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Ancient Nara  - Japan

Temples and heritage palaces

The site inscribed on the World Heritage List under the name "Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara" consists of eight components: five Buddhist temples (the Tôdai-ji, the Kôfuku-ji, the Yakushi-ji, the Gangô-ji and the Tôshôdai-ji), a Shinto shrine (the Kasuga-Taisha), a sacred forest and an archaeological site. These monuments are exceptional in that they evoke a crucial period of cultural and political development in the country when Nara was the capital, from 710 to 784. They also bear witness to the permanence of the spiritual strength and influence of these religions.

Located some 42 km south of Kyoto, the city of Nara, Heijô-kyo, is easily reached by train. Its small size enables most of the important sites to be visited in one day. The harmonious environment that surrounds the historic buildings creates a unique atmosphere that evokes ancient times. The great Nara Park, where most of the buildings are located, is populated by more than a thousand deer, which are considered messengers of the gods and enjoy their status as national treasures.

Exchange of influence

The grid pattern of the ancient city of Nara reflects the principles of Chinese geomancy governing the location of any imperial palace. It would have been modeled on the city of Chang'an (Xi'an), capital of the Tang Dynasty. A wide avenue cutting the agglomeration in two led to the imperial palaces while religious buildings were scattered throughout the city. This influence has been recognized by the World Heritage Committee as evidenced by the following statement: “The historic monuments of ancient Nara bear exceptional witness to the evolution of architecture and Japanese art, influenced by cultural links with China and Korea, whose influence on subsequent developments proved decisive (criterion ii).”

Five Buddhist temples

The Tôdai-ji, a "must see" of Nara, is a group of buildings, the most impressive being the Tôdai-ji Kondo (hall of the Great Buddha), which is literally built around a huge bronze statue that is 15 meters high. No less than eight operations were required to cast the Daibutsu, a titanic task that would have mobilized some 370 000 blacksmiths and 500 000 carpenters. Originally, this bronze statue was covered in gold leaf.

Built upon the orders of Emperor Shômu between 745 and 752, the Tôdai-ji required unprecedented manpower and financial resources for its construction that brought the country to the brink of bankruptcy. Destroyed and rebuilt twice in its history (the twelfth and sixteenth centuries), the current building, completed in 1709, represents only two-thirds of the original building. It is considered one of the largest wooden buildings in the world.

The Buddhist temple Kôfuku-ji was moved from Kyoto to Nara in 710 to serve as a sanctuary to the Fujiwara clan, which played an important role in the establishment of Nara as the capital. Of the 175 buildings comprising the original complex, it is a tiny part, including two pagodas, a three-tier rebuilt for the last time in 1143, and one with five levels rebuilt in 1426. With a height of 50 m, the latter is considered the second highest pagoda in the country.

The Yakushi-ji Temple is the main temple of the Hossô sect, the oldest Buddhist sect in Japan. Destroyed by fire, the main building was rebuilt according to the original in the 1970s. The East Pagoda, of an height of 34 m, is the only component dating from the 8th century. Although giving the impression of having six floors because of its roofs, it actually has only three. This temple is dedicated to the Buddha of medicine: Yakushi Nyorai.

Gangô-Ji is the first Buddhist temple in Japan. Originally known as the "Asuka- dera", he was transferred to Nara in 718 during the establishment of the capital. It was largely destroyed by fire in 1451. Some elements of this complex have been spared, the Hondô (the main building) and the Zenshitsu that originally formed a single, long building assigned to the priests' residence.

The Tôshôdai-ji is a Buddhist temple of the Ritsu sect founded in 759 by a Chinese monk named Ganjin, invited to Japan by the Emperor to help his priests to perfect in Buddhism. This monk played a crucial role in the introduction of Buddhism in Japan. The main hall, which reopened in 2009 after being dismantled and rebuilt, is very important for the study of Japanese religious architecture. The reading room (Kodo) is the only survivor of the Nara Imperial Palace.

The Shinto shrine

The Kasuga Taisha Shinto shrine is located at the foot of two sacred mountains, the Kasugayama and Mikasayama, long revered as where the deities descended on earth. It was founded in the 8th century by the Fujiwara clan. The cypress bark shingles of the roofs of the buildings located inside the sanctuary allow them to harmonize with the environment. The driveway leading to the shrine is lined with hundreds of stone lanterns, which lends a mysterious charm to the site.

According to Shinto tradition, the buildings must always have a perfect appearance. So they have been repaired or restored continuously since their construction, while until 1863 and according to the principle of Shikinen-zôtai, the main sanctuary was rebuilt every twenty years following the same plan, whatever its conservation state.

The natural environment is an integral part of Shinto shrines and the sacred forest named Kasugayama provides this. Since 841, hunting and tree cutting are prohibited and it is not unusual to see trees over 400 years old.

The archaeological site of the Nara Palace

The imperial palace occupied an area of 120 ha. It included the Daigokuden (imperial courtroom), the Chôdô-in (state room) and the Dairi (imperial residence), and various annexes and gardens for administrative functions and others. Following the transfer of the capital to Kyoto, the site of the imperial palace was covered with rice fields. Archaeological excavations in the 1950s revealed significant remains of the palace in good condition, which encouraged more comprehensive searches. Subsequently, the Nara Palace site was the subject of some in situ reconstructions based on the continuity of traditional architecture and the large amount of data found during archaeological excavations.

Outstanding architectural heritage

Historical monuments of the Ancient Nara on the World Heritage list demonstrate the dominance of Buddhism and Shintoism during an important period in the social and political history of Japan, the 8th century. They are also invaluable for the study of the history of Japanese religious architecture.

Christiane Lefebvre

Source: , accessed June 2016.

Reading suggestion

Japoneries d’Automne, Pierre Loti, published in 1889.

This travelogue of Pierre Loti, naval officer and prominent member of the French Academy, described an almost mythical Japan to our contemporary eyes. While not directly addressing Nara, the chapter entitled "Kyoto, la ville sainte" evokes with accuracy, humour and with great poetry the quaint atmosphere of the ancient temples he visited during his second stay in the Land of the Rising Sun. Published in 1889, Japoneries d’Automne is a valuable travel guide to explore this mysterious side of Japan.

On the Web.


The natural environnement of the site 

TheTôdai-ji (Hall of the Great Buddha) 

The Great Buddha - ©Our Places 

Buddha of the medecine - © Maria Ines Subercaseaux

Small logg warehouse of the Tôshôdai-ji

The Shinto shrine Kasuga-Taisha - ©

Walking paths and stone lanterns