Here’s some of what the Lonely Planet – Japan chapter Kansai has to say about Nara:
“Japan’s first permanent capital, Nara is one of the country’s most rewarding destinations. With eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites, it’s second only to Kyoto as a repository of Japan’s cultural legacy.
????The centrepiece is ??????the Daibutsu ??(Great?? Buddha), which riv??als ????Mt. Fuji and Kyoto’s Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji) as Japan’s single most impressive sight.?? The Great Buddha is housed in Tōdai-ji, a soaring temple that presides over Nara-kōen, a park filled with other fascinating sights that lends itself to a relaxed strolling amid greenery and tame deer.
Nara is also compact: it’s quite possible to pack ??????the highlights into one full day. Many ???? people visit Nara as a side trip from Kyoto, by comfortable express trains in about half an hour.
Many of?? ??Nara??’s m??ost?? i??mport??ant?? site????s are?? loca??te??d arou??nd N??ara??-koē??n, a f??ine?? park th????at?? occupies much of the east side of the city. The park is home to about 1200 deer, which in pre-Buddhist times were considered messengers of the gods and today enjoy the ??????status of National Treasures. They roam the park and surrounding areas in search of handouts from tourists, often descending on petrified children who have the misfortune to be carrying food.
Nara’s star attraction is the famous Daibutsu (Great Buddha), housed in the Daibutsu-den Hall of this grand temple. Though Tōdai-ji is often packed with tour groups and school children from across the country, it’s big enough to absorb huge crowds and it belongs at the top of any Nara itinerary.
Before entering, check out the Nandai-mon, an enormous gate containing two fierce-looking Niō guardians. These recently restored wooden images, carved in the 13th century are some of the finest wooden statues in all of Japan, if not the world. They are truly dramatic works of art and seem ready to spring to life at any moment.
Tōdai-ji’s Daibutsu-den Hall is the largest wooden building in the world. Incredibly, the present structure, rebuilt in 1709, is a mere two-thirds the size of the original.
The Daibutsu (Great Buddha) inside is one of the largest bronze figures in the world and was originally cast in 746. The present statue, recast in the Edo period, stands just over 16m high and consists of 437 tonnes of bronze and 130kg of gold. The original Daibutsu was covered in gold leaf and one can only imagine its impact on Japanese visitors during the eighth century AD.
Historians believe that Emperor Shōmu ordered the building of the Buddha as a charm against smallpox, which ravaged Japan in the preceding years. Over the centuries the statue took quite a beating from earthquakes and first, losing its head a couple of times (note the slight difference in colour between the head and the body).
Behind the Daibutsu you will find a pillar with a 50cm hole through its base (the side of one of the Daibutsu’s nostrils). It’s said that if you can crawl through this, you are assured of enlightenment. There is usually a line of children waiting to give it a try and parents waiting to snap their pictures. A hint for bigger ‘kids’: try going through with one or both arms above your head – someone on either end to push and pull helps, too.
Nigatsu-dō (Buddhist Temple)
Climb a lantern-lined staircase to Nigatsu-dō, a national treasure from 1669 (originally built circa 750) to its verandah with sweeping views across the town (especially at dusk).
Kasuga Taisha (Shinto Shrine)
The sprawling shrine lies at the foot of a hill in a deeply wooded setting with hers of sacred deer awaiting handouts. Its pathways are lined with hundreds of lanterns, with many more in the shrine itself. They are illuminated in the twice-yearly Mantōrō lantern festivals.
Kasuga Taisha was founded in the 8th century by and Fujiwara family and was completely rebuilt every 20 years, according to Shintō tradition, until the end of the 19th century.
Held on Setsubun in early February at Kasuga Taisha at 6:00pm, the Lantern Festival involves the lighting of 3000 stone and bronze lanterns around Kasuga Taisha – its impossibly atmospheric.
Every evening from March 1 – 14th, the monks of Tōdai-ji parade huge flaming torches around the balcony of Nigatsu-dō and rain down embers on the spectators to purify them.
On the evening of March 12th, the monks hold a water-drawing ceremony from which the festival takes its name (mizutori means ‘to take water’). The water-drawing ceremony takes place at midnight.”
KAPOORS ON THE ROAD