1300 years ago Nara was the capital of Japan, and was the birthplace for much of Japan’s modern culture. Nara has some of the oldest temples and shrines in the world, spread over a small area so is well worth the short trip from Kyoto and Osaka.
Nara – A Quick History
Nara was established as the permanent capital of Japan from 710 to 794AD. At this stage Japan was heavily influenced by Chinese culture, and Nara was modelled on the contemporary Chinese capital of Chang’an. This new political stability allowed the Japanese to start developing their own culture; Nara soon became an important centre for literature, painting and architecture.
After the capital moved to Kyoto Nara remained as a local government seat, but was otherwise left alone. Nara has retained much of its original layout as a result and has escaped the worst of modern development.
Nara has two train stations – Nara Station to the west of the centre which is owned by JR, and the more central Kintetsu Nara Station which is privately owned. The quickest trains from Kyoto (30 mins) are on the private line, so be careful of this if you are planning to use your rail pass to travel. The JR express train takes 45 mins from Kyoto so is only a few minutes slower.
Trains also run from Osaka and to Kansai airport. The airport can also be reached by limo-bus, which takes around 90 mins.
Nara is well served by local buses most of which stop by the train stations.
Where to Stay
Nara can be seen in a day-trip from Kyoto or Osaka, but visitors with an interest in Japan’s Buddhist history should stay overnight for a more thorough visit.
Nara is fairly compact, so staying in the city centre is convenient for most visitors. Most places are within walking distance but bike hire or local buses can be used to get to some of the further away temples and shrines. Some of the ryokans provide free or discounted bike hire.
Must See Nara
This is the world’s largest wooden building – even more remarkable when you learn that the current building (rebuilt in 1709) is only two thirds the size of the original one constructed in 745AD. Inside is a huge 15m bronze Buddha. The achievement in casting such a massive statue in 752 without modern technology is astounding. Visit on a weekday to avoid the worst of the tour groups.
This large area of parkland to the east of the city centre links most of the main attractions and is a pleasant place for a stroll or a picnic. Tame deer roam the park, so avoid eating too close to them if you don’t want your lunch stolen. Inside the park is the Five-Storey Pagoda and Kofuku-ji temple with an extensive collection of Buddhist statues. The park also houses the Nara National Museum which has well organised exhibitions of Buddhist art with good information in English.
Just south of the city centre is the Nara-machi district, once home to wealthy merchants and traders. It’s now filled with traditional shops and craft stores, as well as small museums of local artifacts. One highlight is the Koshi-no-ie, a former merchant house which is now open to the public. The Edo-period house has a narrow frontage as houses were taxed by the amount of room they took up on the street. Visitors can view the public rooms at the front as well as the private rooms and courtyard garden to the rear.
This is Japan’s oldest Buddhist temple, and was built just 50 years after Buddhism had arrived in Japan. It’s located about 10km from the city centre, so hop on a 52 or 97 bus to get there. The pagoda and temple here are thought to be the oldest wooden buildings in the world. There are several notable Buddhist art works and sculptures here, which are regarded as some of the finest in Japan.
The main shinto shrine in Nara, Kasuga Taisha is located in the east of Nara-koen. The shrine is so important that the emperor sends a representative to participate on his behalf at rituals held here. The path to the shrine is lined with thousands of stone lanterns, and the shrine itself is bedecked with intricately decorated bronze lanterns. The shrine garden is particularly beautiful.