Ancient Nara

City of Many World Heritage Buildings

Ancient Nara is one of the most sacred cities in Japan and there are many temples, shrines, and gardens......many of which have World heritage Site status.

You will certainly not expect to see them all, so need to sit down and plan your time in this historic city. Originally the capital of Japan and called Heijo-kyo back in 700AD, this is a very old home to 1.4 million people.

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Described as the "cradle of the Japanese Arts" ancient Nara is revered for its many historical and arts and crafts treasures. Which is no doubt why it is a popular destination for Japanese school trips........... they were certainly there in large numbers the days we visited!

Traditional Ceremonies

If you are fortunate to be visiting at the right time of year you may experience one of the many traditional Japanese Rituals celebrated in ancient Nara. These include:

  • Ceremonial Burning of Wakakusa-yama Hill
  • Memorial Water-Drawing Ceremony of Nigatsudo (February Hall)
  • FireliNoh – performances through the summer (art performed with an open-air fire in the background)
  • Kasuga Grand Shrine Lantern Lighting Ritual (3,000 stone and hanging bronze lanterns are lit simultaneously
  • Deer Antler Cutting Ceremony in autumn
  • Uchiwamaki ceremony - May 19th - Heart shaped paper fans are scattered among the crowd to ward off bad luck.

Ancient Nara Shrines


Todaiji Shrine - the main Buddhist shrine in Ancient Nara and home to some magnificent historic art treasures. Many are quite overpowering in size!

Probably the most famous of Ancient Nara’s many historic buildings Todaiji Shrine, designated as a world heritage site, has various pavilions and halls, many of which are considered national treasures of Japan. The "Daibutsuden Hall"(above) is the world's largest wooden structure, and it is here you will see the popular “Great Buddha of Nara”. This huge buddha statue is 14.84m tall, weighing approximately 500 tonnes.

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The intriguing sight of children wriggling through the small gap in one of the rear support pillars kept us entertained. The Japanese believe that if one is successful in squeezing through, they are guaranteed a place in Heaven... which explains the queue to give it a go!

Horyu-ji Temple - The buildings in the Horyu-ji temple compound are built in traditional Horyu-ji style, including the main temple building and the five-storied pagoda .... listed in World Heritage as the oldest wooden structure in the world! This is the architectural style of the Asuka Period.


Hoki-ji Temple - The only original building at Hoki-ji temple .....the three-storied pagoda, is the oldest three-storied pagoda in Japan .The deer wandering amongst the visitors as you walk down the wide walkway to Todaiji Shrine are amusing and obviously used to people. I had one that decided it wanted my programme, ripped it out of my hand..........and proceeded to eat it! A case of inner sight!

Kofukuji - The five-storied, 50.8m high pagoda built in 730AD. is a feature of the Deer Park. Kofukuji Temple is another World Heritage site. Within its grounds there are also several buildings listed as national treasures, such as Nan'endo Hall. Sarusawaike Pond, the five-storied pagoda,this temple is a must see.



Yakushiji - is particularly important for the 34m high Eastern Pagoda........ the only building that remains from the Hakuho Period (8th century). Inside the Main Hall are the Buddhist statues of “Yakushi Nyorai”, a divine protector against illness, and his two side-attendants. Called “Yakushi Sanzon”, they are 2.6m high, made of bronze, and are among the finest examples of Buddhist art in Japan.

Toshodaiji - and is where the Uchiwamaki ceremony takes place on May 19th. Originating from the Tang Dynasty you can see the “Ganjin Wajo-zo” (statue of the Priest Ganjin) - the oldest portrait sculpture in Japan and a national treasure.

Kasuga Taisha is the main shrine for approximately 3,000 Kasuga shrines all over Japan. It is here that the “Mantoro Festival” is held annually when 2,000 stone lanterns along the path leading to the shrine and approx. 1,000 hanging lanterns in the main precinct are lit.

Gangoji Temple - is another World heritage structure dating back to 1244.

Mt. Kasuga - is a forest protected against logging because it is considered a sacred mountain. With 400 years old beech and oak trees, the forest is the home to green tree frogs, clouded salamanders and other rare species and designated a world heritage “cultural landscape”.



Arts and Crafts Traditional to Nara

  • Nara dolls - otherwise known as "Ittobori," These are beautiful dolls with expressive faces and bright colors.
  • Nara Fude brushes - are recognized by the Japanese Government as one of Japan's traditional arts and crafts. There are whole shops dedicated to selling just brushes.
  • Sumi - ink sticks that are used in the art of calligraphy. Nara is famous for producing the best quality sumi in Japan.
  • Tsunozaiku - crafts made of deer antlers.
  • Akayadayaki Pottery – a milky white pottery
  • Nara Uchiwa – Round Fans
  • Kogakumen Masksli>Nara Sarashi – Hand woven hemp cloth – a very old traditional crafts
While you can put on your walking boots to see much of Nara there are bus passes that allow you to travel around the different areas of the city where the many shrines and temples are located. It is best to plan what you want to see and buy the appropriate pass. There is one for the World Heritage Sites – each has a fixed fare.

Accommodation in Nara

We found the Tourist Bureau by the Train station was excellent. They asked us what price range we were in and then negotiated a deal for us with a local hotel which was very near the station – Sunroute Hotel was all we needed with spacious rooms, and very central for getting around..........only a 5 minute walk to Nara Park.I can recommend Sunroute Hotel, Nara, Japan



Nara Attractions

  • Imai Town – Walk through here to see the historic Edo Period buildings that have been beautifully preserved.
  • Nara-Machi Museum
  • Kehaya-za- Sumo Museum – This is a rare historic sumo ring with seating for an audience, and many sumo artifacts on display. Also a 3-D movie.( Free if you can show your passport indicating you are a foreigner)
  • Nara Park - is famous for the deer that roam freely.
  • Nara Craft Museum You can see a display of traditional Japanese lacquerware, one knife carving, ceramics, fabrics, carpentary and artworks.

How Long Should You Spend in Nara

While there is a lot to see 1-2 days is all you need to see the best of Ancient Nara heritage. Relatively compact you can fit in a lot in a day and many do it as a day trip from Kyoto. If you are really keen to see many shrines you may want to stay longer.

Getting There

Nara is easily reached by train from all the main cities. If you have your JR Rail Pass bought before you leave home, you will be able to use this.

Getting Around

We found by staying centrally we could walk most places. There are different bus day passes for getting around Nara. You can choose the pass that will stop at the shrines etc you want to see. There are also I have read combination bike hotels and hire bikes to get around the city, which sound novel.

Your most important tool is a good map...which you can get from the Information Office at the train station, or the city centre.

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