On Saturday, April 19, 2008, I went to Nara for a 2 day trip. Nara is a relatively unknown historical centre in Japan. When people talk about old Japan, they almost always say Kyoto. Kyoto is a beautiful city, but as some people say, it’s a mix of new and old. Kyoto has lost a lot of what makes it a true old city. Nara fills that gap.
Located roughly 1 hour from Kyoto, it was the capital in Japan just prior to it moving to Kyoto. When entering Nara, the biggest difference you see and feel is the size of the city. Kyoto has a grand department store towering over the city and various other modern buildings surrounding the station. Nara, by contrast, is a typical small city in Japan. When you enter the city, the buildings aren’t as tall, and the surrounding mountains are easier to see. The historical temples and shrines are also easier to visit, compared to Tokyo. Visiting Kyoto should take 2-3 days. Nara can be finished within 2. However, the main disadvantage of Nara is that when it’s night, the city shuts down. However, after a full day of walking around the city, this isn’t a bad thing.
If you plan to go to Nara, you should start with Nara Park. It is by far the most important place to visit when in Nara. All of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites are located there. The park itself can be explored in half a day, however spending a full day or two is needed to truly explore this park. Don’t forget to spend a few hundred yen to buy some Shika Senbe (Deer Crackers). It’s fun to feed the deer, but beware, they are very aggressive when you have food for them. Also note that May is the birthing season, so mothers will be extra protective of their offspring. The only other activities in Nara are within Todai-ji. The first is Yakushi Nyorai. This is the scary wood carving to the right of the main hall’s entrance. He’s wearing a red cap and cape. While scary, this carving is the Buddha of Medicine/Healing. In Japanese, rubbing the statue will heal any of your problems. In English, it said you have to rub the corresponding part of the sculpture. You can take your pick. The other activity is a small hole in one of the pillars within the main hall itself. You will often see children crawl through. If you can make it through the hole (also said to be the size of the Buddha statue’s nostril) you’ll gain enlightenment in your next lifetime. I don’t know if it matters if you go head first, feet first.
Spending a few hours in Naramachi is also essential. You will be able to see a lot of the old city. Houses and shops in this area are from the Edo era. You’ll be able to see some small museums and other small shops selling various goods. You can spend a few hours getting lost or take a guided walking tour. Wandering on your own is fine, but expect to be bored after an hour or so. You may even stumble upon an old shrine that is surrounded by homes.
Horyu-ji is also a place to visit if you have time. It’s a wonderful temple complex located just outside the city. There are 3 main temples in the complex and each of them are beautiful. Also located outside the city itself is Yoshino (about 1 hour) . It’s a mountain range that my friends say is beautiful and offers wonderful hikes. Beware, however, as the buses back down the mountain may stop running before you finish the hike. 🙂
Just a quick tip when going to Nara. Bring LOTS of money. While most temples and shrines in Japan are free, the famous ones tend to cost money. The average price is 500 Yen per temple/shrine. Be aware of this and plan accordingly. Lastly, just enjoy yourself. I find that in all of my travels, taking your time is more enjoyable than trying to see everything. Allow for this and you’ll enjoy it.