NARA (ATT.JAPAN ISSUE 52)
Nara Prefecture, located in the eastern part of the Kansai region, has towns in the northern area and steep mountains in the southern area. This historic region was the first permanent capital of Japan in ancient times, and is home to three Unesco World Heritage sites: Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara, Buddhist Monuments in the Horyu-ji area, and Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range. In addition to historic sites, it is blessed with much natural beauty.
Around Nara-koen Park
After a five-minute walk east from Kintetsu Nara Station, you will arrive at Nara-koen Park. Feeding shika-senbei, or rice crackers for deer, to the cute deer is fun.
Passing through the park, you will see Todai-ji Temple. It was built in the mid Nara period (710-794), and has always been one of the major temples in Japan. From Nigatsu-do Hall, you can get a sweeping view of the town of Nara. Kaidan-in Hall houses national treasure Shitenno-zo (Four Heavenly Kings statue).
A 10-minute walk from Nigatsu-do through the approach lined by trees will bring you to Kasuga Taisha Shrine. It was built during the Nara period. Its vermillion-lacquered buildings are beautiful and the main shrine and treasure house which houses many national treasures are attractive. Japanese wisteria in the garden is at its best in early May. Lanterns in the precincts are lit in the evening during the period of time of the Mantoro Festival in February and August, and it lures and fascinates visitors with the fantastic atmosphere.
A retro Western-style building just to the west of the shrine is the main building of Nara National Museum. It mainly features Buddhist art and there is no other museum of this type in Japan. The Buddhist sculptures in the main building are especially a must-see.
Kofuku-ji Temple is well-known for having the tallest five-story pagoda in Nara. After first construction in 730, this pagoda burned down five times, and the current pagoda was rebuilt in 1426. Among many temple treasures in the Kokuho-kan (Treasure Hall), the Ashura statue is a must see. Its melancholy face has long fascinated visitors.
The area from Kintetsu Nara Station to JR Nara Station is full of unique shops and is a good place for eating and shopping. When you walk southward about 15 minutes from Kintetsu Nara Station thorough the shopping mall, you will arrive at Naramachi. This area around World Heritage Gango-ji Temple was a merchant district that prospered along with the temple. Common people’s houses that were built from the 19th to 20th centuries still remain, surrounded by narrow allays, which creates a pleasing nostalgic atmosphere.
Gengo-ji Temple is an old temple. Its origin is the Hoko-ji Temple that was one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Asuka village in Nara Prefecture and was moved to this location in 718.
Imanishi-ke Shoin is a typical shoin-style building built in the Muromachi period (1336-1573) and its Japanese-style garden is also splendid.
Naramachi Koshi no Ie is a replica of a traditional house of Naramachi. You can see the structure of the house and how commoners lived in olden days. It has a wonderful lattice structure through which you can well see outside from inside of the house, but you can’t well see inside from outside.
Yakushi-ji Temple is located five minutes on foot from Nishinokyo Station. It was built in 680 by the command of Emperor Tenmu. At the back of the vermillion-lacquered corridor, To-to and Sai-to pagodas stand. To-to (East Pagoda) is a national treasure which has been preserved for more than 1,300 years without damage, even though there were several fires in the temple compound. Sai-to (West Pagoda) was burned down in the 16th century, the Warring Sates period, and rebuilt only in 1981. Comparing the old To-to and beautifully vermillion-lacquered Sai-to is interesting.
Toshodai-ji Temple to the north of Yakushi-ji was built during the Heian period (794-1192) by Ganjin, a Chinese Buddhist priest who came to Japan, as a school for priests to study religious precepts.
Both Yakushi-ji and Toshodai-ji are designated World Heritage sites.
Commemorative Events of the 1,300th Anniversary of Nara Heijo-kyo Capital
In 710, Japan’s capital, Heijo-kyo, was built in Nara. In 2010, commemorating the 1,300th anniversary of the Heijo-kyo founding, various events are being held in many places in Nara, including the Heijo Palace site (main venue), which is a World Heritage site. It takes about ten minutes to the Heijo Palace site from Kintetsu Yamato-Saidaiji Station on foot. A bus is available from Kintetsu Yamato-Saidaiji Station and JR Nara Station.
You can see reconstructed buildings and experience the life of people of bygone days.
Daigoku-den Hall took 10 years to be reconstructed in its original form. It was the largest hall of the palace and used for important ceremonies of the nation, such as the coronation ceremony of the emperor and meetings with foreign embassies. The architectural style and inner walls, on which the four gods who governed the four directions of the compass are depicted, are must-sees.
At Heijo-kyo History Museum, you can learn how people engaged in exchanges with China and Korea and how people developed the country viewing a big screen and other displays. There is an original-size replica of a Kentoshi-sen ship, by which Japanese people in ancient times went to Tang-dynasty China to study.
At Heijo-kyo Narikiri Taiken-kan Hall, you can experience clothing and types of work of people of the those days and also excavation the ruins of the Heijo Palace site. Through these, you will learn how people in Nara in ancient times lived.
From April 24th through June 30th, and from September 1st to November 7th, guided tours are conducted to see the Heijo Palace site. Volunteer guides guide you around the site and explain the passion and vision of the people who established the capital 13 centuries ago, and also about more mundane things such as their clothing, food and homes. Tours in English, Chinese, and Korean are held every day in addition to Japanese, all free of charge. If you want to know more, please visit the website.
You can also learn about the history and culture of the Palace site through the iPod touch that you can rent at the venue. This service is available in Japanese, English, Chinese, Korean and French. Foreign tourists can rent free of charge when you show your passport.
Ikaruga is a basin-shaped area located at the southwestern edge of Nara City, and features the World Heritage “Buddhist Monuments in the Horyu-ji Area.” Beautiful temple buildings related to Prince Shotoku are dotted here and there amidst the idyllic scenery. It takes about 50 minutes from Kintetsu Nara Station by bus. Or after an 11-minute ride from JR Nara Station to Horyuji Station, it takes about 15 minutes on foot.
The highlight of this area is Horyu-ji Temple. It was built at the beginning of the 7th century by Prince Shotoku, famous for drawing up Japan’s first national constitution, and Emperor Suiko. The present buildings, which were rebuilt in the 8th century, are designated as a World Heritage site as the oldest wooden structures in the world. Horyu-ji was Japan’s first designation as a World Heritage site.
The principle image of the temple is enshrined in the Kondo main hall and Japan’s oldest Shitenno-zo statues and many other Buddha statues are also housed in the Kondo. A five-story pagoda, Goju-no-To, next to the Kondo is the oldest five-story pagoda existing in Japan. The upper roofs are smaller than the lower roofs, which gives an elegant appearance to the pagoda and which is highly valued in terms of aesthtics and architecture. Most temple treasures are housed in the Daihozo-in/Kudara Kannon-do halls. The elegant Kudara Kannon-zo statue is well known for its balanced proportion and is the temple’s most famous statue.
If you have time, Chugu-ji Temple, Horin-ji Temple, and Hokki-ji Temple in this area are also recommended for a visit.
Traditional streets of the Edo period remain in Imai town, Kashihara City. Houses with plaster walls and lattice doors create a quiet atmosphere. Head for Hanairaka, the transportation hub of the town, from Kintetsu Yaginishiguchi Station. You can learn about the history of the town and get a map there. Imanishi Family House was built by the family that played a leading role in governing the town. This interesting house is similar to a castle.
The Toyota Family House is the house of a lumber dealer. This is a luxurious house using expensive materials such as a zelkova central pillar and pine beams. Shonen-ji Temple is a temple of the Jodo-shinshu sect of Buddhism and the center of Imai, a fortified, temple-centered town. The Kawai Family House is the house of the family that ran a brewery, still in operation today. Placing a parlor on the second floor is a characteristic of this type of merchant’s house.
Rustic houses are scattered among rice paddies, surrounded by gentle mountains. This typical landscape of ancient Japan is preserved among the ancient ruins and surroundings of Asuka, an area that was the center of Japanese history for 100 years during the Asuka period (592-694). Start at Kintetsu Asuka Station. Touring by bicycle in a relaxed manner is recommended.
A 10-minute ride will bring you to Takamatsuzuka tomb. Brilliantly colored wall paintings, on which ancient people are vividly portrayed, were discovered inside the tomb in 1972. There are several theories about the identities of the tomb’s deceased persons. You can see a model of the stone chamber, replicas of burial goods and original-sized imitative paintings at Hekiga-kan Hall next to the tomb.
Ishibutai burial mound is located 20 minutes by bike ride from Takamatsuzuka tomb. It is a stone chamber mound made of some 30 gigantic layered rocks. It is estimated that the rock of the ceiling is 77 tons. You can enter standing inside the mound.
Nara Prefecture Hall of Manyo Culture is a facility themed upon the Man’yoshu, the oldest (8th Century) existing anthology of Japanese waka poetry. Seeing videos, Japanese paintings, and the botanical garden is enjoyable.
A 20-minute walk from Kintetsu Hasedera Station, located in the eastern part of Nara Prefecture, will bring you to Hase-dera Temple. The Hondo, or main hall, which was rebuilt by Tokugawa Iemitsu, the third shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate, is similar to a stage and is designated a national treasure. It enshrines a celebrated 10-meter-high Juichimen-Kannon-zo statue (Eleven-faced Kannon, Goddess of Mercy). Noboriro is a 200-meter-long corridor. Thousands of large flowers of the Japanese peony tree are gorgeous along the corridor in springtime. Since cherry blossoms, hydrangeas, and other flowers bloom at various times throughout the year, the temple is famous for its flowers.
Muro-ji Temple of the Shingon sect of Buddhism is situated on the mountainside of Mt. Muro. Koyasan in Wakayama Prefecture, a World Heritage site that is also the sacred site of the Shingon sect, once did not allow women to enter the mountain. In contrast, as Muro-ji has allowed women to enter, it has been called Nyonin-Koya (Female Koya). Kondo Hall, a national treasure, Hondo Hall, and a five-story pagoda stand in the precincts surrounded by trees. In spring, a profusion of pale pink rhododendrons creates a splendid sight.
Yoshino is located in the middle of the prefecture. It is well-known as a cherry blossom viewing place. You can enjoy breathtaking cherry blossom views for about a month as the blossoms advance from lower elevations (“Shimo-senbon”) to higher elevations up the mountainside (“Oku-senbon”). Fresh green leaves in spring and autumn colors in fall are also strikingly beautiful.
The World Heritage site Mt. Yoshino was developed as a sacred place of shugendo, which is a religion of ascetic mountain priests who train in mountains and in which Shinto and Buddhist deities co-mingle. Kinpusen-ji Temple is a symbol of Yoshino. Its majestic main hall, Zao-do, is the second largest wooden building after the Hall of the Great Buddha at Todai-ji Temple. Anybody can participate in devotional exercises each morning and evening.
Yoshimizu Shrine was once the Imperial Court of Nancho, founded by Emperor Godaigo in 1336 after escaping from Kyoto where he was confined. In 1594, warrior Toyotomi Hideyoshi held a lavish cherry blossom viewing party here together with a total of 5,000 of his retainers. Emperor Godaigo worshipped piously at Nyoirin-ji Temple. At the mountain in back of the temple, there is a tomb of the emperor. Chikurin-in Temple has the shukubo (lodging facilty) Chikurin-in Gunpoen, and Gunpoen is famous for its beautiful garden. Yoshino-Mimakuri Shrine is an old shrine at Kami-senbon.
Yoshino’s specialty is kudzu and you can eat kuzukiri, or noodles made from kudzu flour and sugar, at shops around the town. Kakinoha-zushi is pressed sushi. Pieces of mackerel or salmon are placed on rice and the whole is wrapped with kaki-no-ha, a persimmon leaf, which gives this sushi its name.
It takes about 75 minutes from Osaka Abenobashi Station to Yoshino by limited express train on the Kintetsu Line.
Nara, the center of ancient Japan, is blessed with long history and traditional culture, and beautiful natural surroundings. Touring in Nara is sure to be a highpoint of travel in Japan.