Nara Prefecture – The Fountain of Japanese Civilisation
If Ancient Japan were a single place it would be Nara Prefecture. Despite its vast uninhabitable area, Nara-ken has more temples designated as National Treasures, and more UNESCO World Heritage listings, than any other prefecture.
Would it be possible to unfold Japan’s extensive history without encountering Nara Prefecture (奈良県)? Most certainly not. It is here that many of the country’s ancient capitals were built. Where some of the oldest constructions in the world stand. And where some of the earliest artefacts of Japan’s cultural heritage stand.
Positioned between five prefectures, including Osaka and Kyoto, Nara Prefecture comprises of 12 cities with Nara-shi (奈良市) as its capital.
Much of the prefecture is covered by mountains and forests, leaving only 23% inhabitable. In fact, the total inhabitable area (855.53km²) is the lowest amongst all of Japan’s prefectures. This means that civilisation developed in the north of the region, resulting in many of the historic sites being in close proximity to one another.
The abundance of ancient cultural sites in Nara is quite staggering given its size. It has more temples designated as National Treasures, and more UNESCO World Heritage listings, than any other prefecture. The most popular locations in the prefecture are: Nara City – Japan’s first permanent capital. Mount Yoshino – one of Japan’s most famous 花見 (cherry blossom viewing) spots. And Sakurai City and Asuka Village – often referred to as “Cradles of Japanese Civilisation” due to the number of ancient artefacts they hold.
Nara City (奈良市)
Nara City is most renowned for combining two seemingly unrelated things – religious sites and deer.
Right in the middle of the city is Nara Park (奈良公園). Here there are over 1,000 wild sika deer who lead the optimal deer-lifestyle of sleeping, roaming and eating recently purchased deer-crackers – from the hands of obliging tourists – to their heart’s content. The 502-hectare space of Nara Park is designated as a “Place of Scenic Beauty” and also contains another one of Nara’s biggest draws – Buddhist temple, Todai-ji (東大寺).
With the world’s biggest bronze statue of Buddha Vairocana, the world’s largest wooden building, and almost 1400 years of history behind it, it’s no shock that Todai-ji is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. When it was constructed it served as the head of all provincial Buddhist Temples and therefore acquired a substantial amount of power. And although it remains a significant religious site today, much of its power has dissipated.
A 10-minute train journey from Nara City centre is another World Heritage Site, and Buddhist Temple – Horyu-ji (法隆寺). Its completion over 1400 years ago makes it the oldest wooden building still in existence!
Sakurai City (桜井市)
Sakurai City is a 30-minute train ride south of Nara City and is most renowned for Hasedera Temple (長谷寺). As with many of the attractions in Nara-ken, Hasedera’s history extends back over many centuries. It was constructed in 686 and dedicated to Japan’s Emperor at the time. The temple grounds include over 30 buildings which extend up a hillside, with the main hall taking pride of place at the top.
Asuka Village (明日香村)
Just seven kilometres south of Sakurai City is Asuka Village – a small village of around 6000 people. It was here that Empress Gensho – Japan’s 44th monarch – was born, and where many of Japan’s oldest artefacts lie, including: Asukudera (飛鳥寺) – where Japan’s oldest Buddha statue sits. Imaicho (今井町) – a well-preserved historic town.
And Ishibutai Tomb (石舞台) – an ancient stone tomb. Asuka was designated as a historic town in 1966 and there are strict laws prohibiting construction work that could impact its cultural heritage.
Mount Yoshino (吉野山)
Admittedly, Mount Yoshino appears to be a bit of a wildcard on this list, but it had to be mentioned.
If your favourite thing about winter is when it finishes, then Yoshinoyama should be on your your spring itinerary. Because during sakura season, Mount Yoshino is overrun with 30,000 different cherry blossom trees, creating a captivating sea of pink making it one of Japan’s best花見 spots.
Behind the Name “Nara”
Considering the significance of Nara during ancient Japan, and that the second oldest book of Japanese classical history (日本書紀) was dedicated to one of the Nara Period’s empresses, what do we know about the origins of the name “Nara”?
Unfortunately, nothing much can be concluded from the current kanji because the representative kanji for Nara (奈良) has changed over a dozen times already. Yet, there are two prevailing ideas, one from日本書紀, and another from author Kunio Yanagita, which are both linked to the verb ならす (to flatten, to level). What do you think?