Exploring Nara

This time in Exploring Japan, we look at the ancient capital region of Nara in the Kansai area.

Nara Prefecture is located in east of Osaka, in the middle of the Kii Peninsula, and it’s completely landlocked.  The population is 1,396,849. The capital city is Nara.  The 5 largest cities are:

  1. Nara (366,591)
  2. Kashihara (125,605)
  3. Ikoma (120,304)
  4. Yamatokoriyama (89,023)
  5. Kashiba (75,227)

The prefecture’s population is decreasing steadily, as is the population of Nara city.  However, Kashihara, Ikoma, and Kashiba are all growing, which is a bit unusual.  Usually, it’s the biggest city that grows while the smaller ones lose people.

Castles

Koriyama Castle in Yamatokoriyama has some reconstructed turrets and a gate, but the rest is ruins.  However, it seems that what remains is quite impressive.

Things to see and do

Nara has an incredible wealth of historic sites, and has more UNESCO World Heritage Sites than any other prefecture in Japan.  Three cities or towns have served as capitals of Japan, and there’s something to see in every place.

Nara is one of the most famous tourist destinations in Japan.  Many of the sites can be found in Nara Park.  A lot of people like to go there to see and feed the deer.  Todaiji temple is very famous, and it’s home to Japan’s largest Daibutsu, or Great Buddha statue.  There’s a lot to see there, including the deer.  Kofukuji temple has a three storey and five storey pagoda, the latter being one of the tallest in Japan.  Sarusawa Pond is a good place to view Kofukuji.  Nara National Museum is an impressive museum and hosts one of the best collections of Buddhist art and artifacts.  Himuro Shrine is well-known for its cherry trees.  Ukimido seems interesting, as it’s a hexagonal building built on Sagaiike Pond, and it looks like it’s floating.  Kasuga Taisha is a temple that has an impressive approach and a great forest, Kasuga-yama Primeval Forest.  Isuien Garden is small, but very beautiful. Yoshikien Garden is next to it, and is also quite pleasant, and free for foreigners.  Shin-Yakushiji temple has some impressive warrior statues.  Outside of the park, there’s also plenty to see.  Heijo Palace is a very impressive and well-preserved historic site with very recent replica buildings, including the Daigoku-den.  Nara City Museum of Photography is good for photography fans.  Yakushiji temple is a reconstructed temple after a fire, and is quite impressive with its two pagodas (one dating back to 730 CE).  Gangoji temple is an interesting place to visit with its many statues, particularly the demon statues. Toshodaiji temple is a very important temple in Japan, as it helped spread Buddhism in the country.  Nara Century Hall has plenty of events.  The Mount Wakakusa Fire Festival has fireworks and dry grass is set on fire.  In March, Shuni-e is a Buddhist memorial service that has been carried out since 752 CE without missing a year.  Nara Toka-e is a festival in August where 10,000 candles are lit around Nara Park.  Naramachi is a historic area that dates back to the 8th century and has several small museums, restaurants, shops and more.

Kashihara was also an old capital of Japan, known as Fujiwarakyo.  Here, you can visit the site of Fujiwara Palace.  But also, there’s Kashihara Shrine and Imaimachi, a well-preserved historic district.

Asuka is a village where another old capital existed, Asukakyo.  In fact, it’s considered the first capital of Japan.  Ishibutai Burial Mound has one of the largest burial chambers found in Japan.  Takamatsuzuka Burial Mound has colour frescas that were found, which are now in the museum next to it.  Asuka-dera temple is said to be Japan’s first Buddhist temple, and it contains a Buddha statue.  Oka-dera temple is also a very old temple, and it has a clay image of Nyoirin Kannon from the 8th century.

Yoshino is a small town that is home to several temples and shrines that are part of the Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range.  Among these are Kinpusenji temple and Yoshimizu Shrine. Also visit Nyoirinji temple, Yoshinomikumari Shrine, and Yoshino Shrine.  You can also visit the Miyataki waterfall.  This mountain town is in the Yoshino-Kumano National Park.

Ikaruga town has one of the most famous sites in Japan, Horyuji temple.  This is a very large temple complex with many impressive buildings.  The Chumon gate has guardian statues that are the oldest in Japan.  Kondo, the Golden Hall, is the oldest wooden building in the world at more than 1300 years old.  Gojunoto is a five-storey pagoda that is the oldest in Japan.  Daikodo is an impressively large building dating back to 990.  Hokkiji temple is another important temple, and it has a three-storey pagoda that is the oldest of its kind in Japan. Horinji temple is another old temple, though some reconstruction has been done due to fire as a result of lightning.

Food

A local specialty is kudzu, a plant that can be used for many kinds of food.  Also, Narazuke is a local kind of pickle traditionally made from melon cucumbers.  Kaki-no-hazushi is a kind of sushi made with mackerel or salmon wrapped in persimmon leaves.  And finally, you can try somen, a kind of noodle made from wheat.

Have you been to Nara?  Did I miss anything?  Leave a comment!

6 Comments

Filed under Japan, Nara

6 responses to “Exploring Nara

  1. I’m behind on your posts, but will slowly catch up. I’ve been to Nara City several times and seen all the usual sites. Nara is probably the most efficient way to do the Olde Japan thing, since everything is within walking distance of the Kintetsu Station and more or less free of the Modern Japan taint. I haven’t been to the rest of the prefecture much, though. The communities you pointed out as growing are actually exurbs of Osaka, thus the growth. It’s a pretty short train ride from, say, Ikoma to one of the Southern Osaka business districts.

    • I thought they’d be next to Osaka, considering their growth. I have to say I’m a bit jealous of people who live in Kansai. So much more history is preserved there than in the Kanto area.

  2. I’ve been to Nara quite a few times and love it for its history and culture. It is small enough to pack most worthwhile sights into one full day, especially if you concentrate around the Nara Park area, but I would recommend spending a few days here to fully explore the place.

  3. What a great list! I’ve been to Nara before, but didn’t get to see too much. I will definitely refer back to this comprehensive list if I ever go back. Thanks!

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