 270 plants mentioned in the Manyo-shu , the oldest Japanese anthology of poetry. Next to each plant is a pillar with the corresponding poem from the Manyoshu.

Websites: Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Japan Guide ; UNESCO World Heritage site: UNESCO website

Shina-Yakushiji Temple (10 minute walk to the southwest from Kasuga Shrine) was founded by the Empress Komyo in 747 as an expression of thanks for the curing of her husband's eye disease. The Main Hall and several Buddhist statues housed here date back to the early 8th century and have been designated as National Treasures.

Todaiji Temple and Daibutsusan

Todaiji Temple (in Nara Park, 20 minutes by foot from Nara Station) was built in 741 by the Emperor Shomu to be the central temple of all provincial temples established in Japan. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998, and restored in the mid-1990s, it embraces several buildings and draws lots of school groups and tourists. Todaiji is the main temple of the Kegonshu sect of Buddhism, built under Emperor Shomu (701-756) in hopes of keeping Japan peaceful so he could devote himself to Buddhism, and rebuilt in 1692 and 1709.

Websites: Wikipedia Wikipedia UNESCO World Heritage site: UNESCO website

History of Todaiji Temple and Daibutsusan : The original main temple is said to have been even more spectacular than the one that exists now. The original was 86 meters wide, 29 meters wider than the current building, and the Buddha was covered in gold. Built in the style of a Chinese palace building, the main hall had enormous red columns along with a yellow ceiling, green window frames, white walls and a black tile roof. Two 90-meter-tall, seven-story pagodas stood at opposite ends of the from hall. Both were later destroyed.

According to Kanshu Tsutsui, the chief administrator of Todaji, to build such a large statue and buildings, workers had to dig down 2.5 meters over a 90 meters by 60 meter area---larger than a football field---to find firm ground. The concrete-like layers of clay, ballast and sand placed on the firm ground were similar that layers below the Great Wall of China. After completing the 2.5-meter-high platform craftsmen made a mold to cast the Buddha statue. After the casting was done then the columns were raised for the building. The platform as well was the statue from the knees down are filled with sand. These parts survived the fire that brought down the original buildings.

According to Todaji records 1.6 million people were employed to construct the original Daibutsu wood building and more than half million worked on gold plating the bronze statue. About 500 tons of copper and 8.5 tons of tin was used to cast the original Buddha and 440 kilograms of gold and 2.5 tons of mercury were used to plate the statue using a technique in which the gold was mixed with mercury at a ratio of 1 to 5 and placed on the statue and heated so the mercury evaporated away leaving the gold. The work was done relatively quickly so the construction could be completed in time for the 200th anniversary of the introduction of Buddhism to Japan in 752.

At the consecration ceremony, Korean, Southeast Asian and Chinese dances were performed and an India monk who lived in Tang-era China brushed ink into the Buddha’s eyes.

Nandaimon Gate (leading to Todaiji temple) houses two massive wooden statues of warrior gods. Known as Kongo Rikishi and regarded as two of the finest wooden sculptures in Japan, the statues were carved in the 13th century by the sculptors Unkei and Kaikei.. They are about 30 feet high and particularly impressive at night when the are beautifully illuminated.

Daibutsuden (within Todaiji Temple) is the world's largest wooden structure. Built to house the world's largest Buddha, it is a masterpiece of wooden architecture. Many of the criss-crossing beams are positioned without nails. In addition to the Buddha there are towering 30-foot-high wooden statues of warriors and gods.

One large wooden pillar contains a small hole large enough for some people to crawl through and is about the size of one of the Great Buddha’s nostrils. The pillar shows that the structure is imperfect and has room for improvement. It is said that those who crawl though it will receive enlightenment and have all their prayers answered.

Nearby is Kaidan-in Hall, which was once used for ordination ceremonies and contains clay images of the Four Heavenly Guardians; Sangatsu-do-Hall, the oldest building in the Todaiji Temple complex; and Nigatsu-do Hall. The two stone lions at the temples south gate are believed to have been made in China.

Daibutsusan (within Daibutsuden) is the world's largest bronze Buddha. Originally constructed between 735 and 749, the colossal sitting Buddha statue is 72 feet high, weighs over 550 tons and is covered with almost 300 pounds of gold.

The Buddha is a representation of the Cosmic Buddha, who gives rise to new worlds. Buddhists believe the statue emits divine light to the far corners of the universe and each lotus leaf it sits upon represents a separate universe. The Buddha is believed to have been built to pray for peace and bring relief to a people who had suffered years of drought, famine, political violence, earthquakes and smallpox. It was also intended, some say, to show off the power of Emperor Shomu, who is said to have wanted a Buddha large enough to bring good fortune to everyone. The Great Buddha was completed three years after his death.

The statue's sullen facial expression may have something to with the fact it lost its head and its feet in fires in the 12th and 18th century. The entire statue was rebuilt in the Edo period and is only two thirds the size of the original. During the annual cleaning event in August the giant Buddha statue is dusted by monks sitting on chairs suspended by ropes from the ceiling. The cleaning takes 2½ hours and is conducted b 210 monks, who wear white uniforms and begin their work after a ceremony to remove the statue’s soul to avoid any impurity to Buddha’s image.

Shosoin Treasury Repository and Nara Museum

Shosoin Treasury Repository (near Todaiji) once contained a priceless collection of art objects that are now shown at Nara National Museum in the fall. Built to respond to changing weather conditions, Shosoin looks somewhat like a log cabin and is a rebuilt version of the structure that stood here in the 8th century. The building rests on 40 wooden pillars. Inside are three separate warehouses that have two floors connected by a set of stairs. The roof is made up of triangular timber that expands during wet weather to protect the interior from rain and shrinks during hot, dry weather to allow ventilation.

The original repository was built in the Nara Period (710-794) and dates to the same period as the treasures it once held inside. The only one of its kind still in existence in Japan, it was built under Empress Komyo to honor husband Emperor Shomu (701-756) after he died, and survived the fire that destroyed Todaiji. The heart of the collection is more than 600 items she contributed at a memorial service 49 days after the Emperor’s death. The treasures once belonged to the Imperial Family but were turned over to the state after World War II.

Each year only a few items from the treasury are shown for a couple of in late October and early November. Many of the items are stored in wooden cases called karabitsu. The staff of restorers and repairmen can spend hours repairing a single piece of cloth. Every year in early October the Emperor visits the storehouse for an examination and inspection.

The items include the Odo no Gosu , a brass bowl with a pagoda-shaped lid used as an incense burner; the Midori Ruri no Junikyoku Chohai , a 12-lobed oblong cup of green glass with floral designs on surface that look like tulips; Summie no Dankyu bow , a toy designed to shoot balls instead of arrows; a wu-type musical instrument piece made of 17 small bamboo pipes set on a wooden receptacle with a pipe-like mouth piece with images of celestial children, birds in heaven and butterflies; and the Koge Bachiru no Shaku a red-stained ivory foot rule decorated with designs or animals, birds and flowers.

The Kujakumon Shishu no Ban is a Buddhist ritual banner embroidered with a peacock design that was displayed on the temple grounds during religious rituals. The banner is 81 centimeters long and 30 centimeters wide. It is believed to be have been made by court ladies but because there were no peacocks in Japan at the time it was made the design is thought to have come from abroad . Some of the cloth and textile pieces are in amazing condition considering how old they are.

musical instrument
kept in Shosoin
Among the objects from ancient Korea and Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-907) China are a wooly Kasen rug, covered with floral designs; the Mokuga Shitan no Kikyoku , a red sandalwood go board; Shichijo Shino Juhishoku no Kesa, a quilted priest’s robe made of seven strips of molted colors that was worn by Emperor Shomu; Saikaku no Nyoi , a stick made of rhinoceros horn decorated with ivory, crystals, pearls and lapis lazuli; and the Ruri no Tsubo , a lazurite jar with a funnel-shaped mouth with beautiful cobalt blue glass originally used as a spittoon.

Some regard Nara as the eastern most terminal and last stop of the Silk Road. Treasures brought on the Silk Road include reindeer antlers, a Persian brocade, an amber and mother-of-pearl inlaid mirror, an inlaid red sandalwood go board of Emperor Shomu. The surface of the go board is made of ivory. On the sides are images of camels and designs associated with Central Asia. The go stones are pieces of ivory died red and navy blue. Website: Shosoin site

Nara National Museum (in Nara Park) specialized in Buddhist art. In addition to the regular exhibit of Buddhist relics such as sculptures, paintings, applied arts, calligraphy and archeological objects there is a special exhibition in May. The priceless collection of art objects in Shosoin is shown at the Nara National Museum for two weeks from late October to early November. Website: Nara National Museum site

Isuien Garden (near the Neiraku Art Museum in Nara Park) has been designated a national scenic area. Covering 13,481 square meters, it is a unique combination of two promenade-style gardens with distinctly different characteristics. The landscape garden makes use of views of Wakakusa-yama Hill and Mt. Kasugain the background. Neiraku Art Museum specializes in Chinese bronzes and Korean bronzes and ceramics. You can eat lunch at a restaurant near the museum that overlooks the garden.

Nara Temples and Shrines Outside Nara Park

Toshodaiji Temple (about 8 kilometers west of Nara Park) is one the oldest surviving Buddhist structures in Japan. It was founded in 759 by Ganjin, the famous Tang Dynasty Chinese monk Jianzhen, who was known as Ganjin in Japan. The Ganjin statue at Toshodaiji Temple is regarded as a masterpiece from the golden age of Japanese sculpture.

In 1998, Toshodaiji Temple, was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The 1,200-year-old main hall was last repaired in 1898. A $32 million restoration of Kondo Hall and other buildings at Toshodaiji was completed in October 2009. Website: Japan Guide UNESCO World Heritage site: UNESCO website

Yakushiji Temple (near Toshodaiji Temple) is admired for its pagodas. The East Tower is a unique a 110-foot-high structure. It appears to have six levels but in reality only has three. It has retained it original form since the late 7th century. The Saito, or the West Tower, was lost to fire in the 16th century; its reconstruction was completed in April 1981.

Yakushiji was built, according to legend, in 680 under the orders of Tenmu to help cure his ailing wife. The temple was moved to its present location in 718. Many of the early buildings that were lost had Chinese Tang dynasty influences. Many things in the temple are dedicated to the great Chinese monk-explorer Xuan Zang (600-664). Some of his remains taken by Japanese soldiers from Majing, China in 1942 are kept in the temple.

In 1998, Yakushiji Temple was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The East hall contains the famous Sho-Kannon image. The Yakushi Triad, the Buddha Takushi flanked by Bodhisattvas of the sun and moon, dates from the 8th century and is regarded as a masterpiece from the Golden Age for Japanese sculpture. It is in the Kondo (main) hall. The two Bodhisattvas stand 3.2 meter tall, excluding their pedestals and weigh over two tons each. They are cast from bronze and have amazingly smooth finishes and twist at the waist, a sign of Indian influences. The 34-meter-tall east pagoda at Yakushiji in Nara began large-scale rennovation 2011. Websites: Japan Pages Japan Pages ; Photos ; UNESCO World Heritage site: UNESCO website Japan Guide

Other Temples and Shrines in Nara include Byakugoji Temple, Gangoji Temple, Hannyaju Temple, Jurin-in Temple, Akishinodera Temple, Dainanji Temple, Ryosenji Temple, and Saidajii Temple. In 1998, Gangoji Temple, Kasugayma Primal Forest and Heijokyo Palace Ruins were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Heijo Palace measures 1.3 kilometers from east to west and one kilometer from north to south. Much of it is open grassy space, used by people to relax and walk their dogs.

Gangoji began when Asukadera, the first true Buddhist Temple built in Japan, was moved to Nara by Soga no Umako (died 636), a leading figure in the Yamamoto Court. Gokurakubo Hall at Gangoji Temple is a national treasure. Some of the construction materials, including the roof tiles, date back to the Nara period. It receives few visitors and is a quiet place.

Yamato Koriyama (south of Nara) have been major center of goldfish cultivation for almost 300 years, About 80 million goldfish are raised here each year and shipped out all over Japan. The city host an annual Goldfish Convention and Goldfish Dipping Contest.

Image Sources: 1) 6) 7) 8) Ray Kinnane 2) MIT Education 3) JNTO Map 4) 9) 10) 11) 12) Nara City site 5) Visualizing Culture, MIT Education

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

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