Tokyo is widely known as Japan’s modern capital, while Kyoto is widely known as Japan’s ancient capital for more than 1,000 years. But it was not the country’s first capital — that title belongs to Nara, a small city about 35 minutes away from Kyoto by train. Especially compared to Kyoto, Nara was the capital only briefly, from 710 to 794.
During it’s heyday, Nara was called Heijo-kyo, and it was made capital during the period that Buddhism was becoming a popular religion in Japan. Buddhism was imported to Japan largely from Baekje, one of the Three Kingdoms of ancient Korea. Many Baekje artisans were sent to Japan to assist with construction of the city’s religious temples and monuments. Nara was built to resemble the city of Xi’an, the old capital of China.
The history of Nara intrigued me, so I made it a priority to go there as a day trip during my stay in Kyoto. I visited in September last year, during the Chuseok holiday. I only had a few days off, so I only had time for a day trip. Fortunately, I discovered a tour company that did walking tours to the main attractions of the ancient city.
The company is called Narawalk, and they have a few options for tours. My friends and I chose the Classic Tour, since it covers the main sights of Nara. The tour lasts 3.5 hours, and I thought it was a good way to explore the best of Nara and learn the history while still having the time to cover the other sights in Kyoto. Plus, it was pretty reasonably priced at 2000 yen.
We met our tour guide at JR Nara station in the morning, and found out that the three of us were the only ones on the tour that day, which was nice. Our guide was quite friendly and she took us to the bus stop, where we got off at the Nara deer park and then preceded to walk to Nara’s main attractions.
The deer at the Nara park are quite bold and not afraid of humans at all. The deer in Nara are considered sacred because of a Shinto legend where a god appeared on a mountain riding a white deer. Killing a Nara deer was a crime punished with death until the 1600s. The deer in Nara can be very polite when offered food. In that case, they bow in order to receive the treat.
However, many of the deer are quite naughty and will try to eat tourist maps, so it’s important to be careful. According to our guide, one boy went to Nara to interview foreigners, but lost all of his work because a deer ate his homework.
The next stop after the deer park was Kasuga Shrine, a Unesco listed shrine located in the deer park. The shrine is home to several lanterns.
After the shrine, the next stop was, in my opinion, the most impressive part of Nara, the Todai-ji temple. This temple’s main hall is the largest wooden structure in the world and contains the Big Buddha, a large broze Buddha that is indeed very big.
After Todai-ji, we made our way to Kofukuji, a temple with the second tallest pagda in Japan, behind Kyoto’s Toji.
The last stop was Nara Old Town, a street of traditional buildings with plenty of shops and restaurants. Our tour guide showed us a geisha school in the area (didn’t see any actual geisha though) and then had a lunch of beef with us, which was delicious!
I found Nara to be a very interesting place with many attractions to see. The Classic Narawalk tour doesn’t even cover all of Nara’s attractions, but it’s great way to see all of the main points of interest with limited time. It’s quite easy to get to Nara from Kyoto and the trip is short. In my opinion, Nara should not be missed on any trip to Kyoto.