Nara, A Celebration of History
A quiet, quaint town brimming with cultural treasures and natural beauty, Japan’s first capital, Nara, oozes picture postcard appeal and old-world charm. Yet Nara’s serene green spaces belie its turbulent emergence under the Chinese Tang Dynasty in the 8th century. As the concluding chapter on the Silk Road, Nara has been the gateway for Buddhism and foreign influences, all of which have had a key role in shaping modern Japan. This journey through history, politics, and cultural evolution remains preserved in Nara’s secret corners, its shrines, temples, and historic pathways, beckoning travellers to explore and discover.
Nara is home to eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites, making it second only to Kyoto as Japan’s cultural repository. The massive, 15-metre Nara Daibutsu (Great Buddha) is perhaps one of Nara’s most iconic symbols. It remains snugly housed in Tōdai-ji, the world’s largest wooden building that is part of the 8th century Buddhist temple complex. Tōdai-ji’s main temple building (Daibutsuden) also provides an easy way to attain enlightenment in your next life. All you have to do is squeeze through a small hole at the bottom of the rear support pillar of the temple, but be warned – if you’re anything but skinny, you might want to rethink this adventure! The original Shosoin (treasure house) of the temple is an architectural jewel in itself, housing artefacts that preserve the essence of the Chinese Tang Dynasty, thereby extending the Shosin’s significance beyond Japanese borders.
When to visit
Springtime (March, April, May) and Fall (October, November) are the best times to visit.
The Kōfuku-ji, a 15th century Buddhist temple bearing a 5-storey pagoda and the exquisite vermilion-lacquered Kasuga-Taisha, a Shinto shrine famous for its stone lanterns, are also World Heritage Sites that deserve a visit. Discover national treasures enshrined in the 8th century Shinyakushi-ji Temple and important cultural gems conserved in the 7th century Yakushi-ji Temple. Close to the Tōdai-ji lies the Hōrū-ji, a treasure trove of early Japanese art.
Nara-kōen occupies centre-stage in the city, it’s vast green spaces inviting picnics and leisurely strolls in the company of its sacred deer. More than a thousand shika wander freely, feeding on senbei crackers offered by eager tourists.
The Isui-en Garden offers scenic relief through abundant greenery, while the Yoshiki-en Garden located just next to it is another serene space, with a thatch-roof teahouse and oak trees that flame crimson in November.
If you want a larger fill of nature, then trek up or take the ropeway to the sacred Mount Katsuragi and soak in the hues of its seasonal blooms. May sees the entire mountainside covered by pink Azaleas, while autumn displays the golden hues of the Pampas grass towards the top of the mountain. Mt. Yoshino is no less beautiful with its gorgeous cover of pink Cherry Blossoms in springs and its vivid fall colours in autumn. For a refreshing change, take in the brilliant green of Japan’s rural landscapes at Asuka’s rice terraces.
Of course, your visit won’t be complete until you’ve tried the local food and carried some home in the form of Daibutsu Pudding. Try Kakinoha sushi and Izasa sushi, Nara’s local gourmet offerings, or okonomiyaki, a traditional delicacy.
Nara is a powerhouse of culture, tradition and history, affording its visitors a view into the birth of Japan, and a host of authentic experiences amidst inspiring and picturesque natural settings.
What to do
– View the Daibutsu in Tōdai-ji
– Picnic at Nara Park
– Stroll to Kasuga-Taisha and the forest pathways beyond
– Observe the colours of nature at Mount Katsuragi and Mt. Yoshino
– Enjoy Nara’s historic treasures