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Nara was Japan's first real capital from AD710 to 784, after which it lost political importance when the government moved to Kyoto. However, it does have an even older history than Kyoto. Nara was the theatre of Japan's early history of myths and traditions. It was the cradle of Japan's arts, crafts, literature, and industries.

Nara Buddhism represented an early exuberant form of Buddhist thought, which was rich in symbolism. Nara of the past was blessed with many magnificent and breathtaking temples and palaces. Time has taken its toll, but some of these grand structures still stand in the midst of scenic surroundings. Visitors to Nara will come across ancient tombs, ruins, and other historical relics while walking in this rural area. Also, be forewarned that the rich history and hidden beauty of the city requires a lot of walking to discover.

Getting There

By Air : The new Kansai international airport services Nara, offering both international and domestic flights into Nara.

By Train : The best rail line from Kyoto is the Kintetsu line, or Kinki Nippon railway, which links Kyoto and Nara in 30 minutes by a direct limited express service (1090 one way). Other ordinary trains will take about 45 minutes to reach Nara (590 one way). The JR Nara line will also carry passengers to the JR Nara station in an hour (680 one way). From Osaka, visitors can take the Kintetsu Nara line (1030, 30 minutes) from the Kintetsu Namba station to Kintetsu Nara station. Both express and local trains will take about 40 minutes at a cost of 530. The JR Kansai line will also link Osaka from Tenno-ji station to Nara at JR Nara station (760, 50 minutes).

By Bus : An overnight bus service is available from Shinjuku in Tokyo to Nara at a cost of 8240 one way. It is better to check with the Nara City Tourist Office or the Tokyo Tourist Information Center (TIC) for further details.

Getting Around

By Bus : Nara is serviced by an excellent bus system, which is targeted more for tourists than local residents. Hence, most of the buses have taped announcements in English. Those who do not fancy walking may opt for organized bus tours, which is a good way to visit a lot of sights in a limited amount of time. Nara Kotsu (0742-22-5263) runs daily bus tours on various routes.

By Taxi : Although there are many taxis available, the fare can be rather expensive. It is a better option to take the bus or to walk to the various sights.

By Bicycle : It is quite convenient for one to cycle around Nara. The Kintetsu Rent-a-Cycle Center (0742-24-3528) is close to the Nara City Tourist Center. Prices start from 900 for four hours or 1000 for the day. On weekends and holidays, the price ranges from 1100 to 1200.

Nara Park

The Nara-koen was created from wasteland in 1880 and now covers a large area. Popularly known as Deer Park, it contains over 1,000 tame deer, which are sacred and symbols to the shrine of Kasuga Taisha. In the past, these deer were considered to be messengers of the gods. Today, they enjoy the status of national treasures and are free to roam the park and its surrounding areas. Many of the historical relics of Nara are conveniently located around this finely wooded park.

Kofuku-ji Temple / Kokuhokan

In 710, this temple was relocated to Nara from Kyoto. It was once the main temple to the Fujiwara clan, who had gained power in the mid-seventh century and had then dominated the government for the next 500 years. The original temple had 175 buildings, but fires and destruction through power struggles had left only a dozen or so standing.

Today, the temple is noted for its two pagodas. The three-storey pagoda dates back to 1114, while the five-storey pagoda dates back to 1426 and is also the second tallest pagoda in Japan.

Located nearby, the National Treasure Hall, or Kokuhokan in Japanese, showcases a variety of statues and art objects that were salvaged from previous pagodas of the Kofuku-ji Temple. The most famous art object housed here is the statue of Ashura, which was carved in the 8th Century. The hall is open Tuesdays to Sundays from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and admission is 500.

Nara National Museum

Also known as Kokuritsu Hakubutsukan in Japanese, the national museum is devoted to Buddhist art and is divided into two wings. Archeological finds are housed in the western gallery whereas sculptures, paintings, and calligraphy are showcased in the eastern gallery. The galleries are linked by an underground passage.

From the end of October to early November, stored treasures of Todai-ji Temple are displayed to the public. Exhibits include an array of Buddha images from past centuries, archeological artifacts excavated from ancient tombs, as well as priceless items from the cultures along the Silk Road.

The museum is open Tuesdays to Sundays from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Regular admission costs 400 while special exhibitions cost 790.

Todai-ji Temple

The prime attraction in Nara, the Todai-ji Temple is the largest wooden building in the world. It houses the Great Buddha (Daibutsu), which is also one of the largest bronze images in the world. On the way to the main hall is the Nandaimon Gate with two fierce looking Nio guardians at the sides. These two creations were carved in the 13th Century by the sculptor Unkei and are considered to be among the finest wooden sculptures in all of Japan.

There are several halls within the compounds of Todai-ji Temple. They are Daibutsu-den Hall, Shoso-in (Treasure Repository), Kaidan-in Hall, Nigatsu-do Hall, and Sangatsu-do Hall.

The Daibutsu-den Hall, or Hall of the Great Buddha, houses the monumental bronze image of the Great Buddha, which was meant to proclaim the power of the imperial state. The statue dates back to 746 and is the representation of the Dainichi Buddha, the cosmic Buddha believed to have given rise to all worlds and their respective historical Buddhas.

Northwest of the Daibutsu-den Hall is the Shoso-in, or Treasure Repository, which houses many priceless art objects. The objects are exhibited at the Nara National Museum from late October to early November.

Kasuga Taisha Shrine

Located to the west of Nara is one of the most famous Shinto shrines in the nation, the Kasuga Taisha Shrine, which was founded in the 8th Century by the Fujiwara family. The shrine is rebuilt every 20 years as according to Shinto tradition. The shrine's treasure hall (Homotsu-den) is a modern structure that houses the shrine's artifacts, such as Shinto ceremonial regalia, as well as equipment used in bugaku, no, and gagaku performances. The lantern festivals, which are held twice a year at the shrine, are major attractions. Stone lanterns and suspended metal lanterns of the shrine, all of which amounts to over 3,000, are lit in the evenings of these festivals.

Shin-Yakushi-ji Temple

A 10 minute walk southwest from Kasuga Taisha Shrine will lead visitors to the Shin-Yakushi-ji Temple. The temple was founded in 747 by Empress Komyo to give thanks for her husband's eye disease recovery. Situated in a quiet, rural area, the temple houses several Buddhist statues, which date back to the early 8th Century and are also designated as National Treasures. The temple is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Yakushi-ji Temple

This temple was established by Emperor Temmu in 680 and is not to be confused with Shin-Yakushi-ji Temple. It is admired and well-known for its Toto, or East Tower, which is a 34m high three storey pagoda that has retained its original form since the late 7th Century. On the other hand, the reconstruction of Saito (West Tower), which was destroyed by fire in the 16th Century, was completed in April 1981. The sight of the two towers standing side by side has become an alluring attraction for visitors.

Horyu-ji Temple

Founded in 607 by Prince Shotoku, the Horyu-ji Temple is reckoned by many as the patron saint of Japanese Buddhism. According to legends, Shotoku stood up and prayed just moments after his birth. A statue in the treasure museum presents to us this auspicious event. This temple is one of the most magnificent repositories of architectural, sculptural, and pictorial art objects of Japan.

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