Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara

Location: Nara, Japan
Visited: 2012, 2014
Site Type: Cultural
Inscribed: 1998
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.

Todaiji Temple

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 feeding the deer after bowing.

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!

Don’t approach them in a group or you WILL get hurt.

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.

Five-Story Pagoda

Evaluation:

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.

This “ousted monk” is said to have been banished and turned to wood.

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.

Stone lanterns from donors throughout the centuries

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.

I don’t recall the name of this festival, but once a year this is lit up in fire and people try to get caught in the ashes.

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.

The biggest donors get their name here. This is a big source of criticism of Japanese and Korean Buddhism. Some claim it is too guided by money donations.

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.

I kind of like the smudge I didn’t notice on my lens. Interestingly enough, the little stream you see here is now barred off. This picture is from 2012, but my 2014 visit has the metal bars.

Combined Score: 62.5/100

Is this a good score? Find out how it compares with other UNESCO World Heritage Sites in our rankings.

Curious how the scores are derived? Check out the scoring criteria.

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Julio Moreno

Julio is a California native who has lived abroad since 2009 as an expat in South Korea and New Zealand. He is especially passionate about experiencing other cultures and visiting as many UNESCO World Heritage Sites as possible.
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