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.
THE BEST ACCOMMODATION IN NARA
The Japanese heritage of Ancient Nara can be found in a lot of the city’s authentic accommodation options.
For a budget option, Nara Guesthouse Kamunabi has comfortable beds and a lovely common area.
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!
14 thoughts on “World Heritage Sites of Nara”
I’d absolutely love to spend two days in Nara! This is a great guide, thanks. I really love that second photo of the Yakushi-ji Temple.
Happy travels 🙂
Yakushi-ji was really photogenic. Each of the sites have their own special qualities of beauty and Yakushi-ji was definitely one of the best. My favourite, though, was the Kasuga Grand Shrine.
Wow! You got to see quite a lot. Not too bad! 🙂
I like Nara, but I’m not only talking about the World Heritage Sites there.
Nara has so much more to offer!
Glad to see that some things that were under construction / renovation when I visited last time (2009) are now fixed.
I went there mainly for the World Heritage Sites and enjoyed the rest of the city but didn’t do much ‘sightseeing’ other than what I’ve covered here.
What else would you recommend?
I really like Mt. Yoshino, especially in spring. It’s one of the most popular cherry blossom viewing spots in the Kansai region.
The Asuka region with a few famous temples is also great (e.g. Hasedera).
About a year ago I have been to Nara. It was a dream. Your photos brought me back to that wonderful place. Thanks.
You’re more than welcome. It really is a beautiful place, isn’t it? You’re spot on when you describe it as a dream.
We enjoyed Nara even though it was unspeakably hot and humid when we visited there in September of 2010. We walked everywhere we went. Many of the historic temple areas are closed to traffic — but not to deer.
The deer are everywhere, aren’t they? They seem cute from a distance but they’re so comfortable with humans that they can be a bit scary close up – especially if you’ve got some food!!
Such beautiful temples! I especially like the photo of the deer.
Ahhh… you say the deer look cute now – just wait till they’re biting you because they think you have food! 🙂
But, yes, the temples are beautiful.
You must have enjoyed a lot and captured some of the most memorable moments of your life in form of pictures.. and to be honest these are some of the most remarkable pictures representing the historic culture, Gango Temple is the most beautiful of them all because of these outstanding sculptures which enhances its beauty
They’re stunning, aren’t they? Lucky I’ve got my camera to capture it all or I might never remember where I’ve been!! 🙂
Please don’t forget Nara’s deer. What a unusual idea: they are national treasures and heavenly messengers.
The Fujiwara family has a much more recent connection to scientific history. In meteorology, the Fujiwara effect (sometimes spelled Fujiwhara) is two hurricanes or typhoons circling a common center. It was first described by Sakuhei Fujiwara in 1921. The two storms often merge into one.