Nara World Heritage Sites, Japan
In the period before the the Japanese built a capital city in Kyoto in the twelfth century, the power shifted between different regions almost as often as the tectonic plates shifted beneath the island country. In the eighth century, the capital of Imperial Japan was moved to Nara and the country was ruled from there for just 74 years before it was again moved away.
As far as historians and tourists go, Nara could have become another forgotten city like Asuka, Otsu, Kamo, or Nagaokakyo – all previous Japanese capital cities that are impossible for most people to name these days. But Nara is different because of the treasure trove of stunning and influential buildings that was left behind.
A pleasant city of about 400,000 is what Nara has become today – one that embraces its past but still looks to the future with a large number of universities and sustainable industries based on textiles and tourism. It is still defined by the history of more than 1300 years ago, though.
Seven constructions within Nara have been designated as part of an official World Heritage Site. Although there are other things to see, together they form the best examples of the ancient capital and the religious and political significance of the city. To help you plan a trip to Nara, I thought I would share a little about each of them. As you can see from the map below, they are all relatively close to each other and could be seen in a day, if rushed.
Heijo Palace Site
Although this would once have been one of the biggest sites in Nara, the Heijo Palace site is now just foundations with a few reconstructions. It was built during the eighth century and was the Imperial Palace of Japan for just 74 years. The palace and the city around it was loosely based on the layout of Xian in China which was one of the most important Asian cities of the time. These days it is not a highlight of a visit to Nara but the reconstructed buildings and the remains of the layout give a decent sense of how the palace once must have looked.
The Todai-ji temple is an imposing sight from the outside – and that’s no great surprise considering it was the largest wooden building in the world until about a decade ago. Inside, the enormous Buddha (the largest bronze one in the world) towers over visitors. More than two and a half million people gave money to help construct the original temple in the eighth century, as part of a national belief that Buddha would protect the country from natural disasters. Being wooden, the temple was at risk from fire and it has burned down twice since first being built. The latest version is a reconstruction from 1709.
This temple is the most central of all the Nara World Heritage Sites and historically it has always had the closest relationship to the city. Kofuku-ji had strong links to the Fujiwara clan in ancient times and would meddle in politics and military decisions sometimes. It is made up of a number of buildings that are easy to walk between including a five-storey pagoda, a three-storey pagoda, large religious halls and a treasure hall.
Kasuga Grand Shrine
The Kasuga Grand Shrine has the most beautiful setting of all the sites in Nara. It is set up a hill in a primeval cedar forest that you can approach up an easy path decorated in statues. Inside the temple, there is so much detail in the design and decoration of the shrine. Lanterns hanging all throughout give off a sense of enlightenment. The balance with the nature around it flows through the whole shrine as well. This is a relatively small site but one of the most stunning in its own unique way.
You have to go down some small roads and make good use of a map to find the Gango-ji Temple. Unlike all the others, it is hidden away in a narrow street in a suburb of Nara. Once inside, you’ll also realise it is not the largest nor visually-spectacular but it is home to a lot of history. The graveyard is particularly interesting and the main hall is considered to be a Japanese national treasure. Once upon a time the temple complex spread out over a much larger area but it was destroyed by fire or overtaken by residential growth over the centuries.
The Yakushi-ji Temple is split into two parts with a small road in between, such is its size. It is made up of quite a number of buildings including pagodas, halls, and an old learning centre. There is debate about exactly when it was built but it was either in the seventh of eighth century. Only one of the buildings – the East Pagoda – is completely original. The others have been reconstructed after being damaged or destroyed by fire. Yakushi-ji is considered to be one of the most famous imperial temples in the whole country.
This temple is interesting for the way it has been laid out and the buildings arranged. There are a number of structures which make up the whole complex and they are designed in a way that shows an openness in thinking of the people of the time. There are also large gardens within the temple complex which help to create a feeling of serenity. The Golden Hall is the most important building in Toshodai-ji Temple and is considered to be a national treasure of Japan.
An affordable hotel option is NARA Visitor Center and Inn in the centre of town.
For something a bit special, Onyado Nono Nara Natural Hot Spring has an onsen in the hotel.
And if you're looking for a luxury option, the Nara Hotel is probably the best in the city!