The Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara comprise Buddhist and Shinto religious buildings that show the evolution of Japanese architecture.
The designated area consists of eight separate locations:
- Buddhist temples Todai-ji, Kôfuku-ji, Gango-ji, Yakushi-ji and Tôshôdai-ji
- Nara Palace
- Shinto shrine Kasuga-Taisha
- Kasugayama Primeval Forest
Map of Ancient NaraLoad map
In several ways Ancient Nara is the opposite of the Kyoto WHS. While in Kyoto the temples and shrines are spread all over the entire city area and beyond, the most significant sites in much smaller Nara are located in a park on the edge of the modern city. Nara was the residence of the Japanese Emperor prior to Kyoto, and only for a relatively short time. This may be the reason why the diversity of sites and styles is smaller compared to Kyoto, but that doesn't mean that Nara is also less impressive.
Most travelers visit Nara on a day trip from Kyoto. However, I scheduled two full days for Nara and Hōryū-ji, which enabled me to visit all locations of these two WHS.
If you enter the core zone at Sarusawa pond, you first reach Konfuku-ji. In the 8th century, the temple consisted of more than 150 buildings, of which only a few have survived. Most striking is the five-story pagoda. It was completely destroyed several times in civil wars, the current building dates from the 15th century - reconstructions can also be historical, especially in Japan.
The must-see in Nara is Todai-ji and its large Buddha statue. Todai-ji is always described in superlatives: largest bronze Buddha statue, largest wooden building in the world. And indeed, everything seems to be at least one size larger than at other temples, not only the Buddha, but also the gates, the guardian statues etc. Over the centuries, Todai-ji (like many temples in Japan) was destroyed by earthquakes and fire, more than once (no surprise, it is made of wood). Even the Buddha has lost his head several times, the current one dates from 1692. However, the fact that it is a reconstruction does not diminish the pleasure of the visit. And another plus: it is allowed to take pictures of the Great Buddha.
The journey is more important than the destination, you might think when walking to the Kasuga-Taisha Shrine. The path through an old forest is lined with the incredible number of 3000 stone lanterns. The shrine is amazing as well. Actually, it was my favorite site in Nara. I liked the colours: the vermilion columns, the white walls, the green wood, and the blue sky above. The shrine is famous for its brass and bronze lanterns, that hang by the hundreds on all buildings and along the colonnades (photo). There is even a "dark room" to give an idea of what it looks like when all the lanterns are lit. This happens only twice a year at special festivals. Entrance to the outer compounds is free, it opens early in the morning, but I would strongly recommend paying the 500 Yen fee to visit also the inner grounds.
Right behind to Kasuga-Taisha is the Kasugayama Primeval Forest. You can hike through the inscribed area on an 11 km loop passing Jizo statues and small temples and shrines. It took me about 2 hours. I wouldn't say it's a must-do, but it was a nice walk through an ancient forest, mostly cedars and maples, quite relaxing after days of crowded temple sites.
The Gangō-ji is considered the oldest Buddhist temple in Japan. That could be the reason for its inscription. Originally founded in Asuka, the temple was later moved to Nara. However, from a visitor point of view, it is significantly behind the other locations.
The next day after visiting Hōryū-ji, I went to the two temples in Nishinokyo District, west of Nara. I took the bus from JR Nara station and arrived 15 minutes later at the bus stop in front of the main gate of Yakushi-ji. The temple has a symetrical layout with the huge main hall in the center flanked by two pagodas. The eastern pagoda was still under scaffolding when I visited, but the works should be finished in 2020. Yakushi-ji was a nice surprise. I liked to explore the details of the colourful designed buildings, again vermilion columns, white walls and green doors.
Tōshōdai-ji is only a short walk away and has a completely different atmosphere and style. The buildings are lower and have a more simple and plain design compared to Yakushi-ji. Everything is surrounded by trees and lush foliage plants. I liked most the moss garden in the northeast corner of the complex.
And finally, the Heijō-kyō: it was more my tendency towards completeness rather than true enthusiasm that made me visit also the last part of the WHS. There is hardly anything visible left of the former palace, it is a huge and almost empty archaeological area. There are only a few recent reconstructions: the Suzuka Gate in the south, the Daigokuden (former Audience Hall) and the East Palace Gardens. Certainly, the least rewarding of all locations.
Visiting the temples in the Nara Park is certainly enough to tick-off the Nara WHS. But if you have more time, I would recommend to stay overnight and visit also the temples in the west of Nara.
After Kyoto, Nara is definitely the next most important historic city to visit in Japan. Even though it was capital of Japan for far less time, the monuments in Nara are no less impressive. While Ancient Kyoto wins in quantity and diversity of architectural and landscaping styles, Ancient Nara wins in the cohesiveness of its monuments, mostly concentrated in specific areas, most notably Nara Park. It's also home to, in my opinion, the single most impressive temple building in Japan, Todaiji's Daibutsuden. I was able to visit all 4 temples and shrines in and around Nara Park, these being Kasuga Taisha, Todaiji, Kofukuji, and Gangoji on a day trip from Osaka in December 2019. I arrived in JR Nara Station, as I had just come from Horyuji before going to Nara, and from there I took a loop bus to Nara Park.
The normal loop bus doesn't stop at Kasuga Taisha Shrine, but instead drops you almost a kilometer away to walk a forested path through Nara Park towards the shrine. There is a bus from the JR station directly to the shrine, but I believe it's less frequent than the loop bus, and I prefer walking over waiting. Anyway, wherever you get down will most definitely lead to an interaction with the (in)famous deer of Nara. I even saw one steal a plastic bag of donuts from some careless tourists. Nevertheless, they're a great touch to photos, as they seem to have a tendency to pose nice and still for pictures. The path to the shrine is lined with stone lanterns, which is in a way a precursor to its lantern-filled interior. It seems that to walk among the lanterns, you have to pay a fee, but I was satisfied with being able to see the paid area from outside. The shrine buildings were beautiful, as expected, but not too different from Itsukushima and Senjokaku in Miyajima. It's not at all the most impressive stuff to see in Nara.
Next, I walked to Todaiji. The deer here are even more aggressive, and the tourists with food more numerous. But none of these can distract from the magnificence of Todaiji. Each structure, starting with the Nandaimon that serves as the entrance to the temple grounds, is more impressive than the last until you reach Daibutsuden. This great hall called to mind the sheer scale of Karnak Temple in Egypt; this is a wonder on it's own. It could easily be a WHS on it's own. It's astonishing how wood can support so much weight. Even the Buddha inside is so big, it'd be a big tourist attraction without the building around it. Sadly, the building has had to be reconstructed, but since the last time was in the 18th century, I can't say I'm disappointed in this historic monument. It's got a lot of interesting little details too, little embellishments that make the building not just imposing, but graceful as well. There are more buildings in the complex, but with 2 more temples to visit and some family members with aching feet, I had to go on without seeing them.
The next most famous temple in Nara is definitely Kofukuji, and it's right at the edge of Nara Park. There are even temples in Kyoto whose names are mashed up versions of Kofukuji and Todaiji (Tofukuji and Kodaiji), testifying to the influence these 2 temples of Nara have had on the rest of the nation. Kofukuji was the family temple of the Fujiwara clan, and it's got a diverse set of structures, including golden halls, octagonal halls, and pagodas. You can pay to enter the golden halls, but I opted out due to them being recent reconstructions, but I found both the 5-story and 3-story pagoda impressive in height and beauty. The octagonal halls as well are authentic historic constructions, and they reminded me of the original octagonal hall in Horyuji that I had seen earlier that day. Like Frederik below, I loved the view of Kofukuji and the mountains from Sarusawa pond. The pond is in just the right spot for the most scenic panoramic view in Nara, and the water has quite a magical mirror quality to it too.
Lastly, I checked out Gangoji. Walking through Naramachi, I expected it to be a bustling commercial district with beautiful historic buildings, but I ended up finding myself in a residential area. I found later that I had taken the wrong road to Gangoji, but luckily, I found the temple right before closing time. December days end fast, I'll tell you that! Gangoji was a huge contrast to the other monuments I had seen in Nara, as it's really small and simple. It's not an impressive structure, inside or out, but there's a charm to the simplicity. The interior has some interesting Buddhist artwork. Outside is the main attraction, though: a densely packed ancient graveyard. The tombstones all had interesting shapes and designs, and they contrasted well with the old white-and-brown wooden temple behind them. Gangoji isn't a must-see in Nara, but I enjoyed the short visit. Aside from its age and the tombstones, I don't think the temple could justify OUV on it's own, though.
I have to say, I wasn't 100% sold with Nara the way I was with Kyoto or Koyasan. I find some inconsistencies with some of the serial sites a bit strange. Like, how historically authentic are Kasuga Taisha and Kofukuji's golden halls? How is Gangoji deserving of WHS status? Well, the UNESCO page talks about how these monuments bring back the golden days of Nara as the capital of Ancient Japan. While I don't exactly feel brought back to that point, I ultimately feel that Nara is just a good ensemble of historic monuments that complement each other, and each component has something different to offer. Perhaps I'll need to see the other serial components of the site to get a full picture, but I think all one has to understand in Nara is that this is an amazing city that has a long story to it. And without overthinking the little details, Ancient Nara is definitely a very impressive WHS to visit.
One of the many delights of this stunning site, an easy day trip from Kyoto, besides the the two huge carved wooden guardians of the temple, is the admonition near the entrance gate to be careful a deer does not eat your ticket.
Even for those who might feel "templed out" the site is unique and worthy of its world heritage status.
I visited here in 2007.
Nara is a former imperial capital of Japan and served as the capital before Kyoto.
While there are many attractions here, the biggest (literally) is the Todaiji Temple, which is the largest wooden building in the world. It makes for a great bookend with Hyruji if you like wooden building superlatives.
You can visit Nara via a day trip from Kyoto, but I think there is enough there to justify at least an overnight stay if possible.
Read more about the Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara on my website.
Seven constructions within Nara have been designated as part of an official World Heritage Site. Although there are other things to see, together they form the best examples of the ancient capital and the religious and political significance of the city.
All of them can be seen in a day, if you rush. However my highlights are Todai-ji and Kasuga Grand Shrine.
Read more from Michael Turtle here.
Nara is probably the most underrated historical place anywhere in Japan. Within easy reach of Kansai International Airport by a reliable limousine bus service in just under 90 minutes. But careful: the last trip is at 20.40h. After that just via Osaka. I stayed with Takeshi Hamano at Guesthouse Nara Backpackers (confy beds dorm beds for 23 dollars, wifi and of course tea included) in Yurugi-cho, a very cozy 90 year old wooden building that served in its previous life as a Japanese tea ceremony house. Its quietly and conveniently located inbetween Kintetsu station and Nara-koen, the huge park to the east of the city where you can find most of the temples.Also the park is home to 1,200 deers, freely roaming around in search of shika-sembei, the delicious deer biscuits.At the time of my visit it was the pregnancy season, and I was told that most of the pregnant mama deers are kept indoor (in a place called Rokuen), as they could attack visitors when approached in their string maternal instinct. Rokuen is open for public viewing of the newly born deers during the whole month of June. The highlight of any visit to Nara is of course the world heritage site of Todajij Daibutsu-den which is the largest wooden building in the world. A truly impressive structure, and to imagine that the original building was even wider by about one third of the present size, rebuild in 1709. Inside is yet another world record, the famous Great Buddha (Daibutsu), with 437 tonnes of bronze one of the largest bronze figures worldwide, with a height of 16 meters. I did the walking tour recommended by Lonely Planet and visited the temples of Nigatsu-do and Kasuga Taisha that is now charging a 500 yen entrance fee. Another gem in Nara's Unesco crown are the Kofuku-ji pagodas which served as tutelary temples of the Fujiwara family starting 710 when they were transferred here from Kyoto. Japan's first World Cultural heritage site (since 1993) is located in Horyuji, just a short trip out of Nara City by JR Kansai Line. In front of the train station in Horyuji, the connecting bus 72 is already waiting for the short hop to the temple complex.Here you will find the oldest surviving wooden structures (6th century, Asuka period) in the whole world, so its possible to see the biggest and oldest in just one day! Horyuji contains over 2,300 important cultural artefacts.The Gallery of Temple Treasures (Daihozoin) houses the most precious pieces like the Tamamushi Tabernacle which was the private property of the Imperial Family before or the nine headed Kannons, carved from sandalwod, and brought here from China.Also the famous Yumechigai Kannon statue has found a resting place in this newly constructed (1998) museum and attracts thousands of visitors every day. I found myself with many school classes, but avoided the long queues by politely asking permission to the friendly lady teachers!
I visited this WHS in November 2009. The highlight of my visit was huge seated Buddha in the Imperial Palace. All the Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines can be explored amidst a Japanese garden setting with the occasional deer grazing freely.
Nara was the first capital city of Japan, in the early 8th century, after the title was moved to Kyoto. However, the city kept its important cultural status in traditional Japan. I have spent three days visiting the numerous marvels of the town.
The Todai ji, a huge temple 56 meters high that houses a huge bronze Buddha statue 16 meters high, is the main attraction. The place is amazing by its greatness and the beauty of the detailed decoration it welcomes. The building deserves the attention it is given.
Very close is Kofuku ji temple with its famous 5 story pagoda, the second tallest in Japan after the one of To ji in Kyoto. While walking in the street and within this temple, you can see and caress the numerous deers that have been living freely in the city for centuries. Their existence is due to the fact that centuries ago, it was decided by one of the leader of the place that deers would not be killed anymore and would be venerated.
Among the other places of interest, we have Gogu ji temple with its Hondo, main hall, and its roof where some part parts are covered with the oldest tiles and the Yakushi ji temple with its colorful buildings.
1,300 years old Nara or Heijo-kyo was the first permanent capital of Japan with many ancient beautiful temples and shrines in the one large park that full of hundreds of roaming deer, was maybe the most important tourist attraction after Tokyo and Kyoto. Unlike Kyoto where modern and ancient were combined, Nara was clearly divided into two area, the modern city of Nara in the west and Nara Park with Naramachi area, where most of the main tourist attractions located, in the east.
The must visit places were the grand Todai-ji Temple and the brightly Kasuga Taisha Shrine, the main temple and shrine during Nara was a capital. Todai-ji was well known for its Daibutsu Hall, regarded as the biggest wooden building in the world with gigantic bronze Buddha statue, while Kasuga Taisha was famous for hundred of stone lanterns decorating the routes to the shrine, and both places were, again, full of deer.
These two places were exceptional and should be seen if in Nara; however my favorite place in Nara and would like to recommend were Kofukuji Temple, its pagoda were the second highest in Japan. The views of Kofukuji at Sarusawa pond by night were one of the most memorable scenic spots on my every Japan trip. Also the view of Kofukuji from the outdoor onsen baht of Asukasou Hotel at dusk was totally breathtaking with its eternal serenity, dipping in onsen baht while watching the pagoda was a lifetime experience.
Nara was maybe overshadowed and compared by nearby Kyoto, but Nara had all the needs of tourists, great hotel, lovely people, good food, beauty cultural sights and hundreds of cute but annoying deer. Nara was the must to see at least one time while visiting Japan, but for me every time I came back, Nara was proved to be better and better to linger on.
My favorite is Gangouji temple. The Gangouji temple is a small, simple, archaic temple. This temple was a place of commoners' prayers from the Middle Ages. It is different from the big temples protected by emperors, aristocrats, and Samurai.
The Gangouji temple is located in an old urban area outside the park. Therefore, few tourists come there. You will be able to see the temple calmly.
(To Mr. Jaxon Nobori's comment. )
A present Daibutsu building was rebuilt in 1709. It is already historical monuments of the Edo shogunate age. There is no reason to destroy it and to rebuild it again.
For me, the Toshodai-ji was more interesting than the Todai-ji. In particular the museum with the temples treasures was the highlight for me.
Passed up the chance to gawk at the Daibutsu, but went to see the Shoso-in instead. The central figure is heavily restored and somewhat squat in its' proportions and cramped in its' surroundings. It may help to know that the present building, in only two-thirds the size of the original one. They couldn't find enough big trees to re-build it properly the last time. I'll wait until they re-build it right.
Despite the touristy nature of virtually all of Japan's ancient sites, Nara is one place where you can get some idea of what Japan used to be like before everything old was almost entirely replaced with concrete.
Todai-Ji is a magnificent building and the Daibutsen Buddha is a jaw-dropping spectacle. This is, without question, the star of Nara-Koen and possible the highlight of all of Japan's cultural relics.
The rest of the park is also fascinating, with the 5 storey pagoda of Kofuku-Ji another gem.
The Ancient forest (also on the World Heritage list) at the back of the parkland is well worth hiking around for a few hours. It's a great way to get away from the crowds.
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