During our time in Kyoto, we took a day trip to the nearby city of Nara. Like Kyoto, Nara was once the capital of Japan. It was actually the first permanent capital, starting in the year 710, but the influence of powerful monasteries also found in the city led the capital to be moved elsewhere by 784. Many temples and other impressive structures remain in the city from its era as capital.
It is easy to get to Nara from Kyoto, as many trains run daily. We didn’t head straight there though; while heading towards Nara, we stopped at one more famous Kyoto sight which was on the way: the Fushimi Inari Shrine.
This Shinto shrine is most well known for the thousands of vermilion torii gates that line the walkways that head up into the hills behind the shrine. The gates are donated as offerings, and there are a wide variety of sizes. The larger the gate, the larger the required donation. There are also many fox statues on the grounds, as the fox is considered to be the messenger of Inari, the Shinto god of rice.
After an hour or so of exploring the different gates, we hopped back on a train bound for Nara, which didn’t take too long. We grabbed a quick bite to eat at the train station (udon noodles of course) and then walked into town to see the sights.
The most impressive structure in Nara is Daibutsuden, the main hall of Todaiji Temple. The largest wooden building in the world, it houses a 15-meter tall bronze Buddha statue (Daibatsu) and also other sizable Bodhisattva statues. The original building was built in 752 as the main Buddhist temple in all of Japan – its power is the main reason the capital was moved from Nara. The current reconstruction, built in 1692, is only two-thirds the size of the original! Another interesting feature was a small hole in the base of one of the statues (the size of the Daibatsu’s nostril): supposedly, if you can crawl through without assistance, you will gain enlightenment in the next life.
Another impressive structure was Nigatsudo Hall, found on the hillside with a pleasant porch looking back over the city.
The sights are arranged around the large green space of Nara Park. This park is mainly notable for its large resident population of deer. They are considered sacred so are left to run free around the city. Vendors throughout the park sell special cookies to feed to the deer. We did feed the deer cookies, but focused on calm ones because we didn’t want to have the deer pester us like we saw happening to other people.
We also visited Yoshikien Garden. We had intended to visit the neighboring Isuien Garden, but it had an entrance fee whereas Yoshikien was free for foreign visitors. The garden is divided into three parts: the pond garden, moss garden, and flower garden. It wasn’t the right time of year to see any interesting blooms, but we still enjoyed wandering the grounds.
We ended up cutting our visit a little short, as we wanted to get back to Kyoto for the Geisha Corner show, and it was, as many places in Japan turned out to be, hot and crowded. Still, we enjoyed getting to see the historic sights and would definitely recommend it as a day trip for visitors to Kyoto!