Nara is a place famously known for two things, temples and deer. Some of the oldest, largest, and most interesting temples can be seen in the area, including historical treasures that remain from a time when Nara was the ancient capital of Japan. Here are our top five temples to visit during a day trip to Nara:
People have always loved Todaiji, which was completed in the year 752 and continues to be a religious place down to this day. The essential sights include the buildings that were rebuilt after being destroyed in fires caused by wars, Daibutsu (the great Buddha), masterpieces from the geniuses Unkei and Kaikei, and the statues of the guardian deities.
Todaiji is a cultural property in Nara that is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site. It is home to countless works of art and structures that are designated National Treasures, and is full of objects of extremely significant cultural value. Here, you will experience the dynamic atmosphere of a history spanning the ages in such objects as the main temple building, which houses Japan’s largest temple, and Daibutsu (the great Buddha statue).
At a height of 8.4 meters, the huge wooden images of guardian deities (National Treasures) flanking Nandaimon on both sides are not to be missed. Records show that these figures were made by the genius Buddhist image sculptors Unkei and Kaikei and their 13 disciples in just 69 days during the Kamakura period in the year 1208. These vivid and powerful statues stand magnificently, captured in a moment with their clothes fluttering in the wind. They have an incredible realism so that even their blood vessels can be seen. The image of the powerful Rikishi is a masterpiece of art from the middle of the Kamakura period.
Admission: Adult: ¥ 500 / Child: ¥ 300
(image by upload.wikimedia.org)
For over 1,400 years, the beauty of Horyuji has continued to fascinate its visitors. Immerse yourself in the mysterious legends and intriguing historical facts of Japan’s oldest wooden temple.
The area with a group of buildings including Japan’s oldest wooden structure is collectively called Horyuji. Recognized for its exceptional historical and cultural value, Horyuji is Japan’s first World Heritage site.
On the 187,000 square meters premises of Horyuji stands the Saiin Garan (the Western Precinct) built in the Asuka Period (7th century) and an array of buildings built in subsequent years with the cutting-edge technology of the time they were constructed in. There are more than 2,300 buildings and treasures of which approx. 190 items have been designated as a National Treasure or an Important Cultural Property. This land has been vigorously protected since its establishment in 607 as the site where the first nation state of Japan was formed; it is a place of extreme historical and cultural value.
While Horyuji is full of intriguing historical facts and mysteries, it is not a place of extravagance. The lack of glittering decoration is more than compensated by the virtuous and serene atmosphere exuded by the simple, sophisticated beauty from the old times. The temple is of course beautiful during the cherry blossom season in spring and the fall foliage season, but there is also a subdued beauty to the sound of Horyuji’s bell when you listen to it in the cold air of late fall or winter. Visit Horyuji and immerse yourself in the wonders and splendors of the temple’s 1,400 years of history.
Admission: Adult: ¥ 1,500 / Child: ¥ 750
(image by upload.wikimedia.org)
The World Heritage site of Kasuga Taisha (Kasuga Grand Shrine) was established to enshrine the local deity at around the time of the transfer of the capital 1300 years ago. The brilliant vermilion shinden in the primeval forest is magnificent and mysterious.
Kasuga Shrine which is located inside Nara Park has continued on from ancient times with its brilliant red shinden, its beautiful cloisters and an overwhelming impression to its guests. Its red appearance among the lushly green cedar grove at the bottom of Kasugayama Primeval Forest evokes that mystery of a sacred country of the Far East. The gorgeous main building that has also been registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site has splendor and grace. It has an appearance as a sacred place that would be appropriate to enshrine a god.
There are more than 1000 events throughout the year at Kasuga Taisha, but since there are many events that can be generally visited, come and visit according to your schedule. Within those, during the special services known as the Chugen Mantoro held within the cloisters in February and August, 2000 stone lanterns and 1000 hanging lanterns are lit which create a wondrous atmosphere.
Admission: ¥ 500
- Guidebook from Planetyze about Kasuga Taisha
- Reviews from TripAdvisor about Kasuga Taisha
- Tours of Kasuga Taisha
(image by upload.wikimedia.org)
Shin-Yakushi-ji Temple was constructed in 745 by Empress Komyo in the hopes for Emperor’s Shomu’s recovery from illness with 7 statues of the Yakushi Nyorai enshrined within. At the time, more than 100 monks served in the huge grounds, and Kon-do Hall where the Buddhas were enshrined was even larger than the council hall at the Nara Imperial Palace. The temple was almost completely burned down due to a lightning strike in the year 780, and the hall that had been used as the refectory became the current Kon-do main hall. The Kon-do is a valuable building erected in the Nara Era which is simple yet strong, and it has the special characteristic of not having an attic, instead revealing the rafters for an open-ceiling appearance. The name of Shin-Yakushi-ji Temple does not refer to a “New Yakushi-ji Temple” but a “miraculous” temple enshrining the Yakushi Nyorai and has no connection with the Yakushi-ji Temple of Nishi-no-Kyo.
In the Nara Era, belief in the Yakushi Nyorai was at a peak as the Buddha overlooking the peoples’ physical and mental health, and the Buddha had in its left hand a medicine vase which contained a panacea of miracle medicines which could heal all disease. Surrounding the placid-faced Yakushi Nyorai are the brave Twelve Heavenly Generals with their steely-eyed expressions to protect the Buddha from all evil demons. Each of the generals is distinct from the others, with his own expression and stance. Challenging any demons who would disturb the penitent Yakushi Nyorai to battle, they are separated along the 12 points of the compass and command a total of 84,000 large armies, and even after chasing away them away, the generals eternally continue to stand vigilant so that the demons don’t come twice. Furthermore, according to current research, it has been discovered that the earth-colored Twelve Heavenly Generals had once been vividly painted in red, blue, green, gold and other colors. The Twelve Heavenly Generals, along with the Yakushi Nyorai, pray for a world without sorrow, and underneath their stern expressions, there is a benevolence to them, something that should not be missed.
Admission: Adult: ¥ 600 / Child: ¥ 150
- Guidebook from Planetyze about Shin-Yakushi-ji
- Reviews from TripAdvisor about Shin-Yakushi-ji
- Tours of Shin-Yakushi-ji
(image by flickr.com)
Toshodai-ji is the head temple for Risshu, one of the six sects of Buddhism brought to Japan. In 759, Jianzhen began a place of Buddhist meditation that was for students to learn the mores and principles that needed to be protected in the religion. At the time, there had been no high priest to instruct these precepts in Japan, and there was a huge problem with a decrease in the quality of monks. It is at that point that Emperor Shoumu invited Jianzen from China to establish the correct Buddhist precepts. After 5 failed attempts to cross over to Japan, he finally reached the country after losing his sight in both eyes. This great achievement is known widely in both Japan and China.
Despite the many temples that were burned down during times of war, Toshodai-ji still remains as a remnant from the Tempyo Era. Inside, the Golden Hall has retained its appearance since its establishment in the late 8th century. In the center is the principal image of Rushanabutsu, on the right is the statue of Yakushi Nyorai and on the left is the statue of Senju Kannon. All of them are statues from around the 8th and 9th centuries and have been designated as National Treasures. In addition, you cannot miss the Kodo Lecture Hall with its open space. Originally, this was the Higashi Choushuuden Hall moved from Heijo Palace and then restored. Since no buildings remain of the Heijo Palace, the hall is an extremely valuable building at this time.
To prevent the decay of Buddhism in Japan, Jianzhen took more than 12 years to reach his goal of getting to Japan. His statue at Goei-do Hall can only be viewed annually for just three days in June, from the 5th to the 7th. Measuring 80.1cm in height, it is Japan’s oldest portrait sculpture and is a work that is representative of the Tempyo Era. The appearance of him with his eyes closed is exceptional as an example of a portrait sculpture. The realistic representation is remarkable up to the faithful re-creation of Jianzhen’s indomitable spirit.
Admission: Adult: ¥ 600 / Child: ¥ 200
- Guidebook from Planetyze about Toshodai-ji
- Reviews from TripAdvisor about Toshodai-ji
- Tours of Toshodai-ji
Did you like my article?
If you are interested to know more and save your time during your trip to Nara, You can send a message to our local guides to get a customized itinerary and quotation for an unforgettable experience.
In the TripleLights website you can find the best professional guides all over Japan to help you plan your trip. Check our local guides for Nara