Nara

More places to visit

Nara is a place which unfolds the origin of Japanese culture. Because of the long history, almost every part of the region embodies provocative ancient stories behind. It is not the wrong way to stick to UNESCO World Heritage Sites as the first encounter of Nara, but visitors should farther extend the journey to lesser known spots regardless of their fame and scale to enrich the quest of Japan. Doing so, Nara truly becomes your intimate second home. Note that accounts below uses the word “Kami” in order to express Shinto deity. Neither deity nor god is appropriate word to represent this intangible spirit of Japan’s indigenous religion.

Ancient roads and monuments

The five-storied pagoda of Kofukuji Temple has been recognized as one of the most distinctive land marks of Nara. It is the second tallest pagoda of the country about 50 meters tall. As a private temple of Fujiwara family, the most powerful clan of the day, Kofukuji moved to the current location in 710 paralleling to the relocation of the capital to Heijyokyo. The pagoda was first built in 730 but was burned down a total of five times over its history. The current pagoda was reconstructed in 1426 blending the structure of ancient Tempyo Period with the dynamic architectural style of the Kitayama Period. This style is the most symbolically indicated by its deep eaves.

This five storied pagoda reflected in the waters of Sarusawa-ike Pond, especially seen at a night with a full moon, has been counted as one of the most distinguished scenery of Nara. With a circumference of about 360 meters, the pond was created in 749 as a place for a religious ritual called “Hojoe” in which priests of Kofukuji release some fishes so as to show the love of all creatures.

At the northwestern edge of the pond, across the street, there is a small Shinto Shrine called Uneme-jinja. The main hall of the shrine characteristically stands turning its back on the pond. The uneme was a court lady who were serving the emperor as a maid-in-waiting. However, after falling out of the favor of the emperor, she threw herself into the pond in grief. A night with a full moon of the mid-autumn every year, not only does the shrine hold a ritual, but a festival is performed in order to console her soul. In the past, while decorated sacred boats were being rowed out around the pond, people dipped their foot in the water as they believed that it would prevent chilblains during the Nara’s cold winter.

At the east side of Sarusawa-ike Pond, there is a road called Kamikaido which runs north and south through the old precincts of Gangoji Temple to current Tenri City. The name of the road is derived from Kamitsu-michi, one of the three ancient main roads which connected the capital with Asuka area. Although the Kamikaido Road was thrived throughout the Edo period as a part of the roads which supports Ise-jingu Shrine pilgrimage from Nara, it now appears just a quiet narrow country road.

Located at the eastern edge of Nara Basin, Tenri area has been thought to be the place where people of ancient times formed the Yamato (Nara) Dynasty. As the history reflects, there are many ancient monuments in this area. Among them, Isonokami-jingu Shrine, considered to be one of Japan’s oldest Shinto shrines, venerates the legendary sword called Shichishito. Created in 369 in an ancient Korean Kingdom called Paekche, the sword came to Japan as a gift and thought to be used to unify the country by an emperor. The sword has seven branches and its length is about 75cm and is one of a few real-life legendary objects used for symbolic or ceremonial purposes.

Isonokami-jingu is also known as either the first or the last stop of the Yamanobe-no-Michi Trail, which is said to be the oldest recorded road in Japan. It actually runs north and south from Mt. Kasuga in Nara City to Mt. Miwa in Sakurai City along the foot of mountains though, the road is now known as the 16 km ancient trail which runs from Isonokami-jingu to Omiwa-jinja Shrine in Sakurai City. The trail cuts through paddy fields and orchards. There are bamboo groves, stone statues, shrines, temples, and ancient burial mounds along the trail. The rural atmosphere of the trail was captured by waka poets and their works are commemorated in roadside monuments.

A suburban town with a moat

There were three main roads which connected Nara in the north and Asuka in the south in ancient times. These roads had already been present by the late 7th century playing an important role in the development of the area. Among them, Shimotsu-michi seemed to be the most bustling one. This busy road, about 25km in length and located in the west, was directly connected to Suzaku-oji, the main street of Heijyokyo palace. Although Shimotsu-michi had lost its importance by the middle ages, it was continuously used as not only literally a road but also the border line as it paralleled to gutters on each side.

Along the remain of Shimotsu-michi, in the vicinity of Yamato Koriyama City which adjoins Nara City to the north, there is a area called Hieda where there was a village fortified and surrounded by a moat. The moat, whose circumference was about 260 meters, was completed in the 15th century but its origin and the process of its evolution is not known. The village was thoroughly built like a fort and every passage leads to a blind alley with T-junctions thus all streets have quite poor visibility for the defense against enemy attacks. Today the village is known as Hieda Moat Village and it still partially keeps the circular trench around it.

At the south-east side of the village, there is a Shinto shrine called Meta. It was established during the first half of Heian period, between the 9th and the 10th century. Every village in Japan has its own shrine which is closely associated with the local community. For the benefits of locals it enshrines special Kami for which people play divine protection typically a good harvest and the safety of villagers.

Meta-jinja is dedicated to three Kami. Two of them, Sarutahiko-no-kami and Amanouzume-no-mikoto, are answering prayers respectively for traveling and arts, and entertainment and folk art. The rest, Hieda-no-Are-no-mikoto, the principal Kami of the shrine, is for intelligence and wisdom. This Kami is a spirit of a man called Hieda-no-Are, who was a descendant of powerful family of Hieda area and had a exceptional good memory and intelligence. At the request of rulers of his day, Are memorized their genealogical tree and stories surround them. At the beginning of the 8th century, Kojiki, the first chronicle of Japan, was compiled and published by the dictation based on his memory. Are’s ability was highly admired and his spirit was thus seen as Kami and enshrined as a guardian of the art of story telling. Are’s festival is held every summer at Meta-jinja, but the shrine holds another important festival in spring.

Among three Kami dedicated to Meta-jinja, Ameno-uzumeno-mikoto is the protector of entertainment and folk art. Profile of the deity thus evokes its relationship with an event held at every spring at the worship hall. The event is called Ningyo Shoten Sai Festival; the festival in which dolls are passing away. Shinto shrines are, however, generally indifferent to funeral events since Shinto considers death to be the worst pollution taking over Japan’s primitive mind. Corpses are thus unbearable defilement for Shinto therefore this doll event takes place as not a funeral but a sort of purification ritual in which impurity will be driven away. Such ritual is called O-harai or Harae in Shinto terminology. The purpose of O-harai is to remove various impediments such as the impurity that prevents Kami from emanating its life power.

The core of Shinto shrine consists of Inner Sanctuary and the Worship Hall. The former is equivalent to the Main Hall of the shrine and the latter is the public space where rituals are conducted. Shinto Kami dwell in the shrine occupying the sacred essence which rests in the Main Hall. In its older form, however, no permanent architecture was present to conduct a Shinto ritual but a marked sanctuary with a temporary alter and a space for the performance. Regardless of the age and style, as an offering, a bunch of sakaki tree should be put beside the alter.

Shinto Kami is a formless spirit which dwell in natural elements such as rocks, trees, rivers and even mountains. These are the origin of sacred essences usually marked by a sacred rope to which some thunder shaped white folded papers called Shide are attached. The area of the sanctuary is varied according to the size of objects for the deity.

Shintoism has likely emerged at different locations simultaneously as a natural phenomenon of either individual or collective human mind based on the local animism. Such history elucidates its polytheistic nature, lack of instructions and propagation. Along with Mahayana Buddhism, Shinto stands as Japan’s foremost religion based on traces of spiritual mind of ancient people who were in constant fear and gratitude to the nature.

The origin of Shinto shrine

A human religious activity generally requires three fundamental elements; the founder, teachings created by the founder, and missionary works to spread the teachings. This theory is more clearly visible in monotheistic religion which currently occupies the most part of the world. In Japan, two religious activities, Buddhism and Shintoism, have been synthetically recognized since the former was introduced in the mid 6th century. Japan’s Buddhism belongs to the Mahayana School which, with its varied formulae, represents many different images of worship and besides it is fundamentally not a theistic doctrine. Such characteristics of Buddhism well matches to the spirit of Shintoism.

Shinto, literally means the ways of the gods, is Japan’s indigenous religion whose origin can not be defined. It is, however, based on the animism, believing that all natural objects are inhibited by spirits who brings both good and evil. Shinto is thus the polytheistic religion which worships myriad deities called Kami who brings forth all things and rules them. Kami, who teaches nothing, is not the founder of Shintoism which requires no missionary work to spread. Shinto is the religion which represents the sensitivity as well as the cultural identity of Japanese.

In Japan, every region has a Shinto Shrine with Torii Gate which marks the boundary between everyday world and realm of Kami. But the concept of Shinto Shrine as such was appeared under influence of Buddhism which is accompanied by the permanent temple architecture. Shinto in its original form obtained no permanent alter which enshrines Kami. What it required was either marked natural objects such as stones and trees binding with a sacred rope or a divine enclosure called Himorogi which typically consisted of a gohei installed on a table covered with a straw hat. Gohei is a bunch of the sakaki tree bound with strips of shide paper. In front of such sacred objects, rituals were took place as an act of purification.

Nara is a place where noticeably many cultural monuments are preserved. Just loitering around a precinct of an old temple, you may pick up a fragment that traces the ancient culture. In this sense, Iwatoko-jinja Shrine well preserves and exhibits an early style of Shinto ritual without an alter. The shrine stands in the mountainous agricultural region called Heguri which locates in the northwestern part of Nara Prefecture. There are number of small but individual shrines and ancient burial mounds in this area once governed by a powerful clan with the same name.

The origin of Iwatoko-jinja dates back to rituals took place in Kofun (tumulus) period, roughly from the 3rd to the 5th century CE (Christian Era). As the oldest shrine in Heguri valley, it strikingly indicates the original form of Shinto Shrine. Subject of worship of this shrine is Iwakura, a huge rock about 10 meters wide and 6 meters high marked by a sacred rope. There is neither permanent alter nor shrine hall but Torii gate which indicates the separated holy ground.

This original version of Iwatoko-jinja was terminated in 1924 and its Kami were re-enshrined in Susano-jinja Shrine nearby then it later converted into current Iwatoko-jinja. It altogether enshrines three Kami; Kami once enshrined at the Iwakura is positioned in the center and Susano-no-mikoto and Futodama-no-mikoto are placed on both sides in the shrine alter. The place where it stands is the precinct of Shokachi-jinja Shrine.

Shokachi-jinja is not a big but outstanding shrine of the area. Although the exact origin of the shrine is unknown, it was primarily developed from a site in which people worshiped the local deity called Masakatsu-no-kami. The shrine had already been well known by the late middle ages among villagers for answering prayers for heeling of the lower part of the body. Roughly from the 17th century onward, however, the shrine was thrived giving divine blessing for heeling of especially gynecological disorder and sexually transmitted diseases.

Worshipers first of all dedicate twelve small dumplings made with soil leaving them at the worshiping area as the requirements of this heeling. Then if the wish came true, worshipers must replace them made with sticky white rice in return for it. This custom still persists and the shrine provides the stand where worshipers can make dumplings with soil. Even in this modern world, the grace of the shrine seems not to be falling into oblivion, as this particular custom still comes across by both villagers and visitors.

Japan’s religious syncretism

Ichijyo-dori is the street which runs east and west from the point just in front of Tegaimon Gate of Todaiji Temple to Saidaiji area which is close to the western edge of the ancient capital of Heijyokyo. Around the street, there are old temples and monuments which mark the history of Nara. Among them, Futaiten-Horinji Temple, so called Futaiji, was established in 809 as a residence of emperor Heijyo and his descendants. In 847, however, his grandson Ariwarano Narihira converted it into the temple enshrining a self sculpted statue of Syo-Kannon-Bodhisattva by the command of the imperial household. Narihira was a legendary poet whose life and works were often freely interpreted and handed down to Japan’s classical literature and legends.

Futaiji is affiliated by the Shingon-Ritsu sect of Buddhism. Using Narihira as its poster boy, it attracts tourists as one of the worthy visiting temples in Nara. However, it has another point to look at. Futaiji presents evidence of the fusion of Buddhism and Shintoism quite unusual way installing the Shinto alter next to the Buddhist statues. Buddhist monks of Futaiji thus worship Amaterasu-Omikami, one of the most venerated Shinto Kami, along with its own Buddhist images.

Although the Shinto Kami had already been worshiped at Buddhist temples as their protectors, Japan’s religious syncretism was formally and theoretically established under the system called Honji-Suijaku during the Heian period (794-1185). Honji and Suijaku meant Buddhist divinities and their manifestations respectively, suggesting that Shinto Kami are incarnations of Buddhist divinities thus shrines and temples share both deities and sacred grounds. This system was notably led by Shingon esoteric sect of Buddhism. In this sect, the Shinto sun goddess Amaterasu-Omikami was identified with its main object of worship called Dainichi Nyorai, the Great Sun Buddha.

In the mid 19th century, however, there was a movement which separates Shinto from Buddhism. Upon the end of Edo period (1603–1867), as the end of Japan’s feudalism, Shinto was co-opted onto the national religion by the rulers of newly emerged Meiji period (1868–1912). In exchange for the emergence of State Shinto, the government proceeded to break up cutting ties between Buddhism and Shintoism and to strip properties of Buddhist temples. In addition, the government supported public riots referred as Haibutsu Kishaku, literally means “Buddha was abolished and Shakamuni was smashed”. In this harsh period, many Buddhist temples were forcibly terminated and monks were turned into Shinto priests.

Apart from the classical Honji-Suijaku theory, religious syncretism was later reintroduced and, if not so vividly as Futaiji, Buddhist temples now often accommodate Shinto architecture in the precincts and Shinto shrines hold Jinguji, a Buddhist temple, in their realm of Kami. In Japan today, both practices have strengthened their ties based on their common offerings for Genzei Riyaku. It means various worldly benefits or immediate concrete rewards, for which modern Japanese, while insisting their irreligious mind, often casually visit temples and shrines to depend on divine help.

Like Futaiji that vividly reconstructs the scenery of the time when the two faces were naturally interwoven, Tanzan-jinja Shrine, a well known Shrine located in the mountainous regions of Sakurai City, illustrates the syncretism but from a different perspective. Famous for the autumn tints and historical backgrounds, Tanzan-jinja was in fact established as a Buddhist temple called Myorakuji in 678 by a monk called Jyoe, who was the eldest son of Nakatomi-no-Kamatari, the founder of influential Fujiwara family. Jyoe buried remains there then developed the temple in order to console the soul of his father. Thus Myorakuji had been dedicated to the image of Kamatari by the time when the temple was forcibly converted to the Shinto Shrine in the mid 19th century. Accordingly, as the aftermath of Haibutsu Kishaku, the image was turned into Shinto Kami.

Tea ceremony and the garden

Bamboo, a group of plants grows widely throughout Japan, is in fact the members of the grass family. Because of its elegance, durability, and flexibility, it has played the central roll in the lives of Japanese since ancient times. The implements used for the tea ceremony also widely rely on bamboo. One of them, chasen tea whisk is the most delicately crafted implements which had only been produced in Takayama. Takayama is an area which occupies the north part of Ikoma city, located in the northwestern part of Nara. Although Ikoma is now a city with about 120,000 dotted with modern estates, it used to be an aggregate of local villages based on agriculture with cottage industries. Among various products, chasen tea whisks have been the most famous one since its invention.

The history of tea whisks dates back to the 15th century. It was first created by Sotetsu Takayama, the second son of the load of the area, upon the request of Juko Murata, a priest based in Nara and Kyoto known as the founder of the Wabi-cha style of tea ceremony. Together with the term Sabi, Wabi represents the highest value of Japanese arts emphasizing a sense of quiet sadness and ultimate simplicity through the rejection of worldly gaudiness. Along with the 17 syllables haiku poem, the tea ceremony represents such Zen based concepts through its deep sincerity and strict manner.

The emperor of the time encouraged to keep the peculiar production method of chasen as a guarded secret of the Takayama clan. Following the tradition called isshi-soden, the method had been passed down from the father to only one male successor until recently. Although the method is now open to the public, Takayama still predominates over the industry. The picture shows the view of bamboos drying at Takayama Chikurin-en in Ikoma City. Bamboos are appropriately dried in the cold air so as to be the appropriate material of chasen tea whisks.

Since Sen-No-Rikyu ultimately brought the tea ceremony into perfection in the 16th century, many people in high society were fascinated by this art. Among them, Sekishu Katagiri, a load of Koizumi feudal clan in current Yamato Koriyama City, ultimately established a temple with an exquisite Japanese garden called Jikoin, which dedicates its entire precinct to represent the reality of this sensitive art.

Sekishu was in fact the pseudonym of Sadamasa Iwamino-Kami who were the second generation of the load. He was the founder of Sekishu school of tea ceremony and was also a garden architect. In 1663, at the age of 57, he built Jikoin in order to console the soul of his father. He designed the temple to be the real venue for tea ceremony based on the spirit of Zen Buddhism of which feudal clan of his day was particularly in favor. Upon founding the temple, Sekishu invited a priest called Gyokushu from Daitokuji Temple in Kyoto, placing the standing statue of Shaka Nyorai Buddha as the main image. However, Sekishu rather focused on the country style tea house and the garden viewed from it.

With the impressive thatched roof, the tea house assimilates the style of traditional folk house but with a low ceiling based on the premise that visitors would mostly be sitting in the house. It has two tea rooms and one of them features Teishu-doko which was designed by Sekishu himself. In this tea room, the alcove is unusually installed behind the host of the ceremony called teisyu, who is the tea master and often the owner of the house.

Unlike most of the Zen dry gardens, Jikoin’s garden does not depend on gravel and stones but artificially pruned shrubs and trees. Conventional elements of zen garden are replaced by the grand shrubbery which separates Jikoin’s garden from the rest. Shrubs include azalea, camellia, and cape jasmine, so that visitors may experience seasonal flowers in this peculiar Japanese garden. The garden has been counted as one of the three best publicly recognized gardens of Nara along with Chikurin-in Temple in Mt. Yoshino, Saina-in as one of subsidiary temples of Taimadera Temple in Katsuragi City.

Japanese gardens in Nara

The Japanese garden is often summarized as embodiment of nature in which its majesty will be evoked within a confined space. In this perspective, it has been designed to satisfy our aesthetic appreciation. However, its original rejects our stereotypical view of the garden since it was built as a site of primitive religious rituals. The most fundamental elements of Japanese garden, rocks, water, and trees, were all rooted in materials of rituals in ancient time.

While outlining the natural landscape, the typical Japanese garden rejects artificiality and symmetry. Unlike western gardens, flowers are not normally emphasized in its traditional form. Plain and solemn atmosphere of common Japanese garden derives from the animism on which its origin was based, but the overall design of the garden largely reflects the Buddhist’s view of the nature.

In Chisen-kaiyu-shiki (Strolling-Around-the-Pond) garden, which is the most typical garden style, visitors strolls around the pond with islands in the middle. The garden depicts the natural landscape which assimilates the scenery of the Buddhist paradise. Jyodo-shiki garden, another typical garden style, more strikingly depicts the heavenly paradise in which the pond separates the realm of Buddha from the secular world. Kare-Sansui, a dry garden, is a typical zen garden which represents its philosophical simplicity. Water is depicted by raked gravels so visitors are not allowed to enter the garden. Zen gardens are primarily created as a place of discipline.

Whereas Nara officially registers three best Japanese gardens of the prefecture, the most well known is probably the Isuien garden in Nara city. Covering nearly 3 acres, it has two maturely designed Strolling-Around-the-Pond gardens created during the early modern times: the Edo period and the Meiji era. However, several Buddhist temples represents exquisite gardens melting into deep mountainous environment. Chogakuji Temple in Tenri City and Enjyoji Temple in the north part of Nara City are good examples.

According to Nihon Syoki, the first chronicle of Japan, gardens were already enjoyed by the emperor at the beginning of the 5th century assimilating Chinese court events. However, apart from the legend, the oldest gardens go back to the 7th century built around Asuka area. Several traces of mature gardens of court nobles were also found at Heijyokyo Palace in Nara City. They had been decayed coincided with the relocation of the capital, but were recently excavated and reconstructed based on the archaeological evidences.

East Palace Garden or Toin-teien in Japanese, located in the south eastern corner of the Nara Palace Site, is a good example of those 8th century gardens. Reconstructed in 1998, the garden used be the “Jewelled Hall of the East Palace” where Empress Shotoku held banquets regularly. The garden was first built following the Chinese style but modified in Japanese one later in the period.

Japanese gardens were wholly developed in Kyoto where there is an abundant of water. Nara basin has been a dry area and this prevented the Japanese garden from its evolution. Departing from the representation of the Buddhist paradise, gardens were subsequently developed into the manifestation of one’s imagined landscape in Kyoto. However, Nara, as a place where Japan’s culture and history originates, exclusively offers more ancient view of Japanese garden; the origin of this wholly integrated works of art.

Ikoma and Heguri: These city and town are relatively unknown areas particularly for tourists from distances. However, conveniently located in the midway between Osaka and Nara, they hold many cultural and historical monuments. Ikoma also offers sake breweries and special restaurants while Heguri provides a roadside station and an agricultural park.

Guides and Tours

Guided tours are provided by Kenichi Nakatsu who is an official tourist guide interpreter of Nara Prefecture. Born and raised in Osaka, Kenichi has been living in the north western edge of Nara for more than 25 years. Some set tours are provided, but custom tours will be made according to your request. Queries and bookings, please contact Kenichi Nakatsu.

This website is created and maintained by Kenichi Nakatsu.

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