“Nara is a Treasure House of Ancient History and Culture…”
This was a quote taken from Nara City’s sightseeing guide brochure. Nara City is a highly recommended site to visit – for the great buddha as well as the relaxed atmosphere of the city. And it did not fail. Not only was this city another former capital of Japan, this small city is packed with history, ancient architecture, world heritage listed buildings and lots of deers!
Once again, I started my day visiting the Nara City Tourist Info Centre next to the Jr Nara Station. The lady who welcomed me, as I walked into the office, with a beaming smile on her face! What a great start to my day! She gave me a walking map and told me that a special Japanese show was happening at a certain time. Lovely lady. I believe they are volunteer staff, so it meant more being cordially welcomed to their city. A short walk or bus ride from the Nara Station is the Nara park then all around and within the park is the Nara National Museum and other museums as well as numerous temples and shrines.
Still brooding from the missed major ‘to-see’ places in Kyoto, I aimed to go straight to the main place to see in Nara, so first up – Todaiji Temple. A world heritage site, Todaiji Temple is most famous for the world’s largest bronze buddha – Daibutsu-san, the great buddha. The original temple was established in the 8th century, burned down by fires during the war and rebuilt in 1709 to a scaled-down size of two-thirds of its original size.
I liked the architecture of this temple, although I worry about the preservation (or the lack of) effort on the Daibutsuden Hall, as it is all made of timber which is very much exposed to natural air. Although I am not an expert on maintenance of these structures I wonder how much longer they would stand time and aging.
Exiting from the side of Todai-ji Temple is a pathway to Tamukeyama Hachimangu Shrine. I do not know much about this shrine aside from the fact that it was originally built in the 8th century for the purpose of protecting Todai-ji Temple. The original building was burnt down in 1180 and rebuilt to the current building around 1250. Tamukeyama Hachimangu Shrine was separated from Todai-ji Temple around the Meiji Period (1868-1912) due separation of buddhism and shintoism. It’s a smaller shrine compared to Todai-ji Temple and had an interesting Ema wishing cards.
Walking further east on the Nara Park my next stop was the Kasuga Taisha Shrine, another world heritage site. This shrine is famous for over 2000 stone shrines as well as a thousand hanging bronze lanterns. Established in the 8th century and has been restored many times. The shrine is beautifully located within a lush forest, rich vermilion-coloured shrine with cypress-bark roof. I absolutely love the hanging lanterns! When I visited the Japanese wisteria was in season. This type of wisteria is special for its long bunches of flowers known to touch the ground. The wisteria in the shrine are believed to go way back since the 8th century.
The shrine spreads out a large area including prayer halls, treasure hall, a botanical garden, a traditional tea house and more.
By this time I was famished and searching for something to eat! I stopped by ‘Nanaijaya’ a traditional tea room along the walk from Kasuga Taisha for some tea and 0mochi. Then is was time to walk back down towards the Nara station for more interesting places to check nearby. The next temple on the map was the Kofukuji Temple, which I thought would be closed for renovations. Instead they just had some temporary office to accommodate worshipers to buy their wishing cards, sign personalised renovation tiles and other auxiliary roles. The world heritage buildings, including a five-story pagoda – a symbol of Nara, was still open for visitors.
This temple was established in the 7th century, burnt down five times! and reconstructed in 1426. The buildings are wooden and beautiful, albeit some scaffolding in certain areas with one of the main buildings fully covered. But I didn’t let that dampen my visit.
The Kofukuji Temple is right next to a shopping centre along the Sanjodori street. Crossing that main street I found myself in Naramachi. Naramachi is an old merchant’s district with old buildings still used as shops or houses. It’s very nice to walk along the narrow streets and every turn promises something old and new.
A few streets within the Naramachi area is another world heritage Gangoji Temple. Gangoji Temple was established in the 6th century as the first buddhist temple in Japan. This temple is proudly part of the Seven Great Temples of Nara. The official website for Gango-ji has extensive details about their philosophy and its institute for research of cultural property.
I liked this temple for its architecture and uncommon buildings in the property. The staff was very friendly and welcoming of tourists. I can understand that these are religious buildings and sometimes tourists, like myself, come poking in with our cameras may be disrespectful. It is a lot harder when the guidelines are written in Japanese, and the lack of understanding of the language, could be inconvenient when some places are restricted.
As any day trips go, a day is too short to fully experience the city. Nara is a beautiful city with is well-preserved world heritage sites mingling alongside some attempt to modernise. It was small enough to walk around but not restricting for those who might have other touristy interests. I prefer the old buildings especially temples and I wouldn’t mind going for another visit to finish the western side of the city.