Let’s go back to 8th century Japan. The imperial infrastructure of the country had been growing for quite some time, causing the empress to choose a permanent location for the capital. She picked a spot on the Yamato plain and the construction of Nara began.
At the time, Buddhism was becoming more and more deeply rooted in the cultural identity of Japan. Laws were even passed requiring each family to have a household shrine. As a result, there were an abundance of shrines dotting the city–many of which remain to this day.
Before Buddhism was introduced to Japan, an ancient religion known as Shinto flourished. Shinto, meaning ‘way of the gods’, was (and is) a pantheistic religion focused on strengthening ties to the past, nature, and spirits known as kami. One unique thing about the Shinto belief is its lack of sacred text or official ritual–a flexibility which enabled its practitioners to incorporate elements of Buddhism into their ceremonies and belief structures. To this day, Shintoism is a thriving belief for many people in Japan.
Now, let’s go back to Nara. Nara is dotted by a number of stunning Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, all in very close proximity to each other. Lacking the modern-city feel permeating Osaka and (to some extent) Kyoto, Nara provides a snapshot of a time when change and growth in Japanese society were rampant.
Now, without further adieu, here are the Top 5 Things I recommend doing in Nara!
Walk around Nara Park
Not only does Nara have an abundance of temples and shrines, it also has some citizens who have been venerated and protected for more than a millennium. I’m talking, of course, about the famous (or infamous?) sika deer which roam freely around Nara Park and beyond.
Believed to be sacred messengers of one of the local Shinto deities enshrined at Kasuga-taisha, the sika deer in Nara have enjoyed government protection for centuries. In fact, killing one was a capital offence up until the 17th century. Now, however, they are simply protected as national treasures. They are spoiled rotten due to continuously being offered the deer crackers sold throughout the park–making them extremely tame.
That said, the deer are still technically wild animals; it’s best to remember that before getting too comfortable around them. The City of Nara has some signs put out to remind people that, while cute and friendly, the deer can still be dangerous…
Explore Todaiji Temple
One of the main sights in Nara is the massive Todaiji Temple. Its main claim to fame is the massive, 500 ton, bronze Buddha statue known as Daibutsu housed inside, but the building is impressive in its own right.
Fun Fact: Todaiji makes an appearance as a Wonder in Age of Empires 2. Twelve year old me just about had a conniption fit when I found that out!
Behind the main building and the Daibutsu are two magnificent wooden halls: Nigatsu-do and Sangatsu-do. The two cedar structures have burned to the ground in the past, but have remained standing in their current state for centuries.
Experience Kasuga Taisha Shrine
Kasuga Taisha was one of my favorite aspects of Nara. A Shinto shrine established by the Fushiwara family, it is renowned for the abundance of stone lanterns around the premise–over 2000! Walking along the path lined with moss-draped lanterns and overshadowed by towering cedars leaves one with a feeling of awe. This place, more than any other in Nara, feels ancient.
One striking feature of Shinto shrines is their color. The wood is painted a brilliant, deep orange which–when combined with the dark accents of natural wood–makes for a striking appearance.
Relax by Ukimido Gazebo
West of Kasuga Taisha and near a series of tranquil ponds is the Ukimido Gazebo. After seeing more temples and shrines than you can shake a stick at, finding a quiet spot around a pond and just sitting for a spell is a great way to unwind and process the events of the day. There are even paddle boats available to rent!
Hike through Kasugayama Primeval Forest
The forest behind Kasuga Taisha shrine is sacred and ancient. Walking through the cedars was my single favorite experience in Nara when combined with hiking along a trail to the top of Kasugayama Mountain. Click the link to the left to read about that experience, as I’ve already written about it and this post is getting a bit long.
There you have it! Five awesome things to see/do in Nara. It’s a wonderful city, one I highly recommend visiting for a few days if you’re traveling through the Kansai area. If you make it there, let me know what you think!