Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara
Historic Monuments Of Ancient Nara
Cultural Japan Asia And The Pacific Nara Prefecture

The Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara bear exceptional witness to the evolution of Japanese architecture and art as a result of cultural links with China and Korea, which were to have a profound influence on future developments. They vividly illustrate a critical period in the cultural and political development of Japan.

In 710 the capital of Japan was transferred from Fujiwara to Nara, which prospered as the political, economic and cultural centre of the country for the next 74 years, during the Nara period. The site of Heijô-kyôwas carefully selected in accordance with Chinese geomantic principles. A grand city plan, based on Chinese examples such as Chang'an, was laid out, with palaces, Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, public buildings, houses, and roads on an orthogonal grid. The palace itself, located at the northern end of the central avenue, occupied 120 ha. It comprised the official buildings where political and religious ceremonies took place, notably the Daigokuden (imperial audience hall) and Chôdô-in (state halls), and the imperial residence (Dairi), together with various compounds for administrative and other purposes.

In 784 the imperial capital moved to Nagaoka for nine years, and then to Kyoto (Heian), where it was to remain until 1184. The abandoned Nara capital became paddy fields. However, most of the temples and shrines survived intact;they maintained their high status and imperial patronage. A new town developed around them known as Nanto (South Capital). The temple area around Tôdai-ji, Kôfuku-ji, Gangô-ji and Kasuga-Taisha was particularly prosperous, and it was here that the modern city developed in the 16th century.

The Tôdai-ji consists of a group of buildings. The Kondô(Great Buddha Hall) houses the seated image of the Vairocana (Great) Buddha. It is a monumental seven-bay wooden structure, and the bronze statue is some 15 m high. The Kôfuku-ji, erected in Fujiwara, was rebuilt in Nara when the capital moved there in 710. The Gangô-ji was the first Buddhist temple in Japan, built by Soga-no-Umako in the 6th century and originally known as Asuka-dera. It was transferred from Asuka in 718 when the capital moved to Nara. Much of it was destroyed by fire in 1451.

The Tôshôdai-ji, originally built by the Chinese high priest Jian Zhen (Ganjin) in 759 for students of Buddhism, is unusual in having suffered very little from fire or other forms of disaster. Its main features are the Kondô(main hall, the only extant example built in the Nara period and very important in the study of Japanese temple architecture), Kôdô(lecture hall, originally a state assembly hall in the Nara Palace and the only surviving example of the architecture of the palace), Korô(sutra repository), and Hôzôand Kyôzô(two Nara repositories in 'log-house' style).

The Kasuga-Taisha: according to legend the Kasuga-Taisha (Kasuga Great Shrine) was founded in 768, but its origins are believed to go back to the beginning of the Nara period. It is located at the foot of two sacred mountains: Kasugayama and Mikasayama. The buildings of Kasuga-Taisha have been restored and reconstructed on many occasions following decay and destruction. The buildings are all within the shrine precinct and, according to tradition, are roofed with cypress-bark shingles, so as to harmonize with their natural environment.

The Kasugayama Primeval Forest: the natural environment is an integral element of all Shinto shrines. In the case of Kasuga-Taisha this is provided by Kasugayama, which has been preserved as a sacred forest. There is no form of human intervention beyond the provision of footpaths for worshippers and pilgrims.

The Nara Palace site contains all the elements necessary to meet the official and private requirements of the imperial family. These included the Daigokuden (imperial audience hall), Chôdô-in (state halls), Dairi (imperial residence), offices, workshops, stores, stables, etc. The compound was enclosed by earthen ramparts (Tsuji-ogaki) some 5 m high and crossed by 12 gates. The main entrance was the Suzaku Gate in the middle of the south wall, giving access to the Daigokuden and Chôdô-in, the most important buildings in the imperial complex, used for political ceremonies and banquets.