Hailed as the first permanent capital of Japan, Nara 奈良 is home to a whopping six of her UNESCO World Heritage Sites, more than any other prefecture.
Being a history buff, there was no way I could miss out on this stop during my trip, especially after reading about the Todai-ji temple complex in my Japanese Studies class.
Read the rest of my Kansai posts here!
Getting to Nara was easy enough, and the Tourist Information Office located right outside Kintetsu Nara Station was more than helpful with their English speaking staff mapping out the day’s route based on your area of interest.
With their map in hand, it was time to step into Higashimuki Shopping Street en route to Nara Park 奈良公園.
Because it was right smack in the middle of sakura season, the trees were practically bursting with blossoms. Even the drabbest side street looked slightly whimsical as locals and tourists alike strolled up and down!
My first stop of the day was Kofuku-ji, the former temple of the Fujiwara clan. Who also happened to be the most powerful family during the Nara and Heian periods.
Ok, let’s stop for a moment and consider that one family was influential enough to build a 150 building complex around the same time the capital was established. If you want to let the world know how much power you have, just take up a lot of land.
Today, only a handful of monuments remain, although you can still get an idea of how vast it was in its heyday walking around.
Walking into Kofuku-ji, you’ll be greeted by the Northern Octagonal Hall 北円堂 and the Southern Octagonal Hall 南円堂. I encountered a group of devotees here in the early hours of the day.
The main attractions, however, are the East Golden Hall 東金堂 and Five Storey Pagoda 五重塔, situated right next to each other. You can view exhibits like the three-faced, six-armed Ashura Statue inside the hall (no pictures allowed inside though).
The five storey pagoda is also Japan’s second tallest pagoda, the tallest being the seven storey pagoda at Toji Temple in Kyoto.
Still under construction is the Central Golden Hall, which burned down in 1717 and was replaced by smaller structure in the 1880s. Come back in 2018 to see the reconstruction in its full glory!
If you’re lucky, you’ll get to encounter the sika deer wandering about for a bite – be sure to have a packet of deer crackers on hand.
Opening hours: 9am – 5pm
Adults and university students : 600¥ (100¥ discount for tour groups)
Junior high and high school students : 500¥ (100¥ discount for tour groups)
Primary school students : 200¥ (50¥ discount for tour groups)
Combination tickets (Kohfukuji National Treasure Museum & Eastern Golden Hall):
Adults and university students : 800¥
Junior high and high school students : 600¥
Primary school students : 250¥
Himuro Shrine 氷室神社
Himuro Shrine is an oft overlooked destination in favour of Nara’s larger complexes. While its structure is nothing extraordinary, it is home to a breathtaking sakura tree (pictured below). If you’re an avid fan of the cherry blossoms, and want to take a break from the crowds, Himuro Shrine is one of those hidden gems you can check out. It also hosts its main annual festival on 1 October.
Opening hours: 6.30am – 5.30pm
One of Japan’s most famous temples, Todai-ji – or Great Eastern Temple – was built in 752 as the head temple of all of Japan’s provincial temples. So great was its influence that in 784, the capital was shifted from Nara to lower the temple’s clout on official matters.
Visitors to Todai-ji are greeted by Nandaimon Gate, a massive wooden construction. Look out for the Nio Guardian King statues standing tall on either side as you enter!
If you can resist distraction from the deer long enough, you’ll be rewarded with a view of the main hall through the gaps of this gate – one way to save on the admission fee, I suppose, but why turn back when you’ve already come this far?
The Daibutsuden or Great Buddha Hall is easily the highlight of Todai-ji, being the largest wooden structure in the world. Walking up to it, I can only describe myself as completely in awe of how massive it was. To think that this 1692 reconstruction is only about two thirds the original size… it’s simply surreal.
This great hall houses another gargantuan monument: the 15m tall bronze Buddha statue otherwise known as Daibutsu, flanked by two intricately carved Bodhisattvas. If you need a reference – the Buddha’s palm is about the size of an adult.
There are other smaller statues inside, but the main draw is a pillar with a hole in its base the size of the Daibutsu’s nostril. Legend has it that if you can squeeze through the opening, you’ll be rewarded with enlightenment in your next life.
November to February: 9.30am – 4.30pm
March: 9.30am – 5pm
April to September: 9.30am – 5.30pm
October: 9.30am – 5pm
Admission (Todai-ji Museum):
Adult: 500 ¥
Primary school student: 300¥
Combination tickets (Great Buddha Hall & Todai-ji Museum):
Primary school student: 400¥
Historically and culturally rich, Nara is worth a stop if you’re interested in learning about Japan’s religious landscape. If you’re in Osaka or Kyoto and have a day to spare, do take a day to see what this city has to offer!
Information accurate as of April 2016.