|Nara Travel Information|
Nara is one of the most beautiful cities in Japan. The town has some of the best preserved temples and shrines in Japan.Nara was the capital of Japan in the 8th century, during the Nara Period. The city is located on the Kinai plain, in the Kansai region in central Japan, less than one hour from Kyoto and Osaka.On the following pages I will give you tourist information and travel tips in order to prepare a trip to this ancient capital.In the picture you can see the biggest temple in Nara, Todaiji or Great Eastern Temple.
Located almost at the center of the Japanese archipelago, Nara Prefecture is an inland prefecture surrounded by the four prefectures of Osaka to the west, Kyoto to the north, Wakayama to the south and Mie to the east. Nara, with a total population of some 1.44 million, has a diversified geography, a plane to the north and the Kii Mountain Range, or 'the Roof of Kinki (or Osaka Area)' to the south. Approx. 60% of the prefectural area is occupied by forest. Its main industries are textiles, timber and lumber.
In early Japanese history, the nation's capital was moved to a new site each time a new emperor came to the throne. In 710, however, the first permanent Japanese capital was set up at Nara. Not that it turned out to be so permanent -- after only 74 years, the capital was moved first to Nagaoka and shortly thereafter to Kyoto, where it remained for more than 1,000 years. What's important about those 74 years, however, is that they witnessed the birth of Japan's arts, crafts, and literature, as Nara imported everything from religion to art and architecture from China. Even the city itself, laid out in a rectangular grid pattern, was modeled after Chinese concepts. It was during the Nara Period that Japan's first historical account, first mythological chronicle, and first poetry anthology (with 4,173 poems) were written. Buddhism also flourished, and Nara grew as the political and cultural center of the land with numerous temples, shrines, pagodas, and palaces.
Nara was the first imperial capital in Japan and today remains one of the country's most important historical and cultural centers. It is a relatively small, intimate city, dominated by the Todai-ji temple complex, which is the primary destination for most visitors. The central temple, the Daibutsu-den, is the largest wooden structure in the world and hosts the famous Daibutsu - an enormous casting of the Buddha, which is itself Japan's largest bronze statue. Todai-ji sits in center of the expansive Nara-koen, a park first established in the late 19th century. There are many other old, famous buildings and sights in the area, but perhaps the most beautiful is the approach to Kasuga Taisha, where stone lanterns line the wooded, secluded path. South of Nara-koen is Nara-machi, an old residential district still peppered with traditional buildings and narrow alleyways that is well worth a visit.
The outskirts of Nara city are home to a number of important temples, chief of which is the UNESCO-listed Horyu-ji. The oldest surviving Buddhist temple in Japan, Horyu-ji lies off a spur rail line southwest of Nara and is home to a distinctive five-storey pagoda, numerous priceless artifacts and Kon-do, the world's oldest wooden building. Closer to Nara proper are the temples of Yakushi-ji and Toshodai-ji, both of which also share UNESCO World Heritage status. The trio can all be visited in a day from Nara, which more than justifies a two-day visit to the area.
An ancient capital of excellent old architectures and images of Buddha - Horyu-ji Temple, the World Cultural Heritage Site. Nara prefecture is situated in the central west of the Japanese mainland. The capital was placed in the Asuka region, a southern part of Nara Basin in the northwestern part of the prefecture, as the first of unified Japan in the mid 4th century, and until the end of the 8th century Asuka prospered as the center of Japanese politics and economy. Later, the capital was moved to Heijyo-kyo, the current Nara City.
Under the protection of the Imperial family and aristocrats, temples and shrines such as Todai-ji Temple, the largest wooden architecture in the world that enshrines Japan's largest Buddha, Yakushi-ji Temple that has excellent old architectures and images of Buddha, and Toshodai-ji Temple were built. Thus Heijyo-kyo developed as a temple town.
Horyu-ji Temple in Ikaruga Town, which is said to have been built in the early 7th century, is known as the oldest existing Buddhist temple. There are world's oldest wooden architectures as well as many paintings and sculptures in its possession, and the Temple is also registered as the World Cultural Heritage Site.Tourists visit this prefecture throughout the year to see scenic spots such as Mt. Yoshino-yama known to have the most beautiful cherry trees, and Nara Park that has friendly deer that has been considered familiar spirit and treasured.
Nara is located in the north of Nara Basin where the fledging Japanese state was born in prehistoric times. The city was built through heavy Baekje and Chinese influence. In Nara and South Korea, it is widely accepted that most of the city's notable monuments (the Great Buddha, Horyuji, etc) were built by Baekje architects and some believe that the city's name itself comes from the Baekje word for "nation" (narat or nara), which has endured to modern times to become the Korean word "nara". Others believe that it is derived from Nadaraka, lit. flat place.
Nara became the capital of Japan from AD 710 to 784. The royal court of Empress Gemmei constructed a new capital modelled after the capital of Tang China, Chang'an, in AD 710. High civilization of the Middle Kingdom was introduced into Nara during the eighth century, following the fall of Baekje and the arrival of a massive influx of Korean people. Buddhism flourished under royal patronage. Even after the capital moved to Kyoto in 784, Buddhist temples remained powerful and enjoyed religious fame. Nara had been a Buddhist town for a long time. In the modern age, Nara developed as a local centre of commerce and government, for the prefectural government was seated here. The city was officially incorporated on 1 February 1898.
Nara is the cradle of Japanese culture and the spiritual home of the Japanese people, keeping a beautiful harmony between history and nature. In the spring, after the Water-Drawing Ceremony is over, the delicate cherry blossoms in the ancient city of temples and shrines begin to bloom all at once. Radiant greenness will cover the roof tiles of these cathedrals in the summer. Later the ancient capital will be crowded with holiday-makers who seek the beauty of tinted autumnal showing the genuine nature of Nara. The drama of Nara's four seasons undoubtedly paints its historical remains most colorfully and makes the elegance of an ancient city much more exquisitely attractive.
Japan is one the most expensive countries in Asia, if not the world for travel, but there are ways of keeping the outlays to a just-about bearable level. A skeleton daily budget, assuming you stay in the cheapest hostels, eat modestly and travel short distances, would work out to US$60.00 . Add about US$10.00 for extras like snacks, drinks, admission fees and entertainment. Staying in business or deluxe hotels and eating in pricey restaurants can easily have the ticker tipping US$200.00 . Long-distance travel is a real budget buster in Japan - if you intend to travel around to different places, it's well worth investing in a Japan Rail Pass. At the other end of the spectrum, high rollers will have no problems off-loading their cash. Japan specialises in establishments catering to the ostentatious flattery of business accounts - the higher the bill, the greater the prestige of the guests
Nara was the glorious capital, "like a fragrant flower in full bloom," as an ancient poet once described it. Nara was the cradle of the great Japanese arts and the essence of culture in the long-ago Tempyo Period. The old, world-famous temples and shrines of the province of Yamato (presently Nara Prefecture) have handed down to us their precious history. Among others, the cathedrals of Todaiji, Kofukuji, Yakushiji, Toshodaiji and the Kasuga Grand Shrine are settings where one can encounter the rich, elegant ambience of the Tempyo Culture. As you go through the corridors, and glance at the tiled roofs of these cathedrals, the Tempyo Culture will make you forget all about time and space, and will whisper to you about the old days of well over a thousand years as though they were yesterday.
Heijo Palace Site
The extensive open space of lawn seen between Saidaiji Station and Shin-Omiya Station on the Kintetsu Line is the Heijo Palace, the center of Heijo-kyo Capital, which lasted for 74 years over the 7 successive reigns. The Palace was located in the northernmost area of the central Heijo-kyo Capital and, with an extended area toward the east, it had a total area of about 120 hectares. Containing the Daigoku-den and the Chodo-in for formal ceremonies, the Dairl as an emperors' residence, the To-in, and government offices with 8 ministries and 100 agencies, the Palace is considered to have been surrounded by mud walls and moats with a total of 12 gates, 3 gates being built in each direction. A continuous excarvation has been carried out by the Nara National Cultural Properties Research Institute since the 34th year of Showa(1959).
Todai-ji Temple, known for its "Daibutsu-san," or Great Buddha, is a representative temple in Nara, with an imposing appearance of the largest wooden structure in the world. This is a famous temple of the Kegon sect and was founded by Roben.
The Kofuku-ji Temple, situated next to the Todai-ji Temple, was prosperous as a forerunner of "Buddhism for aristocrats" in the Nara period. Among the seven biggest temples of Nara, the Kofuku-ji Temple has developed through the closest relationship with the town of Nara. In the 3rd year of the Wado era (710), the Umayasaka Temple, the predecessor of the present Kofuku-ji Temple, was transferred from Asuka to the Nara capital by Fujiwara-no-Fuhito. Then, as a tutelary temple of the Fujiwara family, it extended its influence with the prosperity of the family. The temple was attacked by the Taira family in the fourth year of Jisho (1180), and most of the temple buildings were burned down. In the Kamakura period (1192-1333), however, the Fujiwara family took a position of the Military Commissioner of Nara, and eventually became so influential that they occasionally appealed to the Imperial Palace with soldier monks.
Kasuga Grand Shrine
The Shrine lies in a primeval forest of cedars and a kind of Chinese black pines. The brilliant vermillon edifices are beautifully contrasted with their surrounding greenery. Going through the first and second Torii gates, you can see a lot of stone lanterns standing on both sides of the approach to the shrine. Going on further, you will find the south gate on the left. The main hall is located among trees behind the gate. From the gate a corridor extends to the left and to the right. A great number of lanterns hung from the eaves of the corridor are producing an elegant atmosphere.
Kasuga-yama Hill Primeval Forest
As this is a divine hill of the Kasuga Grand Shrine, the trees in the whole area of the hill behind the shrine have been prohibited from cutting down for more than 1,000 years. The hill is covered with a primeval forest of cedars, firs and cypresses. Rare animals such as a polypedatid and a kind of corbicula (Natural Monument) inhabit the hill, where it is dark even in the daytime because the area is located deep in the forest.
This edifice used to be a part of the priests' living quarters of the Gango-ji Temple, and was reconstructed as its main hall (National Treasure) and Zen hall (National Treasure) in the Kamakura period (1192-1333). The temple has attracted commoners since the Middle Ages. Numerous stone Buddhas and folk materials were discovered in the precincts. Thanks to the grand repair from the 25th to 29th year of Showa (1950-1954), we can enjoy appreciating the temple structures at the time of the Kamakura period's reconstruction.
This temple was founded in the 3rd year of the Tempyo era(759) by the Chinese Buddhist priest Ganjin Wajo, who, with the invitation of Emperor Shomu, came to Japan after going through all sorts of hardships. The whole temple, including the Golden Hall called "Tempyo-no-Iraka," the Lecture Hall and the Treasure Hall, still keeps its original appearance. The temple buildings are beautifully arranged, which shows us broad-mindedness of the people of the Tempyo era.
|Arts and Crafts|
Nara is the birthplace of the culture of Japan. Many traditional arts and crafts suited to the natural features and life style of Nara have been handed down to the present day. The techniques of the ancient artists who created the masterpieces designated as Important Cultural Properties have been preserved in this district. These refined techniques can be seen in the splendid works preserved in the Shoso-in (the depository for the treasures of Todaiji Temple) and various temples, shrines and museums. These works are not only magnificent, but also have a feeling of dignity and grace. The artists have given us works containing the essence of Nara, its culture, and its history. Traversing times the spirit of the artisan still exists.
Though early brushes of our country came from Han, Tang-style brushes of Nagaho were introduced by priest Kukai, who learned their making method in China. He is said to have had Sakaina Kiyokawa of Imai in Yamato Province make brushes following the newly-introduced method, and presented them to Emperor Saga and his crown prince.
Kukai's brush had its core made of tight-rolled hemp paper. The core is then covered thinly with hairy cloth. It is called Makifude.
Sumi making is well reputed as a traditional industry in Nara. Its history and the large production of today's Sumi make it unique to Nara. Sumi is classified into two kinds: one is "Shoenzumi" made from burned resin and the other is "Yuenzumi" made by burning rapeseed oil, sesame oil or paulownia oil. The manufacturing process of the so-called Nara Sumi, equivalent to Nanto-Yuenzumi, was brought back by Kukai together with writing brushes when he returned from China as Kentoshi (delegate). In Japan Sumi was first produced at Nitaibo of Kofuku-ji Temple in this method. Though Shoenzumi was produced even after the Fujiwara era in Kishu (Wakayama today) and Omi (Shiga), it was not produced any longer after the Kamakura period.(1192-1333).
Akahada Yaki( pottery )
In the mid-Edo period, Yanagisawa Gyozan, the owner of the Yamato-Koriyama Castle, invited china artists, Inosuke and Jihei from Kiyomizu, Kyoto, to rekindle the ceramic industry, and he protected and promoted the industry by exclusively using its products. People like Aoki Mokuto, a court doctor,who gained the title "Mokuto" by presenting Rakuyaki ware to Lord Gyozan, and Okuda Mokuhaku, who produced many masterpieces while managing a fancy goodsshop in Yamato-Koriyama City, made Akahada pottery popular nationwide. Today some artists try to give new perspectives to this technology, which is still loved as a native art of Nara.Nara Sarashi ( Nara Cloth )
Though the origin of Nara Sarashi goes back to the age of Kojiki, or Records of Ancient Matters, it only became widely known in the early Edo period.
Then a man named Kiyosumi Sishiro improved this bleaching technology and gave it a sudden popularity. Until then Sarashi was mainly used for the clothing of priests and later of Bushi (warriers) as the material of their formal suits. Nara Sarashi manufacturing came to be such a big business that Ieyasu Tokugawa picked a habit of using it regularly and had to enforce a law to control its production and sale.
Nara Sarashi sees the completion of its white color and cool touch in the clean stream in the mountains after its pre-refined cloth is carefully woven from hemp thread for about one month. Therefore, Nara Sarashi is said to be given life by water running between mountain rocks, while quality cloth of Echigo is considered in need of good snow.
Because of its clean and elegant texture, it is used not only for the costumes of traditional performing art but for tea ceremony cloths, table centers with designs of treasures at Shoso-in Storehouse, and Noren (cloth dangling at the entrance to a Japanese restaurant).
Masks for Japanese classical music first came from China in the early 7th century (at the reign of Empress Suiko) as part of Buddhist art. Most of them are kept at temples and shrines in Nara today. The first masks to come were "Gigaku-men" for Gigaku (ancient mask show), replaced later by Bugaku (court dance and music) masks called "Bugaku-men." They were followed by "Gyodo-men," which were used at religious events and processions (Gyodo), through which Buddhist merits and ecstacy were given widely to the general public.
In the 11th century, as Nohgaku and Kyogen occurred and developed, uniquely Japanese masks were created. It was not until the modern age that these masks were imitated and made objects of artistic appreciation. Especially after the Second World War, they were no longer mere souvenirs of Nara, but came to be seen as art works of interior decoration and even sold at places like department stores, since people reconsidered ancient fine arts unique to Japan and found them full of conspicuous values. Some artists are active in Nara, making wooden masks usable at Noh and Kyogen stages.
Nara Ningyo ( Nara Doll )
The colorful dolls that decorated Hanagaza (a hat adorned with flowers) of Den-gaku Hoshi (a performer of ancient ritual music and dancing) or Shimadai (an ornament on a stand representing the Isle of Eternal Youth) at Kasuga Wakamiya Festival, which started in late Heian period, are the first forms of Nara Dolls.
Afterwards, doll making developed as accessories to ceremonies of Kasuga and other shrines. It made rapid progress in the Azuchi-Momoyama period. During this time such rulers as Nobunaga, Hideyoshi and Ieyasu received gifts of dolls from various parts of the country. And "Tamon-in Nikki," or the diary by Tamon-in, says the foremost one from Nara was the Nara doll used for Noh performance and that it decorated wine tables, which were also beautifully colored. This was the time when "Sarugaku Noh," which originated in Sangaku, the oldest form of performing art of Chinese origin, established itself as Nohgaku. Accordingly, Nara dolls, which were for the most part Noh dolls, took their original form.
Around the mid-Edo period, Okano Shoju, whose family had been of doll manipulators for 13 generations, gained Nara dolls fame. And from late Edo through Meiji, Morikawa Toen, who was also a kyogen performer, enhanced the quality of Nara dolls to the level of an art.
Since around this time, Nara dolls have been called "Ittobori" (one cutter carving) and have been used for Kyogen like "Takasago," Bugaku like "Ranryo-oh," animals of Junishi (Oriental Zodiac), but currently, Hina dolls are quite popular as well. Nara dolls' charm lies in the mysterious harmony of their simple figure and their extreme but meticulous colors. Lately original artists of Nara dolls have appeared.
Nara Shikki ( Lacquerware )
The lacquerware technology of our country reached its zenith as part of the Tempyo culture, which flowered together with Buddhism. This art was a mixture of various techniques including those seen in painting with lacquer, Raden (mother-of-pearl work), Hyomon (pasting thin gold or silver plates on lacquer surfaces),etc. All this created very beautiful eye-catching products.Probably, craftsmen of lacquerware came from China when finished products were imported, and they taught their technology in Japan. Many pieces of that age are kept at Shosoin Storehouse in Nara, so Nara is thought to be the birthplace of Japanese lacquerware.
In the Middle Ages, Nurishi (japanner), Urushiya Za (Japanners' union) came into being. Living and working at temples and shrines in Nara as building japanners, these technicians also made lacquer dishes. Some were masters of tea ceremony utensil japanning, while others worked on soldiers weapons.
Later in the Meiji era (post-feudal age) Nara Expo Company was founded, and the First Expo (1876), where precious furniture of Shosoin and other temples and shrines were exhibited, encouraged lacquer painters in Nara to make replicas of the displayed objects, which led to the restoration of Nara lacquerware. Of all kinds of lacquer technologies, Raden-nuri (unique japanningmethods in mother-of-pearl work) is seen exclusively in Nara.
As Nara is known as the home of Japanese history and culture, it is not surprising that its traditional events, which are carried out throughout the year, are indeed colorful. From the Ceremonial Burning of Wakakusa-yama Hill (whose flames illuminate an evening sky in winter); to the Memorial Water-Drawing Ceremony of Nigatsudo (February Hall); through the summer performances of the Firelight Noh (the perfection of that art, performed with an open-air fire for a background); and the Kasuga Grand Shrine Lantern Lighting Ritual (in which about 3,000 stone and hanging bronze lanterns are all lit at once, forming a simple yet elegant atmosphere); to the Deer Antler Cutting Ceremony in the fall; it is no exaggeration to state that the four seasons are beautifully colored by the numerous traditional events that add a sweet innocence to the charm of Nara.
Getting Around Nara
From Kansai Airport
|Map of Nara|