A few months back, hubby and I went on a short trip westward on the pretext of him presenting at a conference in Kyoto. We stayed in that city for two nights, and then we headed to Nara for a few more days of fun. Kyoto is a spectacular jewel of Japanese culture and history, but it is also overrun with tourists. Nara has a much quieter vibe with several major historical sites (and more Japanese tourists compared with foreign).
Nara city, in Nara prefecture, was the imperial capital of Japan from 710 to 794 (that is, the Nara Period). Prior to that, from 538 to 710, the capital was Asuka, also in Nara prefecture. So, there is a lot of really old stuff in the area.
If you’re planning a trip to Nara city, you definitely shouldn’t miss the top attractions: Tōdai-ji temple (including the Great Buddha), Kasuga Shrine, Kōfuku-ji temple + museum, and the Nara National Museum. If you visit any of these, you will also encounter the iconic deer of Nara roaming freely and happy to relieve you of senbei (rice crackers) that you can purchase to feed them.
I could write lots more about Nara (and intend to…eventually…) but for now, I want to point out the wonderful Hōryū-ji (法隆寺), a temple located in a town called Ikaruga. From Nara city, it takes about 20 minutes by train and another 20 minutes or so to walk to the temple complex.
Hōryū-ji was one of the first places in Japan made a UNESCO world heritage site. One big draw is the 5-story pagoda, which is the oldest known surviving wooden building in the world, built in 607.
The temple features several other magnificent buildings from the Nara period and beyond, including the Gallery of Temple Treasures—a hall that displays sculptures and other Buddhist artwork, several of which are national treasures. As at many other sites in Nara, I was interested to see the evolution of Buddhist art from the original introduction of the religion in Japan in the Nara period, where it was distinctly Indian and later Chinese in its aesthetic, to the gradual “Japanization” of the figures depicted in sculpture and paintings.
Aside from the awe-inspiring historical structures and art, I was really struck by a smaller round building on a hill at the edge of the grounds. Called Saiendo, it houses a Yakushi Nyorai or healing Buddha. The building is accessible to anyone without paying the main temple entrance fee, and during our visit we saw several people who appeared to just live in the community make their way up the steep steps to pray and receive a healing blessing from the temple. It’s remarkable that a place that’s so old is still a part of many people’s everyday spiritual practice.
More photos from the Hōryū-ji complex:
One last site to mention near Hōryū-ji is the Fujinoki Kofun (that is, tumulus or tomb) (藤ノ木古墳). It’s a burial mound that is believed to be from the late 6th century and was apparently untouched until an archaeological excavation in 1985. I’m still baffled as to why the tomb wasn’t looted at some point in the last 1,400 years, but it’s speculated that the site was under the protection of the Buddhist authorities at Hōryū-ji, so no one was brave enough to touch it.
At any rate, the tomb’s excavation revealed amazing and unique artefacts of the era. It seems that two wealthy and powerful young men were buried there, along with ceremonial martial gear including swords and war horse ornaments, decorative clothing, jewelry, etc. Many of the items seem to have come from Korea or were somehow created in a Korean style, prompting lots of speculation about trade and travels in East Asia during that time.
You can peek into the burial itself and then learn more about the excavated artefacts at a little museum nearby. Read more on the official website (or by googling, of course).
Hōryū-ji and its town are a little off the beaten path for many visitors to Japan, but totally worth the trip.