Nara was the capital of Japan from 710 to 784. Its location (not far from today’s Kyoto) had been selected by geomantic principles and the city lay-out was fashioned after the then biggest city in the world, namely the capital of China, Chang’an (today’s Xian).
A total of eight different historical sites belong to the UNESCO World Heritage of Ancient Nara. The most impressive and famous of them, and the one most tourists to Japan will visit, is the Todaiji, the „Great Eastern Temple“. It was built in the 8th century under the reign of emperor Shōmu, a pious Buddhist, who sought to implement a new administrative system relying on this religion (which had been imported from the stronghold of bureaucracy, China). For this purpose, he built a state temple in every province of the country, where sutra recitations for the benefit of the state should take place. Moreover, these temples also were to assume administrative tasks such as tax collection and census. The Todaiji Temple in the capital was intended as headquarters of all these state temples and was accordingly impressive.
The building we see today is one third smaller than the original building, but even today it is considered the biggest wooden building in the world. It houses a 16.2 m high bronze statue of the Buddha Vairocana (in Japanese: Dainichinyōrai). Emperor Shōmu died before the official “Eye-opening Ceremony” in 752 that was attended by monks from as far as India. The brush needed to paint the Buddha’s pupils measured more than two meters in length and had to be held in place by ropes.
Especially in spring and autumn, the main tourist seasons, the Todaiji is always teeming with tourists. But even so, if you take your time, you will be surprised by the ease and calm the great Buddha of Nara emanates.
A short walk to the Kasuga shrine
From the Todaiji Temple it is a 30 minute walk to the Kasuga Shrine, also dating from the 8th century, funded and built by one of the most influential families of that time, the Fujiwara.
The Kasuga Shrine is famous for its numerous moss-covered stone lanterns in the surrounding woods that offer fantastic photo opportunities. There are several small, quite specialised shrines nearby – especially interesting are the small votive tablets at the one where people come to pray for sufficient breast milk…
Why visit the monuments of Ancient Nara?
The most obvious reason to visit Nara is in order to see the Great Buddha at Todaiji Temple. But there are more things to see, including numerous majestic old temples and a gorgeous National Museum. The town itself is nice enough, and on the outskirts around the temples and shrines there is a lot of green arkland with tame deer wandering around.
How to get to the monuments of Ancient Nara?
By train from Kyoto or Osaka, Nara can be visited in a day trip. If you want to visit all eight different UNESCO heritage sites, you would need two days.