Shrouded from the modern travelers by its more famous cousin, Kyoto, Nara stands as one of the more beautiful and historical cities in Japan, yet despite its various temples and World Heritage Sites such as the Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara, it has remained largely off the grid when it comes to mass tourism. A once-upon-a-time capital of Japan (from 710 to 784), Nara is just as mystical as any of the other cities within the country, yet there is something here that the other places lack: an indescribable sense of magic and ancient history that has to be experienced first-hand to be understood.
Nara was Japan’s first actual capital, which makes it a historically significant place. However, the city also boasts a UNESCO World Heritage Site, consisting of Tōdai-ji, Saidai-ji, Kōfuku-ji, Kasuga Shrine, Gangō-ji, Yakushi-ji, Tōshōdai-ji and the Heijō Palace remains, and together with Kasugayama Primeval Forest, collectively form "Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara". For these reasons Nara is considered to be second only to Kyoto as a treasury of cultural history and legacy. And all of that is packed into a tiny space that almost defies logic, and really brings home the old adage of “size doesn’t matter”. From Heijo Palace to Kasuga Shrine to the Tōdai-ji temple complex and other various Buddhist temples scattered around the city, the sense of mysticism pervades everything here, from daily routines to nightly outings.
Probably the most significant aspect of the city, and definitely one of the main reasons to come, is Nara Park. Tame deer wander throughout, and there are several temples, shrines, and culturally significant statues and other historic references. However, tourism has definitely taken its toll, and the various souvenir shops steal a bit of the thunder. Still, there is probably no better place to see the legendary Japanese pagodas in all their splendor, and explore the vestiges of the past in places like the Nara National Museum, or visit the Kasuga Taisha after a walk through the legendary Kasuga-yama Primeval Forest. From the gardens to the temples to the shrines in the museums, Nara is a treasure-trove of both natural beauty and cultural significance, and is the perfect place to experience Japanese traditions in a more reserved setting than the traditional hotspots.
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