|The Capital 1300 Years Ago: Today a Legacy
from the Past
The ancient capital of Nara is located in Nara Prefecture, just south of Kyoto. It was the site of the city of Heijo-kyo, established in 710. It flourished until 784, when the capital was transferred. This epoch of Japanese history is known as the Nara Period. Heijo-kyo was built after the government passed legislation in 701 to concentrate and centralize its power. The official name of the capital was Heijo-kyo, but it was called the Capital of Nara because of its location.
Planned on grand scale, the walled city measured 4.3 km (about 2.7 miles) from east to west and 4.8 km (about 3.1 miles) from north to south. It was modeled after the Chinese capital of the time, with a wide road, 80 m (approximately 88 yd.) across, running north to south in the center, and the orderly configuration of streets in a grid pattern. The main street ran to Heijo Palace, at the innermost part of the city, which comprised the emperor's residence and government offices.
During the Nara Period the government officially supported Buddhism and a succession of large temples were built at important parts of the capital to protect the emperor and the state.
The Nara Period was also a period of flourishing ties with China. At this time the Chinese Tang dynasty had the largest empire in the world and Nara was receptive to its highly developed culture. The influx of Tang culture deeply influenced Japanese art, and plenty of lively, elegantly voluptuous sculptures have survived to the present day. Many of these have been designated National Treasures.
In 784 the capital was transferred to Nagaoka, and then again, in 794, transferred to Kyoto. After that, Kyoto flourished as the capital for more than a millennium.
Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara Registered as UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Properties
In December 1998, the World Heritage Committee selected for registration a number of sites and historic structures in Nara, including the remains of the palace, a primeval forest, and temple buildings dating back to the period 1300 years ago when the city flourished as the capital of Japan.
Heijo Palace Site
The palace was located toward the north, in the innermost part of the ancient capital of Heijo-kyo. This is where the government of ancient Japan was carried out, in buildings such as the Daigoku-den, the scene of ceremonies and courtly politics, and Dairi, the residential quarters of the emperor.
The site is of particular historical significance because it was the lost ancient Japanese city and, along with the ruins of Dazaifu and the ruins of Taga Castle, it is one of Japan's three noted historical sites.
Kasuga Grand Shrine
Located at the foot of the sacred mountain of Mifuta, Kasuga Grand Shrine was built in 768. Mt. Mifuta was held sacred as a place where the deities descend to earth.
The four main buildings of the shrine are National Treasures and 27 other buildings have been designated Important Cultural Properties. Vermilion lacquered, the shrine buildings present a pleasing contrast to the green of the primeval forest on the mountain.
Kasuga-yama Hill Primeval Forest
For more than 1,000 years, since 841, when the status of the sacred mountain was officially recognized, it has been forbidden to cut down any of the trees in this forest that, along with Mt. Mifuta, protects Kasuga Grand Shrine. This means that the forest is untouched by hands and remains, even now, a valuable repository of nature.
Temples which were built in the ancient capital of Heijo-kyo under the official protection of Buddhism by the government of the time have managed to survive for over a 1,000 years down to the present day. Their grandeur is a testimony to the flourishing culture of the period. Five temples were registered as World Heritage.
Todai-ji Temple was built during the middle of the 8th century in compliance with an imperial decree. Eight of the buildings are National Treasures, including the Kondo, a main hall also called Daibutsu-den Hall, (Great Buddha Hall) and Nandai-mon Gate (Great South Gate). Other 18 buildings are Important Cultural Properties.
Kofuku-ji Temple was moved to Nara from the site of the previous capital Asuka when the capital was transferred in 710. The 50.8 m (56 yd.) high Five-storied Pagoda and three other temple buildings are National Treasures. Other two buildings are Important Cultural Properties.
One of the oldest Buddhist temples, Gango-ji Temple was transferred from the former capital of Asuka to Nara in 710, when Heijo-kyo became the capital. Two buildings, the Gokurakubo-hondo (Main Hall) and Zen hall, are National Treasures and four are Important Cultural Properties.
Yakushi-ji Temple was originally built in 640 by the emperor as a way of praying for his wife's recovery from illness in Asuka. The temple was moved to Nara when the capital was transferred to Heijo-kyo. Enshrined in the temple is a statue of the Yakushi Nyorai, a manifestation of the power of health and healing. Two buildings, the East Pagoda and Toin-do Hall (East Hall), are National Treasures and one is an Important Cultural Property.
Toshodai-ji Temple was built in 759 by the priest Ganjin, who was invited from China to teach the precepts of Buddhism. The emperor and empress of the day came to the temple to receive instruction. Five buildings, including the Kondo (Golden Hall) and the Kodo (Lecture Hall), are National Treasures and other two are Important Cultural Properties.
Photos: (top) Todai-ji Temple, (bottom) Yakushi-ji Temple (Japan National Tourist Organization)
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