Surface area: 296,74 Km2
Telephone area code: 0742
Automotive symbols: 奈良
Situated to the south of Kyoto and to the west of Osaka, Nara is the ancient Japanese capital from the period which took its name (710 – 794 AD) prior to the removal of the capital to Kyoto.
The city of Nara also gave its name to the prefecture.
Prior to the construction of Nara, it was customary for the headquarters of the capital, or at least the court, to be moved upon the death of each emperor.
Nara was the first capital which lasted for a considerable period of time, prior to its removal to Kyoto, and it is thought that this was due to the court’s desire to distance itself from the strong influence of the powerful clergy at the temple of Nara rather than because of the actual tradition of moving the capital.
The official date of the introduction of Buddhism in Japan is 552, a time during which, the capital was Asuka, which is not far from Nara.
However, in reality, it is believed that Buddhism was already in existence in the country in earlier times.
In any event, the development of Nara is linked in two ways with that of Buddhism, therefore, it is obvious that the major tourist attractions would be the actual area where the temples are located, the truly effective centres of political and military power, at least until the unification of Japan by Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
Nara’s Buddhism was a religion that was closely linked to the nobility which provided huge sums of money for the construction of the temples, statues, icons and for the transcription and study of ancient texts.
The power that the temples of Nara had over the region did not diminish with the removal of the capital to Kyoto but continued until the end of the Meiji period.
The area of the temples at Nara has been designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site and is amongst the places that should be visited on a trip to Japan. Nara should definitely be included on the itinerary.
The distance between Kyoto and Nara is not far and the journey can be easily undertaken via public transport. The train from Kyoto to Nara takes about an hour.
Unlike Kyoto, the modern city does not encroach on the older part where the temples are located in Nara’s park and on the surrounding hills.
A whole day is not really sufficient for a proper visit to the numerous attractions, temples and museums that the city has to offer.
The most famous monument in Nara is one of the main cultural treasures of Japan and the daibustu, The Giant Buddha, is an absolute must see on a trip to Japan.
The largest bronze statue in Japan, it is located in the precincts of Todaiji (the great eastern temple).
Built between 745 and 752 as the main temple amongst all the Japanese Buddhist temples, it exemplified the vision of the Emperor Shomu, that is, of a centralized state based on Buddhism.
The work involved in creating this massive work and that of the colossal Buddha Vairocana, had a major impact on the state’s finances.
Numerous monks and lay people were actively involved in the fundraising for these two significant projects.
The work on the building of the statue and the building that would house it, the Daibutsuden, (the largest wooden construction in the world) seems to have employed and mobilized legions or craftsmen and artisans.
At the inauguration of the temple and the statue, which lasted for several days, there were 10,000 monks in attendance who had come not only from across Japan but also from China, India and Korea.
The Indian Buddhist monk and scholar Bodhisena officiated at the eye-opening ceremony of the statue.
Entry to the Todaiji area is through the Nandaimon Gate, the vast southern gate which was originally erected in the eighth century and then rebuilt again in the 12th century.
It has 19 metres high columns on the sides and inside the gate there are two terrifying statues measuring 8 metres who are the Buddha’s guardians. These are known as the Kongo Rikishi, who are traditionally on guard at the temple’s entrance
One of the statues is open-mouthed and the other has a closed mouth which is a representation of the symbolism of life and death in the Buddhist cosmos
Crossing over a large square, you will reach the Daibutsuden which is a 58 metres long wooden building that is 51 metres wide and 49 metres high in which the enormous statue of the Buddha sits. This is a bronze sculpture that measures 15 metres in height and weighs 437 tons.
The Daibustu is flanked by the statues of Nyorin Kannon (the Buddhist deity of compassion) and Kokuzo Bosatsu (the Buddhist deity of redemption).
Behind the Buddha on both the right and the left sides are two statues measuring 5.5 metres in height representing two of the protective deities of Buddhism.
Behind the Daibutsuden is the Shosoin, a building which was also erected in the eighth century.
It is here that the treasures of the Todaiji are preserved, lacquered wooden objects, silks, lacquers and papers, many of which belonged to the Emperor Shomu who had the temple built. Many of the objects are of Indian or Chinese provenance, a fact that demonstrates how close the connections were with the Buddhist community beyond the shores of Japan.
The Shosoin is considered to be the oldest museum in the world, but, due to the fragility of the objects in the collection, it is not possible to see the inside.
However, part of the collection is exhibited annually in Nara’s museum.
Japanese temples are nearly always “temple complexes, “made up of several different units of worship which included, prior to the restorations of the Meiji period, Shinto shrines which is why these are often referred to as Shinto-Buddhist complexes.
Apart from the vast temple complex of Todaiji, there are other temples such as the Sangatsudo in which interesting sculptures from the early years of the 8th century are preserved.
The Nigatsudo pagoda, which is also part of the Todaiji complex, is an elegant wooden building suspended on the hillside, from which you can enjoy breath-taking views of the sunset.
It is also the venue is which the ceremony of Omizutori is celebrated, a spectacular ritual with enormous firelit torches.
The other very important temple complex in Nara is Kofukuji.
Interlinked with the Fujiwara family, the clan with absolute power up until the Kamakura period, over time this acquired enormous powers from a military view point as well through hegemonizing the whole area of Yamato.
Inevitably it is the pagoda on 5 floors, Goju-no-to, which immediately catches the eye on the first glimpse of the temple complex.
With a height of 55 metres, it is the tallest in Japan, together with that of the Toji temple in Kyoto.
On the side is the Tokondo, (the Golden Pavilion) which has retained some interesting Buddhist sculptures.
Additional interesting Buddhist sculptures can be seen in the Kofukuji museum which is opposite the Tokondo.
The Nanendo Hall is a beautiful octagonal building which is also part of the Kofukuji complex in which you will find the impressive statue of Kannon by the sculptor Kokei which dates from the twelfth century.
The division between Shintoism and Buddhism is a reasonably recent phenomenon which happened during the Mieji period.
Prior to that, there was no effective separation between the two religions and the Shinto deities were seen as protectors and a Japanese expression of the Buddhist deities.
The shrine of Kasuga, which is also linked to the Fujiwara clan, is on the east side of the central temple area in Nara.
Consisting of two buildings, the first building is where the kami (representations of the spirits) reside and the second building, which is identical to the first, is where the kami are brought for display on special occasions.
The Kasuga temple, like that of Ise, was rebuilt every twenty years prior to the Edo period.
Of particular interest is the collection of numerous bronze lanterns which have been given as offerings by the faithful
The Toshodai-ji temple was founded in 739 by Ganjin, a Chinese monk who was invited to Japan by the Emperor to teach Buddhism.
The numerous buildings that form the complex, which is still an important centre for the Hosso sect, along with 30 other temples spread across Japan which have similar affiliations, of which, only the main hall known as the Kondo, (Golden Building) and the Kodo (the meetings hall) and the pagoda date back to the Nara period, the rest having been subsequently rebuilt. Of particular value is the statue of the Vairochana Buddha whose corona is made up of 864 buddhas (originally, there were a thousand) and who is seated on lotus leaves.
In the Kondo, you can also see the statue of Senju Kannon, the Kannon with a thousand arms that measures 5.50 metres.
Close to Toshodaiji there is another temple that merits a visit, that of Yakushiji, whose foundations actually predate that of Nara. The temple, which was built between 680 and 698 A.D., was actually originally situated in the earlier capital of Asuka and was removed to Nara when the capital was transferred here.
Like many Japanese temples, this one has also been subjected to fires and destruction but, it has always been rebuilt. Only the statues of the Yakushi triad in the Kondo, a statue of Kannon and the pagoda on three floors have survived as originals.
The National Museum
Situated in the same area as the main temples and not far from Todaiji, the museum houses important collections with particular links to Buddhist art with statues, paintings, and items of worship, most of which have originated in Japan.
Nara is very famous for its Sika deer which roam freely through the parks and are unconcerned by the tourists who can walk amongst them.
The presence of these deer is also linked to Buddhist tradition. They are the symbols of Buddhist laws and in fact, the legend of Buddha has it that his first sermon at Sarnath took place in a spot that was knowns as “the deer park.”
The famous brand name of “naracamicie” shirts has nothing to do with the city of Nara but is in fact connected to the surname of the founder of that company