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A Tour of Ancient Japan in Nara

Explore Japan’s earliest history in these impressive archaeological sites around Nara Prefecture.

By 5 min read

Many historical sites in Japan are focused on the Sengoku and Edo periods—eras defined by shoguns, samurai and isolationist policies.

But in Nara Prefecture, you can visit some of the most important sites from Japan’s earliest history, when the country was ruled directly by the Emperor and greatly influenced by Chinese and Korean culture.

Here we highlight three areas that transport you back to this lesser-known era.

Heijo Palace

Photo:
The reconstructed Suzakumon Gate.

In central Nara, a large park hosts one of the most ambitious reconstruction projects in Japan. In what is known as the Nara Period (710–794 AD), Nara—or Heijo-kyo—became Japan’s first permanent capital, dominated by an enormous Imperial palace complex.

When the capital moved to Kyoto, the palace grounds reverted to rural rice fields. But 20th-century archaeologists managed to locate the foundations of the palace, and the area was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998.

Today, the park remains an active archeological site, and visitors can view detailed reconstructions of palace buildings and visit museums that explore the Nara Period. Best of all, every museum and palace structure is free to enter.

Palace Grounds

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Heijo Palace Site Historical Park is the site for many famous festivals in Nara.

What is currently visible of the Heijo Palace complex hints at something much grander than even Kyoto or Tokyo’s imperial palaces—and walking from one end of the park to the other can take up to 20 minutes. You might be reminded more of China’s Forbidden City than anything else in Japan.

That’s not a coincidence—Heijo’s construction followed the Imperial family’s desire, after establishing diplomatic relations with Tang Dynasty China, to emulate the grand palaces they had seen on the continent.

At the southern edge of the park, you can prime yourself with a visit to the Heijo Palace Guidance Center, which gives a thorough overview of the complex, its history and the reconstruction efforts. There are models of what the palace would have looked like in the 8th century, overviews of the reconstruction techniques and the history of the archaeological work, and introductions to the culture of the Nara Period.

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Once home to the Imperial family, the palace is now a slice of rural life.

Opposite the guidance center is the reconstructed Suzaku-mon Gate, once the main entrance to the palace. The guidance center and the gate can actually make for an excellent compact experience if short on time. A ten-minute walk north from Suzaku-mon crosses what would have once been the grand central courtyard of the palace, giving you a sense of the massive scale of the complex. Along the way, you can see the excavated foundations of several other structures that have not yet been rebuilt.

You can then reach the park’s star attraction—the Daiichiji Daigokuden-in (imperial audience hall), a reconstruction of the palace’s most important building. Inside, exhibits explain how modern artists have recreated as close as possible the designs that once adorned the interior.

Close by to the audience hall are reconstructions of the East Palace Garden—one of the first Japanese landscape gardens and formerly a place for imperial feasts—and the Imperial Household Agency where day-to-day administration was conducted. Also in the north of the park are the Heijo Palace Site Museum, which goes into greater detail on the history of 8th-century Japan, and the Excavation Site Exhibition Hall, which displays unearthed sections of the palace and other archeological finds.

Heijo Palace Guidance Center

3-5-1 Nijo-oji Minami, Nara City - Map
Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
www.heijo-park.jp/en

Horyuji Temple

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Horyuji’s main hall is thought to be the world’s oldest wooden building.

As impressive as Heijo Palace is, it’s still a reconstruction. If you want to see a surviving structure from the Nara Period, you can travel to another World Heritage Site on Nara’s outskirts—Horyuji Temple.

Some of the buildings at Horyuji, including the main hall and pagoda, hold the distinction of being the oldest wooden structures in the world and were contemporary with Heijo Palace—making exploring the serene temple a pretty awe-inspiring experience.

What might be most surprising about Horyuji is how familiar it feels—a testament to the fact that Japanese temple architecture has stayed impressively consistent for over 1,300 years. But the information available on-site does an excellent job of explaining the subtle differences that show the temple’s ancient design. You can also visit the treasure gallery, which displays Buddhist artifacts from across Horyuji’s history.

Horyuji Temple

1-1-1 Horyuji Sannai, Ikaruga, Ikoma District, Nara - Map
Hours: 8 a.m. to 4.30 p.m.
www.horyuji.or.jp/en

Asuka and Sakurai Village

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Takamatsuzuka Tomb

Before Heijo Palace was constructed, Japan’s first emperors based themselves on a series of temporary palaces around the modern-day villages Asuka and Sakurai. The capital moved each time an emperor died for fear of disturbing his spirit. Today, Asuka station is an hour’s train ride from Nara and provides access to sites from this cradle of Japanese civilization.

The Asuka Historical Museum gives a broad overview of the region and Japan’s earliest recorded history and is the best place to go if you’re short on time. Meanwhile, the Complex of Manyo Culture explores the everyday lifestyle described in the ancient Manyoshu poetry collection, with life-sized dioramas.

Photo:
The Takamatsuzuka mural.

Among the most exciting attractions are two tumulus tombs, Takamatsuzuka and Kitora. These date back to the 8th century and are noted for their beautiful wall murals. Kitora, in particular, is famed for having the world’s oldest star chart painted on its ceiling. Each tomb has a museum attached to it that allows you to view reconstructions of the interiors and their murals. You can also visit the stone Ishibutai Tomb, which doesn’t contain wall paintings but allows visitors to walk inside.

Additionally, Omiwa Shrine and Asukadera Temple are among the oldest religious sites in Japan. Asuka is a fairly rural region, and the most pleasant way to experience it is to hire a bicycle at the station and spend a day riding through the countryside to the main sights. More info on things to see can be found on the official website.

Asuka Historical Museum

601 Okuyama, Asuka, Takaichi District, Nara - Map
Hours: 9 a.m. to 4.30 p.m.
Admission: ¥350
www.nabunken.go.jp/asuka/en
Do you have a favorite ancient site in Japan? Let us know in the comments.

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