NOTE: At the time of writing there is a problem with Flickr which means a lot of the images here on Haikugirl’s Japan appear broken. The images are still there though, so hopefully Flickr will figure out what’s going on and fix it soon. As a paying ‘pro’ member I can’t say I’m too happy about this, but I guess all I can do is wait for now.
It’s time for ‘Japan by Prefecture‘ again! This is the series that aims to provide the highlights of each prefecture of Japan, along with my personal favourites and suggestions from readers. This week, we’re looking at Nara (奈良県).
Nara Prefecture is part of the Kansai Region (関西地方) and the capital is Nara (奈良市). I’ve been to Nara City, but not to any other parts of Nara Prefecture. Actually, it’s quite a small prefecture, so there’s not a huge amount to talk about which isn’t in Nara City. Thanks to Japan Australia, Rosco, and Zooming Japan for their great suggestions for this week’s post!
Let’s start with Nara City. Nara is somewhere a lot of tourists visit, as it is a convenient and simple day trip from Kyoto. I’ve been a number of times, and I really like Nara. It’s very touristy, but compared to Kyoto Nara is much less built up and feels more relaxed. Nara is full of temples and shrines worth exploring. I couldn’t possibly mention them all here, but I will talk about some of my favourites.
Nara is also full of deer. In Nara Park (奈良公園) and basically everywhere you go around central Nara you will find yourself surrounded by friendly deer. The deer are actually considered sacred accordingly to folklore, and are protected as national treasures. There are shops and stalls selling ‘shika senbei’ (鹿煎餅), which are crackers visitors are supposed to feed the deer. If you don’t feed them their crackers, it’s likely they will try to eat whatever else you have in your hands!
The most famous temple is Nara has to be Todaiji (東大寺). Todaiji’s main hall is the world’s largest wooden building, and it is home to a 15 metre tall seated Buddha or ‘daibutsu’ (大仏). Todaiji was originally constructed in 752 and was moved to Nara in 784. The grounds are vast, and there are lots of other, smaller temple buildings dotted around.
Moving on from the world’s largest wooden building, Horuji (法隆寺), founded in 607, is one of Japan’s oldest temples and contains the world’s oldest surviving wooden structures. Horyuji is about 12 kilometres outside of central Nara, and I haven’t actually been there (yet!). It’s amazing to think that something wooden, built in the Asuka Period (538 – 710), can still be standing in Japan today, undamaged, but the central gate, main hall and five-story pagoda all are.
Kofukuji (興福寺), near to Todaiji, is also worth a visit. The temple’s five-story pagoda is Japan’s second tallest, at 50 metres tall, and is something of a landmark in Nara. The pagoda was first built in 730 and was most recently rebuilt in 1426.
It would be very easy to get ‘templed out’ whilst sightseeing in Nara, as there are just so many temples to see. Sometimes a shrine, though similar, can be a refreshing change from a temple. Kasuga Taisha (春日大社), also near Todaiji, is a must-see in Nara and is the city’s most celebrated shrine. The shrine was established in 768 and has been rebuilt a number of times over the years. Kasuga Taisha is famous for its hundreds of lanterns which have been donated by worshippers. They are lit twice a year during the two Lantern Festivals in February and August.
Moving out of Nara City itself and into the wider area of the prefecture, one of the most famous places to visit is Mount Yoshino. Mount Yoshino is one of Japan’s most famous cherry blossom viewing spots, although it’s worth noting that the blossom doesn’t bloom here until a little later than central Kyoto and Nara. There are over 30,000 cherry trees planted around the slopes which lead up to the mountain, making a really beautiful sight for visitors in spring. Although spring is the key time to go to Yoshino, there is plenty there to see and do any time of the year. In 2004, Yoshino, together with Mount Koya and Kumano (which we will be looking at next week), was designated a cultural UNESCO World Heritage Site named the Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range.
Another part of Nara Prefecture which I don’t know too much about but I hear is worth visiting, is Asuka (明日香村). Asuka is about 25 kilometres south of Nara City, and it is the part of Japan which gave the Asuka Period its name. Nara was Japan’s first capital from 710 to 784, but before that there was Asuka which was home to the imperial residences. The area is now mostly fields and rural villages, but a few monuments remain. Of course, there are temples and shrines here too.
Asuksadera (飛鳥寺) is considered to be Japan’s oldest Buddhist temple, founded in 596 about 60 years after the introduction of Buddhism into Japan. Most of the temple buildings that remain now only date back a few hundred years, but the temple’s main object of worship is thought to be the oldest Japanese statue of Buddha, dating back to the early 600s.
Also in Asuka is the Ishibutai Kofun (石舞台古墳), which is a stone kofun tumulus, believed to be the tomb of Soga no Umako (蘇我 馬子), a member of the powerful Soga clan (蘇我氏). This stone structure is the largest known megalithic structure in Japan. The name means ‘stone stage’, and it was thought that the large mound of rocks was used as a stage for performances until it was discovered that the structure was a tomb.
So, Nara is a small Prefecture but still has enough to keep the average tourist entertained – especially if you like temples, shrines… and deer!
The Omiyage Section
A lot of the souvenirs (or ‘omiyage’ / おみやげ) from Nara will feature deer. There will be snacks with deer on them, deer shaped snacks, snacks which look like deer poo, cuddly deer, deer toys, Hello Kitty with deer… you name it! You will also find some omiyage featuring Nara’s mascot character, Sento-kun (せんとくん). Watch out for the ‘shika senbei’ (pictured top right) – these are for the deer to eat, not you!
(Image sources: 1 & own images)
Next week I will be writing about Wakayama (和歌山県). Have you been there? What’s good to eat there and what omiyage should I buy? What are the best sightseeing spots or hidden gems? Please do share your thoughts below, and join me next week for Japan by Prefecture!