Location: Nara, Japan
Visited: 2012, 2014
Site Type: Cultural
Background and Opinion:
Nara was the capital of Japan in the 8th century CE, about a century before Kyoto. It has some of the most impressive Buddhists monuments in Japan. Todai-ji Temple is the most famous one and still remains one of the largest wooden structures in the world, despite being a 1700s reconstruction that was 30% smaller than the original.
My first visit to Nara coincided with my first solo trip, and it was a trip to remember. Upon exiting Nara Station, I was approached by a older woman who immediately assured me she wasn’t trying to scam me and introduced herself as Keiko. I am not really one of those people who worries too much (for better or worse), so I just took her at her word, and it was the right call. She asked if she could show me around (free of charge) and I agreed.
Keiko is 70 years old and her husband is one of the main researchers of the Nara Park deer. These deer are everywhere outside of the temples and are one of the iconic parts of the World Heritage Site. What most people don’t know is that they are one of the only animals that can eat the Nara Park leaves, which are toxic to other animals, so there is no need to buy the cookies sold everywhere. She also showed me how the deer were trained to bow before receiving food by the monks, a practice she laments hasn’t been passed on to visitors. Just sternly say, “Konichiwa” and they really do bow!
The lantern grounds on the far ends of the temple area and the five story wooden pagoda were my favorites. It really sets the mood, and you can easily find a spot for yourself despite Nara being one of the most visited places in Japan.
1) Completeness and Originality (12 out of 15):
Technically, Todai-ji is a reconstruction, but its still 300 years old. The other temples have stood the test of time and are in great condition.
2) Extensiveness of the Site (8 out of 15):
The best approach is to just make a day trip out of it. You can stay the night, but you may run out of things to do by the second day.
3) Cultural Significance (12 out of 25):
The architecture and art around the palaces cannot be denied. While it is largely overshadowed by Kyoto, it is still one of the most impressive places in the country.
4) Personal Impact (9.5 out of 15):
My experience of having a personal tour with a local is not the only reason I loved it. I returned in 2014 with my wife and we still had a blast.
5) Logistics (9 out of 10):
Getting here is super easy. You can come from Osaka, Kyoto, or even out east as we passed by on our way back from Ise. Understanding the Japanese transportation system is intimidating at first, but websites like Hyperdia make it straight forward and its not too expensive for the convenience.
6) Uniqueness (12 out of 20):
While temples are nothing unusual, even within Japan, Nara does have quite a few unique elements including its deer park and the architecture of Todai-ji.
Combined Score: 62.5/100
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