When it comes to emotional draw, nowhere comes even close to Kyoto in its capacity to tug at Japanese heartstrings. As the nation’s capital for over a millennium, Kyoto was the wellspring of so much of their culture, and so most Japanese nurture feelings of especial fondness for that city. And as evident in its bristling of World Heritage Sites, Kyoto is clearly not deficient in cultural and historical attractions. But Kyoto also happens to be Japan’s seventh-largest city, and much of it bears the aspect of a modern metropolis. For a city with ancient origins that has managed to retain more thoroughly its old character packaged in a delightful green setting, the visitor should head to nearby Nara.
Nara was in fact Japan’s capital long before that young upstart Kyoto was even thought of. Then known as Heijokyo, Nara enjoyed its principal status almost continuously from 710 until 784. And when Nara became the seat of government, Japan achieved both its first true capital and its first real city. Before Heijokyo was established, the location of the capital changed frequently. But eight emperors had their palace in Heijokyo, and the stability lent by this permanent metropolis proved instrumental in allowing an exceptional flourishing of the arts, crafts and industry.
The eighth century was a time of mounting confidence for Japan even though it was still under the cultural sway of its imperial neighbor across the East China Sea. So when Japan came to plan its bold new capital, it took as its model China’s Changan, then the greatest city in the world. Like Changan, Nara was executed on a grand scale, built to a grid pattern of square blocks intersected by broad avenues. Nothing like it had been seen in Japan before.
Sadly, all that grandeur was not to last. After the capital moved in 784, it wasn’t too long before the abandoned palace site had reverted to rice paddies. With recent reconstruction work, though, it is possible to picture what Nara was like in its glory days. Suzaku Gate, rebuilt in its original red-and-white finery in 1998, was the main entranceway to Heijo Palace. Here, in great ceremonies, young aristocratic men and women would assemble so that they could coyly exchange love poems under the benevolent gaze of the emperor, which was how they did things in an age before online dating. Even in renovated form, today’s gate is a magnificent sight as it opens up to the expansive former palace grounds and the distant shape of the Imperial Audience Hall. Back in its heyday, for those privileged to enter, it must have been a spectacular sight at the heart of the nation.
When the planners got to work building a majestic new capital worthy of this burgeoning country, they were clearly told to think big. So in building Todai-ji—the temple that was to become in effect a national cathedral—they didn’t skimp on pomp. Construction work on the Great Hall of Todai-ji began in 747, and it was meant to seriously impress. It still does. Though the subsequent ravages of fire have meant that today’s building is just around two-thirds the size of the original, it is still the world’s largest wooden building.
Within the hall stands the colossal hulk of the bronze image of the Buddha Vairocana. In 752, there was a great ceremony for the step to complete the statue—the painting of the Buddha’s eyes. Though in purely aesthetic terms, today’s Buddha is certainly no contender for the country’s finest artwork, its 15-meter height certainly exerts an imposing presence. Construction of the statue was a massive effort, demanding vast quantities of gold, tin, copper and lead, and technologically it was a considerable feat for the Japan of that day. The costs involved in making the temple and its main image almost bankrupted the nation.
Todai-ji is located in the eastern part of Nara, and also at this end of the city is the old quarter of Naramachi, which attractively retains the romantic character of a bygone age. Among the narrow streets of this area stand rows of lattice-fronted wooden houses, which were used by merchants both as places of business and for habitation. Today, many buildings in this area have been converted into boutiques, shops, cafés and restaurants. But Koshi no Ie is open to the public and offers a glimpse of how life was for a merchant living in this part of the city, with its high-ceilinged kitchen area, the hako kaidan staircase that doubled as a chest of drawers and the hibachi brazier that was used for warming both the room and flasks of sake. The house is charming, calm, atmospheric, and every visitor to the place must leave longing to live there themselves.
At one end of Naramachi is the enchanting pond of Sarusawa, in whose green waters swim small turtles and whose depths are surveyed by immobile gray herons. Reflected in the waters of this pond is the graceful 51-meter-tall five-story pagoda—Japan’s second tallest—of Kofuku-ji, which, along with Todai-ji was one of the main city temples in ancient times.
Conspicuous around Kofuku-ji and other areas at this end of the city are some of the tame 1,200 deer that are closely identified with Nara. The deer have long been regarded as sacred messengers from the gods of nearby Kasuga-jinja, a Shinto place of worship. And in line with their divine status, the deer are thoroughly brazen in their dealings with humans, and they stride around eastern Nara as if they own the place.
After a long day’s inspection of the city sights, the spot to head for as evening approaches is the fine temple of Nigatsu-do in the hills above Todai-ji. From beneath the lanterns on its wooden terrace, uneven from the passage of innumerable feet over the centuries, there is a splendid view over the city. If the elements are kind, there will be the breathtaking sight of the sun sinking into the gray silhouettes of the western hills beyond the great roof of Todai-ji. And remarkably little effort is required to paint out mentally the architectural features of the present and imagine yourself transported back to the Nara of over a millennium ago.
Tom Midwinter is a freelance writer and editor living in Tokyo.