While Nara’s neighbor Kyoto receives most of the attention and most of the tourists, no one interested in Japanese history and culture should miss out on the chance to visit Nara. Nara, like Kyoto, was an ancient capital of Japan and as it’s only one hour from Kyoto via train, it’s easy to incorporate a visit to both former capitals in the same trip.
Nara’s history as a capital actually predates that of Kyoto, as it became Japan’s first capital in the year 710. Its reign was short lived, however, as the meddling influence of its powerful Buddhist monasteries caused the emperor to relocate in 784.
Visitors to Nara today will have no problems envisioning the 8th century, as the historic temples, gardens and relics of Nara have been incredibly well preserved. Most of the city’s attractions are situated in Nara Park, a 1,600 acre park in east Nara and at the base of Mt. Wakakusa. Dozens of miles of trails intersect the park, traveling alongside the hillsides and through the forest to the many cultural attractions. While the park gets its fair share of tourists, it’s not difficult to find serene trails and temples. However, you won’t be totally alone as the park is home to an estimated 1,200 wild sika deer. These deer are considered to be sacred in Shintoism, as they are seen as messengers from the gods, and have lived peacefully in the park for centuries.
The most impressive attraction in the park is Tōdai-ji, a Buddhist temple dating back to the 8th century that is actually the world’s largest wooden building. And wow, it’s one seriously large building! It’s bound to take your breath away as you walk up to the temple from Nara Park. Inside is an appropriately massive bronze statue of a seated Buddha.
Elsewhere in the park, Kasuga Taisha is Nara’s most important Shinto shrine. The walk from Tōdai-ji is a pleasant one, through the forest and past several tea houses. The shrine is a huge contrast from the grandeur of Tōdai-ji and is built in the traditional style of other Shinto shrines, with bright red/orange wood. Inside there are hundreds of bronze lanterns that are an especially impressive sight during the annual lantern festival.
Most travelers to Nara visit as part of a day trip from nearby Kyoto or Osaka. It is, however, possible to spend the night in a traditional guest house. While most of the sights and park can be seen in one full day, it may be worth spending the night to enjoy some traditional fare at a local restaurant or to enjoy the solitude of this quiet city.
One night that travelers won’t want to miss is the night of the Wakakusa Yamayaki Festival. This one-night festival is held every winter and includes bonfires and fireworks before festivities culminate in the burning of dry grass on Mt. Wakakusa. The entire mountain is engulfed in flames and provides for an interesting backdrop to the city’s temples and pagodas, to say the least.