Together with Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe, Nara is one of the four cities that make up the Kansai region. Capital of Japan during the Nara Period (710~94), this city has temples and shrines that predate even those in Kyoto. But because it is less well-known than its neighbor, it tends to be quieter and more serene. Perhaps this is why the wild deer seem so at home, wandering the temple grounds and even the city streets. The deer are traditionally considered sacred messengers from the Gods. Nara Park, also called Deer Park, is to the east of Nara station and contains most of the city's main attractions.
The 5-story pagoda reflected in the Sarusawa Pond at Kofukuji temple
A deer grazes behind the Daibutsuden in the grounds of Todaiji temple
On your way into the park, you'll see Kofukuji temple. The temple was built in Asuka to the south, before it and the capital were moved to Nara in 710. It was the temple of the Fujiwara family and was once the most powerful in the old province of Yamato and was protected by an army of warrior monks. After suffering a lot of damage, the temple was restored by Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1600 but many buildings were again destroyed by fire in 1717. The temple's Treasure House is home to an important collection of early Japanese sculpture. Other buildings which survived the centuries include a 3-story pagoda from 1143 and a 51m 5-story pagoda, built in 1426 and the second tallest in Japan. The reflection of this pagoda in the Sarusawa Pond is one of Nara's most famous views. Todaiji temple, founded in 752, is most famous for its giant 8th-century bronze Buddha. The statue is housed in the Daibutsuden, the world's largest wooden structure and a World Heritage Site. There are several other noteworthy buildings in the temple complex, such as the 25m Nandaimon gate and the Sangatsudo hall. The temple's festival is held in mid-March. Kasuga Shrine was founded in 709 to protect Nara as the new capital and moved to its present location in 768. It has a unique style of architecture, known as Kasuga-zukuri, although the present buildings are reconstructions dating from 1863. The approach to the shrine is lined with 1,800 stone lanterns.
On the far side of Nara station is Toshodaiji temple. Founded by the Chinese priest Ganjin in 759, it was the head temple of the Ritsu Buddhist sect. It is one of the few temples relatively undamaged over the centuries and has several important buildings, including the oldest existing example of Nara palace architecture. A statue of Ganjin in the Mieido (Founder's Hall) is considered one of the finest image sculptures in Japan.
One of Nara's most important industries is the manufacture of sumi (india ink) and brushes for calligraphy. Souvenirs, such as Nara dolls and Akahadayaki pottery, can bought at the Nara Commerce and Tourist Building near Kintetsu-Nara station. Local delicacies include narazuke, pickled eggplants and cucumbers, miwa-somen, thin noodles chilled in the winter wind, and kakinoha-zushi, sushi rice topped with mackerel and wrapped in persimmon leaves.
To the southwest of Nara on the Kansai Line is Horyuji, one of the most important temples in Japan. Founded in 607 by Prince Shotoku, considered the patron saint of Japanese Buddhism, the temple is in the town of Ikaruga and is also known as Ikaruga-dera. The temple owns one of the most important collections of art from the Asuka Period (593~710) onward. The Saiin (Western Precinct) is the oldest existing temple compund in Japan and contains the oldest wooden buildings in the world, including a 5-story pagoda. In the 8th century, the Toin (Eastern Precinct) was built on the site of the Ikuraga-no-miya palace, where Shotoku died.
The Yamanobe path, one of the oldest roads in Japan, runs south for 35km from Nara to Sakurai and is lined with many temples, tombs and statues. You can take the Sakurai Line as far as Tenri or one of the other stops along the way and walk the the rest of the path. Beyond Sakurai is the ancient capital of Asuka, an area full of tombs of emperors and scattered remains of temples and palaces. This is the birthplace of Japanese Buddhism but is now a quiet rural village. Shotoku is believed to have been born at Tachibanadera temple.
- See our page on the official websites for each prefecture and major city: Guide to Japan's Regions and Cities