Nara, formerly known as Heijo, is a cradle to the very colorful Japanese civilization. Being the country’s first permanent capital, Nara houses some of Japan’s most treasured antiques that speak of its very unique and sophisticated culture. Listed as UNESCO World Heritage Site are a number of its temples and shrines.
Our Nara sightseeing started at Kashihara Shrine, a government-sponsored Shinto shrine established on April 2, 1890. Located at the base of Mt. Unebi, it was built in honor of Emperor Jinmu, Japan’s first emperor.
The shrine covers a really wide ground space. We went to the prayer hall where people solemnly vow and worship. Opposite the prayer hall is the main hall. The shrine also has this very huge pond (Fukada pond) where we saw a lot of turtles swimming.
Admission is free and the shrine is open daily from 6:30AM to 5PM. From Kashihara Jingu-mae station, you can walk to reach the shrine.
Ishibutai-Kofun (Ancient Burial Tomb)
Next to Kashihara Shrine, we went to Ishibutai-Kofun, an ancient burial tomb located in Asuka village. Built around the beginning of 7th century, scholars believed Ishibutai-Kofun is the burial site of one of the powerful leaders of Soga clan, Soga no Umako. The tomb is 7.8 meters in length, 3.4 meters in width and 4.8 meters in height and is composed of around 30 pieces of granite weighing approximately 2,300 tons.
The term Ishibutai is a combination of two Japanese words, “ishi” and “butai” which mean stone and stage respectively. Folk story says that once upon a time, a fox transformed into a woman and danced above the stones. Another story tells there was this traveling entertainer who used the large tomb stone as a stage in performing.
Admission fee is JPY 250 and the place is open daily from 8:30AM to 5PM. From Kashihara Jingu-mae station or Asuka station, you can take the Nara Kotsu Bus to Ishibutai-mae bus stop to visit the tomb.
Also located in Asuka village, we then visited Asuka-dera Temple which is said to be Japan’s first Buddhist temple. The temple complex contains the main hall, a temple bell and a small garden with stone statues.
Admission fee is JPY 350 and the temple is open from 8:30AM – 5PM. From Kashihara Jingu-mae station, you can take the Kame Loop Bus to Asuka Daibutsu-mae bus stop to reach the temple.
After Asuka-dera, we visited another temple. A five-storey pagoda, Kofukuji Temple is the second highest pagoda in Japan (after Kyoto’s Toji Temple) with a height of 50 meters. It is one of the eight Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara included in the UNESCO World Heritage list.
A few steps from the pagoda is the Eastern Golden Hall which contains a wooden statue of Buddha.
Across the pagoda and the Eastern Golden Hall is Kofukuji’s National Treasure Museum that preserves some of the temple’s great Buddhist art collection.
Admission to Kofukuji’s temple ground is free. Fees for the Eastern Golden Hall and National Treasure Museum are JPY 300 and JPY 600 respectively. Combined admission is JPY 800. The Eastern Golden Hall and the National Treasure Museum are open daily from 9AM to 5PM. You can reach Kofukuji by walking from Kintetsu Nara Station or JR Nara Station.
Nara Deer Park
After seeing various temples and shrines, we went for a stroll around Nara deer park. From Kofukuji, we walked our way to the park. There were really a lot of deer freely roaming around. They say approximately 1200 wild but tamed deer wander in the park. You can notice many tourists are very fond of feeding the deer with Shika Senbei or deer crackers. Senbei vendors are located at several spots in the park. One pack of Senbei costs JPY 150. The deer are really friendly that you can even touch them. What’s more amusing is that they will bow to you if you are to feed them.
From Nara deer park, we continued our leisure walk until we reach Todaiji (Great Eastern Temple) Temple, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Todaiji’s main hall, Daibutsuden (Big Buddha Hall), is claimed to be the largest wooden building in the world. It houses the Daibutsu or Buddha, a fifteen-meter high bronze statue.
Smaller Buddhist statues and models of the old and current buildings are also displayed in the Daibutsuden Hall.
Another popular attraction inside the hall is a pillar with a hole in its base which is said to be the same size as the Daibutsu’s nostril. They say if you can pass through this narrow hole, you will receive some sort of enlightenment in the next life.
Admission to Daibutsuden Hall is JPY 500. It is open daily around 8AM to 5PM.