Although only 45 mins away from Kyoto by train, Nara (奈良市) is often overlooked by time-pressed travellers but, as Japan’s first permanent capital with over 1300 years of history, it’s worth the short diversion. After a chilly trip to Kyoto back in March I spent half a day exploring it on foot.

Sarusawa Pond

After arriving at Kintetsu Nara Station (近鉄奈良駅) I paid a quick visit to the adjacent tourist information office where a kindly old gentleman showed me a walking route which he assured me would avoid the tourist hordes. After giving me an origami figure of a deer I set off, first stopping to take in the view of Kōfuku-ji pagoda (興福寺) from Sarusawa Pond (猿沢の池).

Torii Gate in Nara

Most of the historical sites lie in and around the 500+ hectare Nara Park (奈良公園).

Nara Deer

Once considered sacred messengers of the Shinto gods that inhabit the surrounding mountainous, the park is home to over 1,200 wild sika deer (シカ), who today freely roam around and are protected as national treasures. They’re particularly interested in visitors bearing tasty treats so watch out!

Ukimido Gazebo

Above: Ukimido Gazebo on Sagiike Pond.

Nara Park

A short walk later I entered Kasuga-yama Hill Primeval Forest (春日山原生林), which as the name suggests is a beautiful area of undeveloped forest covered in cedars, firs and cypresses.

Stone & Wood Lanterns

Kasuga Taisha Stone Lanterns

Further into the forest the path edge gives way to thousands of stone lanterns on the approach to Kasuga Taisha Shrine (春日大社).

Kasuga Taisha Shrine

Kasuga Taisha Shrine is one of the most important in Nara and is dedicated to the deity responsible for the protection of the city. You can enter the outer area for free but have to pay for a closer look at the inner buildings.

Stone Lanterns at Kasuga Taisha

Kasuga Taisha Wedding

While I was there a traditional Shinto wedding was taking place.

Red Gateway

Feeding Deer on Wakakusayama Hill

Above: Feeding Deer on Wakakusayama Hill.

Paper Birds

I noticed that many of the stone lanterns had paper windows fixed over their aperture, decorated with writing or illustrations. Presumably this is used to stop the wind extinguishing the naked flames, but if anyone knows better please leave a comment below.

Tōdai-ji Great Bell

Enormous Bell

A little further on I came across the belfry of Tōdai-ji which contains an enormous 26 ton bell almost 4 m tall and 3 m wide.

Tōdai-ji Temple

Below the belfry lies Tōdai-ji (東大寺), the biggest temple I’ve ever seen, and in fact is the world’s largest wooden building which houses the world’s largest bronze statue of the Buddha.

Tōdai-ji Great Hall

Tōdai-ji Daibutsu

According to records, more than 2,600,000 people helped construct the Great Buddha and its Hall. The 16 m high statue was built over three years, the head and neck being cast together as a separate element.

Escape

A curious attraction in one corner of the hall is a pillar with a hole in its base that is the same size as the Daibutsu’s nostril. Legend has it that those who can squeeze through this opening will be granted enlightenment in their next life. Plenty were queuing up for the pleasure.

Binzuru (Pindola)

Outside the main hall is the ever-so-slightly creepy looking wooden statue of Binzuru (賓頭盧 or Pindola) seated in the lotus position. Statues of him are usually well-worn, since the faithful follow the custom of rubbing a part of the effigy corresponding to the sick parts of their bodies, as he is reputed to have the gift of healing. The red bib is worn as an offering to watch over the health of babies.

Tōdai-ji Approach

Overall Nara was a great day trip from Kyoto and well worth a visit if you can squeeze it in. Wikivoyage has lots more useful information about how to get there and the other things you can see/do.

Comments

  1. Wendy says:

    I am planning a trip – The Nakasendo Way in April 2015, I may add a side trip to Nara, I was told by a Japanese lady that I should visit Nara when going to Japan and she is sure I will like it, after reading your article and photos, it seems worth to extend the trip couple days longer.

  2. Zachariel Shanahan says:

    When I arrived to Nara station, the tourist lady recommended I needed 9 hours to see everything worthwhile in Nara. I done it in 3 hahaha, obviously taking shortcuts, I was on a tight budget and timeframe.

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