While it only held the title for 74 years, Nara was the first capital of Japan. Like Kyoto, this ancient city was built on a grid, mirroring the Tang Chinese city of Chang'an; the resulting layout is logical, well-ordered, and dotted with pleasant parks and gardens. History and culture buffs should note that Nara has managed to preserve its heritage well; among its many historical buildings are 8 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, as well as several of the oldest wooden buildings in Japan - and the world.


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Byodo-in Temple

On the way to Nara from Kyoto, stop at Byodo-in Temple in Uji City, one of the 17 UNESCO sites in and around Kyoto. The longevity and cultural importance of Byodo-in, which was established by a member of the powerful Fujiwara clan in 1052, is commemorated on both Japan’s 10-yen coin and 10,000-yen bill.

Horyu-ji Temple Complex

See the Horyu-ji temple complex, home to the two oldest wooden buildings in the world, Horyu-ji’s East temple and the West temple. These examples of ancient Japanese architecture were built in the 607 AD by Buddhist carpenters from the Korean kingdom of Paekche. The original structure burned down in 670, but the structure you will see today is the reconstructed temple finished in the 8th century.

Kasuga Grand Shrine

Visit Kasuga Grand Shrine. Located at the foot of Nara’s Mount Mifuta, a sacred place where deities were believed to descend to earth, the shrine was officially established in 768 by the Fujiwara clan, but is believed to date from the very beginning of the Nara period. The Fujiwara clan was one of the most powerful aristocratic families of the period, and the Imperial court worshipped here.

Nara Park

Stroll through Nara Park, where you will see hundreds of freely roaming deer. Considered messengers of the gods in Shinto, Nara’s deer have become a symbol of the city and have even been designated a national treasure. Vendors in the park sell small packets of rice crackers that you can use to feed the deer.

Todai-ji Temple

Continue on to Todai-ji Temple, home to the largest Buddha statue (daibutsu) in Japan. It is also the world’s largest wooden building, even though the present reconstruction of 1692 is only two-thirds of the original temple’s size. Your guide will walk you through Todai-ji and the halls that flank it, Nigatsu-do and Sangatsu-do.

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