After spending four days exploring Tokyo and its surrounding area, Julia and I made our way back to Kyoto for our final two days in Japan. We caught an early shinkansen that had us back to Kyoto Station at 9:30. We weren’t able to check in to our hotel, so we decided to drop our bags off and make our way down to Nara. Nara is a 45 minute train ride from Kyoto, and its a JR train that’s included with the JR Rail Pass. Nara was the first official capital of Japan having been established in the year 710. Back then, the city was called Heijo. Nara has some of Japan’s oldest and most historic temples, making it a must see site for those visiting the Land Of The Rising Sun.
Before catching our train to Nara, we made a quick visit to Kyoto Tower. Kyoto Tower is 131 meters tall and offers some pretty spectacular views of the city. The tower was built in 1964 along with the shinkansen network as part of Japan’s infrastructure investment for the Olympic Games.
After a quick stop at Kyoto Tower, we grabbed an early lunch and hopped on the local JR train to Nara. We realized what a popular day trip it is for tourists, as the entire train was packed full of camera wielding visitors. We arrived at Nara Station and purchased a bus ticket that would take us to central Nara. The city of Nara is very walkable, but we took the bus to save time. Our plan was to take a bus out to central Nara, and then see the sites on foot before walking back to the train station.
The train ride to central Nara was about five minutes. We had planned on riding until the Todaiji Temple stop, but hopped off early when we saw a series of trees with bright cherry blossoms.
After enjoying the cherry blossoms, we walked over to Todaiji Temple. The path to Todaiji temple cuts through Nara Park towards the Nandaimon Gate. Once you pass through the gate, you’re officially on the grounds of Todaiji. The walk to Todaiji temple is just as interesting as the temple itself. Nara Park is known for hundreds of deer that roam around being fed by visitors. After seeing the sacred deer in Miyajima, I was blown away by how many more reside in Nara. There were thousands of people visiting Nara Park, and at times it seemed the deers had greater numbers! Nara Park also has a lot of street vendors selling food, crafts, wares, and crackers for the deer.
We spent some time enjoying the sacred deer of Nara Park and fed them a few bags of crackers before continuing on towards Nandaimon Gate. The Nadaimon Gate is a large wooden structure with two fierce warrior statues as guardians.
Todaiji Temple was built in the year 752 as the head of all Buddhist temples in Japan. The main hall of Todaiji, Daibutsuden is the largest wooden building in the world. Daibutsuden was reconstructed in 1692 at two thirds of it’s original size and that “largest in the world” title still holds true. It’s hard to imagine a wooden structure being any larger. Daibutsuden also houses the largest Buddha in all of Japan at 15 meters in height.
After exciting Daibutsuden, we continued on the grounds of Todaiji and walked east and up the adjacent steps towards Nigatsudo Hall. Nigatsudo is an important temple in Todaiji and built on the hillside of Mt. Wakakusa. There is a series of buildings along the way which make for nice places to take breaks while climbing up the series of steps.
Nigatsudo Hall is the location of Omizutori, and Buddhist repentance ritual that is held every year. These rituals are the oldest in Japan and have been taking place for 1250 years. In the first two weeks of March, giant torches are carried up the steps of Nigatsudo and an audience below watches the flames burn.
After leaving Nigatsudo Hall, we made our way back down towards Nara Park to visit Kogukuji Temple. We passed through Isuien Park on the way, which made for a very lovely walk. Kofukuji is a very important temple in Nara, as it was the the family temple of the Fujiwara’s, a powerful family when Nara was the capital in 710.
There are a few historic buildings of note on the Kogukuki Temple complex. The first is a five story pagoda, the second tallest in Japan. This pagoda was built in the year 730. The second building of note is the National Treasure Museum which showcases a great deal of Buddhist art. Continuing through the complex we saw the northern and southern octagonal halls, the Central Golden Hall (under construction), and a series of less prominent but still beautiful secondary structures.
Just as we were finishing our enjoyment of the Kofukuji temple complex the skies opened up with rain. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect though, as it was starting to get dark and we were ready to get dinner and head home. We decided to walk through the drizzle towards the train station, as the path was lined with a lot of great shopping and eating options. It was hard to believe that this was our final night in Japan. If only we could make time stand still.