The UNESCO World Heritage Site “Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara” encompasses several landmarks in the ancient capital of Nara. These religious sites were prominent during the Nara period (D.C. 710-794), and any Nara temple tour should include the entire list. Many temples and shrines were constructed in hopes of propelling prosperity throughout the country. The nomination of these cultural assets as one world heritage site is evidence of Nara’s dedication to preserving its 1,300 years of history. Travel through ancient Nara by exploring its historical architecture, Buddha statues and beautiful nature.
1. Nara Temple Tour | Todaiji Temple
The most impressive statue in Todaiji Temple is the 15-meter-tall Great Buddha, which is a registered UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Buddha, known as “Daibutsu” in Japanese, has an official name, “Rusha-Na-Butsu” (Vairocana Buddha), and its height is said to be 10 times taller than Shakamuni, the historical Buddha who was believed to be twice the size of an ordinary person (about 3.2m-tall). Because the statue is seated, the height is about half that size. Believed to have been built to pray for peace and happiness for all people, the Great Buddha represents the unending universe. The Daibutsu, Japan’s largest bronze statue of the Buddha, is greeted by many locals and international tourists throughout the year.
Visitors should not leave the main hall without seeing the wooden pillar with a famous hole in its base. The hole is said to be the same size as the Great Buddha’s nostrils, and anyone who can fit through the hole receives blessings.
2. Nara Temple Tour | Kohfukuji Temple
Kohfukuji Temple was moved in 710 to its present location during the relocation of the national capital from Asuka to Nara. The temple is famous for its historical structures, one of them being the second highest five-storied pagoda in Japan. The Central Golden Hall (Chukondo), rebuilt for the first time in 300 years, opened to the public in the fall of 2018.
While visiting Kohfukuji, guests should not miss the National Treasure Museum, which houses one of Japan’s best collections of Buddha images. The most famous of these is a six-armed, three-faced statue of the Ashura, one of the Buddha’s protectors.
3. Nara Temple Tour | Shin Yakushiji Temple
Founded by Empress Komyo in 747 in an effort to heal her ailing husband, Shin Yakushiji Temple is dedicated to the medicine Buddha, or Yakushi Nyorai in Japanese. The main hall, a significant piece of priceless architecture in Nara, stands as it was built in the 8th century. It is surrounded by statues of 12 guardian deities, and 11 of the deities are regarded as national treasures. The deities are assigned as guardians to the medicine Buddha and the people who worship it, and each possesses a shield of armor and a weapon. It is believed that the figures were once painted with vibrant colors, but visitors to Shin Yakushiji Temple will have to use their imaginations to envision what they might have looked like when they were constructed.
The easiest way to reach Shin Yakushiji Temple is by traveling through a narrow path called Sasakayi no Komichi from Kasugataisha Shrine.
4. Nara Temple Tour | Horyuji Temple
Located in Ikaruga, Horyuji Temple is particularly notable because it is home to one of the world’s oldest wooden buildings. It houses many historical artifacts and artwork, including 3,000 pieces designated as National Treasures and Important Cultural Properties of Japan. Nominated in 1993, Horyuji Temple was the first UNESCO World Heritage Site designated in Japan.
Horyuji Temple was commissioned about 1,400 years ago by Prince Shotoku, who was one of the early promoters of Buddhism in Japan. At Horyuji Temple, the Kondo (main hall) and Five-Story Pagoda are must-see attractions and can be found on the west side of the temple grounds. On the eastern side, Yumedono is not to be missed. The Five-story Pagoda is Japan’s oldest and is said to enshrine Buddha’s ashes.
The Yumedono, or Hall of Dreams, features Guze Kannon, a mysterious statue known as the “Hidden Buddha”. The statue was discovered in the Meiji period by researchers such as American scholar Fenollosa. The statue was wrapped in silk and hidden for centuries, and it was so well preserved that its outer layer of gold foil was still intact when it was found. This Hidden Buddha exhibit is open to the public only twice a year (during spring and Autumn). Visitors should confirm if the Buddha is open to the public before visiting Horyuji Temple, as the viewing period changes annually.
Visitors can take the Yamatoji line from JR Nara Station to Horyuji Station. Those who don’t mind a short stroll can walk about 20 minutes from Horyuji Station. The other option is to take a bus directly to Horyuji-mae bus stop.
5. Nara Temple Tour | Muroji Temple
Nestled in the woods of remote mountains, the gorgeous Muroji temple has been considered a holy place since it was built. It is famous for being one of the few temples that allowed female worshipers in the old days, unlike Koyasan (Mount Koya) in Wakayama, which prohibited women to enter. Because of its open-door policy, Muroji earned the nickname “Mount Koya for Women.”
Muroji is famous for the standing statue of the Eleven-Faced Kannon and the sitting statue of Shaka-Nyorai, which dates to the early 9th century. Both statues are known for their benevolent facial expressions.
As visitors explore deeper into the forest, they will find a beautiful five-story pagoda, the smallest of its kind (standing outside) in Japan.
To get to Muroji from JR Nara Station, take the JR Manyo Mahoroba line to Sakurai Station. Change to the Kintetsu Osaka line and take the express train to Muroguchiono Station. From there, hop on the bus to get to Muroji-mae bus stop.
6. Nara Temple Tour | Shorinji Temple
Shorinji Temple was established by a monk named Joe in the early 8th century. A majority of the buildings that remain in the complex today were built in the 18th century during the Edo period. Set atop a hill, Shorinji Temple has a veranda off the main hall that offers a great panoramic view of the lush green valley below.
Shorinji Temple also offers visitors the chance to see unique pieces of Buddhist art, particularly the Eleven-faced Kannon, a National Treasure of Japan. The statue, featured in many pieces of highly-praised literature, gives mercy to people and leads them towards salvation. The gold-plated wooden figure wears a crown of small faces, and each face points in a different direction, allowing the Eleven-Faced Kannon to bestow her mercy on everyone around her. This amazing national treasure stands just more than two meters tall and has remained astonishingly well preserved for many years.
To reach Shorinji Temple from JR Nara Station, take the JR Manyo Mahoroba line to Sakurai Station and board a bus bound for Tanzan. Get off at Shorinji-mae bus stop.
7. Nara Temple Tour | Kinpusen-ji Temple
The area stretching from Mount Yoshino (the best cherry blossom site in Japan!) to Kumano is regarded as a sacred place and gained the name Kinpusen-ji during an ancient era. Towards the end of the Asuka period, a Japanese mystic known as En no Gyoja started ascetic practices in the region and established “Shugendo,” or Japanese mountain asceticism, which incorporates Shinto and Buddhist concepts. The founding dojo of this practice is Kinpusen-ji temple.
The origin of this temple is said to have come from a religious awakening by En no Gyoja when he engraved a depiction of the deity Kongo Zao Gongen on a cherry blossom tree while practicing asceticism on Mount Yoshino and Mount Omine.
In the main hall of Zao-do, there are three 7-meter-tall Kongo Zao Gongen statues. The exhibit usually remains hidden but goes on display to the public at certain times of the year. Visitors can check the temple’s official website to see when the next viewing will take place.
To get to Kinpusen-ji Temple from Nara City, take the Kintetsu line from Kintetsu-Nara Station to Yamato-Saidaiji Station and change to the Kashihara line. From there, go to Kashiharajingu-Mae Station and change trains to reach Yoshino Station.
From Osaka, passengers can take the special express train from ŌSAKA-ABENOBASHI Station to Yoshino Station, which takes 85 minutes. From Yoshino Station, visitors can take the Yoshinoyama Ropewayto Yoshinoyama Ropeway Station. A brief 10-minute stroll will get guests to Kinpusen-ji.