In December 1998, eight cultural assets in Nara were declared World Heritage Sites as the “Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara.” The sites were Todai-ji Temple, Kofuku-ji Temple, the Kasuga-Taisha (Kasuga Great Shrine), Gango-ji Temple, Yakushi-ji Temple, Toshodai-ji Temple, the ruins of Heijo Palace (the Nara Palace Site), and Kasugayama Primeval Forest. Sightseeing tours starting from Nara Station cover most of these eight sites.
Heading east from Kintetsu Nara Station or JR Nara Station, you will see Nara Park spread before you, with Todai-ji, standing far in the distance. A hall housing the seated image of the Great Buddha (Vairocana Buddha) is said to be one of the largest wooden structures in the world. The statue is 14.98 meters tall (sitting height), with its knees 12.08 meters in width, and weighs an estimated 380 tons.
Mount Wakakusa, also known as Mount Mikasa, is seen behind Todai-ji, forming part of the Kasugayama Primeval Forest. An event called Yama-yaki (mountain-burning) is held there on the fourth Saturday of January every year. The purpose of the event is to grieve for ancestors’ souls, but it also helps to regulate the grass on the mountain. After a few minutes of a fireworks display, a fire is set and the entire mountain is engulfed in flames.
To the east from the hall is Nigatsudo Hall, which is famous for the Shunie ceremony or Omizutori. It is a severe training held annually from March 1 through 14 in which priests pray to Kannon Bosatsu enshrined at Nigatsudo Hall for world peace and forgiveness for people’s sins. It has been observed without interruption since the Nara period (710~794).
A short walk from Todai-ji, toward the southeast, will take you to the Kasuga-Taisha, which was founded to guard the Heijo-kyo metropolis in the Nara period. The shrine houses numerous national treasures and important cultural properties. The Kasuga-Taisha is located within Nara Park and its tame deer are believed to have been messengers of a god that visited the shrine. Therefore, these deer are highly esteemed. “shika-senbei” (deer crackers) are sold in the park to give to the deers, and visitors are allowed to feed them freely.
There are approximately 3,000 lanterns on the grounds of the shrine, and twice every year, on Setsubun or the day before the beginning of spring (February 3 or 4) and during the Bon period (August 13 to 16), the Mantoro festival is held, where all the lanterns are lit. Another festival, the Kasuga Wakamiya On-Matsuri, is observed in December, where people wearing clothing from past eras, ranging from the Heian period to the Edo period, march in procession. Both of these events have over 800 years of history.
Heading west out of the first gateway to the Kasuga-Taisha, you will see Sarusawa Pond. Going further west, you will come to an intersection with a shopping arcade. Turning right and walking through the arcade will take you back to Kintetsu Nara Station. If you turn left, you will see the arcade continue all the way to Nara-machi. This area is an old shopping district, with the arcade running the entire length between Kintetsu Nara Station and Nara-machi.
Nara-machi retains the ancient landscape of the town, with a number of shops converted from old residences. Gango-ji is also located in this area. For the past few years, Nara-machi has been a popular tourist spot, where you can find unique shops such as a store selling small objects made of mosquito net cloth that has long been produced in Nara and restaurants serving locally grown vegetables. The streets in this neighborhood are narrow, and so feel quite crowded.
Nara-machi is also home to a small shrine called Koshindo, where a statue of Shomen Kongo is enshrined. Red stuffed toys representing monkeys, which legend says are messengers of Koshin (another name for Shomen Kongo), are hung out under the eaves of houses in the area. These are called the “Scapegoat Monkeys” and are intended to ward off evil spirits and ensure the safety of the family. They are sold as charms at Nara-machi Shiryou-kan Museum (open only on weekends and holidays).
If you walk back toward Nara Park from the shopping arcade, you will come across Kofuku-ji Temple on the way. The temple, which in 2010 will celebrate the 1,300th anniversary of its founding, is famous for the Five Storied Pagoda, the Nanendo (Southern Octagonal Hall) and the statue of Ashura. The most popular spot for posing for photographs in Kofuku-ji is the Five Storied Pagoda. The structure has a sharply pointed roof, giving a powerful impression.
From Kintetsu Nara Station, you can take a bus to the ruins of Heijo Palace (the Nara Palace Site). Heijo-kyo (where the palace was located) was an old capital of Japan established in 710 by Empress Genmei. It is believed to have been modeled on Chang’an, an ancient Chinese capital during the Tang Dynasty, and it prospered as the capital for about 70 years. The Suzakumon (the main gate to the palace) and the Daikokuden hall (the central audience hall) have been restored, allowing visitors to imagine what the ancient capital looked like in those days. As 2010 will mark the 1,300th year since the capital was transferred to Heijo-kyo, commemorative events are scheduled throughout the year.
When traveling from Tokyo, take a bullet train from JR Tokyo Station to JR Kyoto Station. Take the Nara Line and get off at JR Nara Station (total time about 3 hours to 3 hours and 20 minutes) or take the Kintetsu Kyoto Line and get off at Kintetsu Nara Station (total time about 3 hours). When traveling from Osaka, take the Kintetsu Line from Osaka Namba Station to Kintetsu Nara Station (about 30 minutes) or take the Kansai Main Line from JR Osaka Station to JR Nara Station (about 50 minutes).
In order to get to Horyu-ji Temple, take a train from JR Nara Station to JR Horyu-ji Station, which takes about 15 minutes. From the station, it’s about 20 minutes on foot to the temple. Or you can take a bus for Horyu-ji mon mae (10 minutes). Built by Prince Shotoku in the Asuka period (538~710), the temple is said to be the oldest wooden structure in the world. In 1993, it became the first World Heritage Site registered by UNESCO in Japan.
The vast site of about 187,000 square meters houses a number of articles and structures totaling over 2,300, nearly too many to be covered by a day trip. Many of them have been designated as national treasures and important cultural assets such as the Kudara Kannon statue and the Tamamushi-no-Zushi (a personal shrine). It is said that the temple had adopted Chinese culture via the Korean Peninsula.
Photos courtesy by Nara City Sightseeing Association
Ikaruga Tourism Association
Text: SEKI Keiko
[From January Issue 2010]