As Japan’s capital from 710 to 784, Nara was the centre of power, progress, innovation and culture. Trade between Japan, Korea and China brought many new ideas and technology. You can get an instant sense of the grand scale of courtly life by visiting the many temples and shrines, as well as the site of the Imperial Palace. These sites have been recognised by UNESCO as the Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara, since they provide a vivid picture of life in the Japanese capital in the 8th century.
Explore Nara's World Heritage Sites
Horyuji Temple・Hokiji Temple
Close to Nara’s city centre, Ikaruga is dominated by World Heritage sites, including Horyjuji Temple and Hokiji Temple. Horyuji Temple demands a full day to explore. It has the world’s oldest extant wooden structures typical of the Early Asuka Period (mid-6th century-670). Key Buddhist statues include the slender and graceful Kudara Kannon, a National Treasure in the Daihozoin—the Gallery of Temple Treasures. Nearby Hokiji Temple is a small and beautiful temple famous for its three-storey pagoda, Japan's oldest.
No visit to Nara is complete without paying one’s respects to the Vairocana Buddha, often called the “Daibutsu”, or Great Buddha at Todaiji Temple. Enter through the Nandaimon Gate and you’ll see two huge Kongo Rikishi guardians, carved by the great craftsmen Unkei and Kaikei in the 12th century. The Great Buddha Hall is the largest wooden structure in the world, housing the calm, Great Buddha. Built in 752 to bring peace to the nation, the awesome 15-meter statue was cast from over 400 tons of bronze. Not all of the statue is original.
Todaiji Temple was the most important temple in Japan when the capital was at Nara, and all Buddhist monks had to be ordained here. The centre of power in Japanese Buddhism later shifted to the Tendai Sect at Mount Hiei near Kyoto.
Construction on Kohfukuji Temple began at the time of the relocation of the capital city to Nara in 710. As the clan temple of the powerful Fujiwara family, the complex once included much of central Nara City, including most of Nara Park. The Temple's Central Golden Hall, which was recently rebuilt for the first time in over three centuries and consecrated in October 2018, is now open to the general public. The National Treasure Hall houses a number of the most famous Buddhist images in Japan, including the elegant six-armed Ashura image, the sculptures of the Ten Great Disciples, and the gilded standing image of the Thousand-armed Kannon.
Nara was the end of the Silk Road and thus the beneficiary of many international influences. The grand Yakushiji Temple complex was built in 680 in Chinese style, with vivid red and white halls and pagodas. The central figure of worship is a Yakushi Nyorai—the Buddha of healing—flanked by two Bosatsu. These perfectly sculpted, beautiful statues are masterpieces of the Late Asuka Period “Hakuho Period” (670-710). The Yakushi Nyorai is seated on a base decorated with Silk Road motifs including grape vines from Greece, Persian lotus flowers, figures from India and a dragon, phoenix, tiger and tortoise, the Chinese gods said to rule over the four directions.
Although steps away from Yakushiji Temple, the atmosphere here is entirely different. The temple is set in quiet, forested grounds with a large, well-proportioned main hall, that was founded in 759. Inside the main hall, the gilded Rushanabutsu or Rushana Buddha sits on a giant lotus flower, backed by hundreds of tiny Buddhist statues in a myriad of forms committed to saving all sentient beings. A thousand-armed Kannon statue is also housed in the hall. This statue is extremely rare as it is only one of three "Thousand-armed Kannon" statues in the country that actually had one thousand arms when it was first sculpted. It now has 953 arms. The thousand arms carry various objects which allow the Kannon to save all living souls by whatever means.
High in the Yoshino mountains where the ancient Shugendo or mountain asceticism is practised, Kinpusen-ji Temple is part of the World Heritage Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range. The main hall, said to be the second largest wooden structure in Japan, houses three blue-skinned Zao Gongen statues that are on view for a short time in spring and fall. The massive statues were originally built 1,300 years ago but were re-sculpted during the Muromachi period (1336-1573). The figures represent the past, present and future and are very impressive. The largest statue is over seven metres tall and all have piercing eyes that both captivate and terrify.
- Kinpusen-ji Temple
- Kinpusen-ji Temple is a temple in Yoshino, famous for its Zao Gongen statues and Shugendo practitioners. The Zao Gongen statues are on view for a short time once or twice a year, to collect funds for reparations to the Nio gate—a National Treasure. Visitors are unable to view the statues outside of these times. History & Culture Yoshino
Just a few minutes’ walk from Kinpusen-ji Temple, Yoshimizu-jinja Shrine played a crucial part in Japanese history. Famed for its views of the thousands of cherry blossom trees that cover the mountains in spring, it was to here that Emperor Go-Daigo fled in the 14th century, when he tried to end samurai rule and re-establish the political power of the Imperial Court. This is where he established his short-lived Imperial Court. You can see his gorgeous rooms and many historical artefacts.
Located in the centre of Nara’s historic Naramachi district, Gangoji Temple was the first temple in Japan, originally located in Asuka around 588 AD, before being moved to Nara when Heijokyo became the new capital. While fires have destroyed many of the original buildings, some structures remain, and many of the tiles on the roofs of the Gokuraku Hall and Zen Room are original, dating back to the 6th century.
Kasugataisha Shrine was built in 768 and is a World Heritage site. The main shrine buildings are festooned with around three thousand bronze lanterns which are lit during the Lantern Festivals several times a year. While the shrine itself has a very long history, the buildings are restored on a 20 year cycle that itself dates back to the founding of the shrine. Do not miss the Kasugataisha Museum. It is a sleek, modern space, housing hundreds of National Treasures and other Cultural Assets, many dating back to the Heian period (794–1185). The Taiko Hall houses Japan’s two largest taiko drums. You will find some of the very finest examples anywhere in Japan of maki-e lacquer and inlay boxes, samurai armor, rare swords, relics and sculptures, including pieces celebrating Nara’s sacred deer.