Where ‘Japan’ first blossomed through contact with the wider world
Nara - tracing the grand river of history
Words by Mari Hashimoto
Nara Prefecture in Japan’s Kansai region is often described as a tourist destination easily accessible from Kyoto and Osaka. However, it could also be said that Kyoto and Osaka owe their development as cities to their proximity to Nara. This is because the Nara region sat at the heart of national polity for over five centuries, dating back to the advent of the Yamato Kingship in the fourth century. Nara was the birthplace of the nation we now call ‘Japan.’
Surrounded by mountains in the northwestern part of Nara Prefecture, the Nara Basin occupies a particularly pivotal place in Japanese history, with the area home to many kofun burial mounds, ancient palace sites, and famous temples and shrines like Hōryū-ji, Tōdai-ji, Kōfuku-ji and Kasuga Taisha. The scenery in Kyoto and Nara is markedly different too. In Kyoto, temples and shrines can appear like isolated islands amid an ocean of modern concrete buildings. Nara is less urbanized, though, with its landscape of mountains and rivers lifted straight from the pages of the Man’yōshū, Japan’s oldest poetry anthology. As such, visitors can be forgiven for imagining they have travelled back to ancient times.
Until the 6th century, Japan was ruled by great kings who strove to establish a unified government while representing the powerful tribes that held sway over each region. Each time power changed hands, new courts were established in an area encompassing modern-day Nara Prefecture and eastern Osaka Prefecture. Political and administrative rule was not solely the preserve of the court, with the authority of the royal family also maintained locally by elite clans. Consequently, the area surrounding the court never fully developed into what could be described as a ‘town.’
From the end of the 6th century, the location of the court became settled in an area around the village of Asuka in the southern part of the Nara Basin. This permanency led to an increase in political, economic, religious and cultural institutions, with the most important role played by temples. According to some theories, Buddhism originated in India in the 5th century BC before developing into a world religion in East Asia. It arrived in Japan via China and the Korean Peninsula around the middle of the 6th century. Some clans subsequently built their own Buddhist temples in Asuka. However, Japan already had its own indigenous faith and gods, so on a national level, the arrival and acceptance of this new ‘global’ religion posed huge political problems and potentially threatened civil war.
The acceptance of Buddhism also entailed the wholesale introduction of new technologies, personnel and culture from the continent to facilitate the establishment of new ‘hardware’ in the form of temples and ‘software’ in the form of Buddhism itself. Hōryū-ji Temple, a World Heritage site and the world’s oldest wooden structure, is an archetypal ‘Japanese’ tourist spot for many foreign tourists. When Hōryū-ji was first built, though, it did not seem particularly ‘Japanese’ to the locals, with the temple serving as a kind of university attracting the best and most advanced technologies and culture from overseas.
This dynamic story of politics within Japan and overseas is told through historical materials like mokkan wooden tablets, with other illuminating archaeological finds including resplendent adornments worn by emergent powerful figures, magnificent weapons, and items from daily life. These treasures can be viewed at The Museum, Archaeological Institute of Kashihara, Nara Prefecture and at many other museums dotted throughout the prefecture.
At the end of the 7th century, the capital moved from Asuka to Fujiwara-kyō. The new capital was built in a grid pattern on an international scale, with the city expanding across 5.3 square kilometers around a palace over 900 m2 in size. Government by a coalition of elite clans was now replaced by a centralized administration run by the Emperor and his retainers, based on the Chinese legal system.
The tale of this dramatic leap from ‘village’ to ‘town’ can be traced through the extant historical ruins, with the monumental expanse of the Fujiwara Palace Site contrasting sharply with the compact nature of the Asuka Palace Site. Excavation on the Fujiwara Palace Site began in 1966, with the palace’s actual appearance growing clearer by the day. Surveyed locations have been reburied, but the remains of some postholes have been marked with red pillars, so visitors can still sense the scale of the buildings that once stood there.
The Asuka Palace Site survey focused on the garden area in recent years, but from September 2022, excavation work shifted to the site of the buildings where the Emperor conducted political activities, with scaffolding set up to enable visitors view the excavation work up close. The excavation of the palace itself will begin at the start of October 2023, with the site opened to the public the following month.
After 16 years, the capital was moved north from Fujiwara-kyō to the other side of the Nara Basin at the start of the 8th century. The new capital Heijō-kyō was founded in 710 in the center of the basin’s northern end, an area that now encompasses Nara Station, the prefectural office, and Nara’s bustling downtown area. After initially blooming in Asuka, Buddhist culture was now incorporated into urban design, with plans for Heijō-kyō including the development of religious spaces, as epitomized by the founding of great temples like Kōfuku-ji and Yakushi-ji.
These temples were cherished and protected by countless people through the ages and they can still be visited to this day, over a thousand years later. Unlike its neighbors, Japan is surrounded by sea and thus harder to invade, so a great many ancient cultural properties have survived to the present. This is not to say they have never been endangered, though.
As Japan modernized in the 19th century, the government moved to clearly segregate Buddhism and Shintoism. The two religions had previously co-existed, but many Buddhist temples were destroyed at this time, and many Buddhist artworks left the country. This government policy had a major impact in Nara, home to numerous ancient temples. The Imperial Nara Museum, now known as the Nara National Museum, was founded in 1889 to protect Buddhist treasures and spread awareness of their value. This museum system was one of several unique frameworks that arose through a process of trial and error to ensure the survival of cultural properties, with Japan’s system of cultural heritage protection now renowned across the world.
Nara National Museum’s Nara Buddhist Sculpture Hall displays around a hundred Buddhist statues at all time, showcasing examples representative of the flourishing of Buddhist sculpture mainly produced from the sixth to the fourteenth centuries, including many works designated National Treasures or Important Cultural Properties under the Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties.
In terms of both quality and quantity, this is one of the world’s finest collections of Buddhist sculpture. The works on display reveal how Japanese sculptors studied and adapted statues produced in China and the Korean Peninsula to create their own sculptures infused with a uniquely Japanese aesthetic. The collection also includes several examples of masterful Chinese and Korean statues from these periods that have only rarely survived in their places of origin.
The brilliant essence of the Buddhist art that had been lost in much of East Asia was revived again in Nara, a city at the center of what was becoming an island-nation at the eastern periphery of the Eurasian continent. The capital later moved to Kyoto and then Tokyo, but the radiance and reverberations of Japan’s early history can still be encountered in surprisingly concrete forms in Nara’s historical sites, temples and museums.
With the cooperation of:
Tsurumi Yasutoshi, Curator, The Archaeological Institute of Kashihara, Nara Prefecture
Iwai Tomoji, Curator of Sculpture, Nara National Museum
NARA NATIONAL MUSEUM
- 50 Noboriōji-chō, Nara 630-8213
- 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
On Saturdays, the museum is open until 8:00 p.m.
Last entry is 30 minutes before closing.
In addition, there may be temporary changes to museum hours.
- The museum is closed on Mondays* and from December 28th to January 1st.
*When a national holiday falls on a Monday, the museum remains open and closes that Tuesday. In cases of consecutive holidays, the museum remains open and closes the day after they end.
Exceptionally open on Mondays: May 1, March 1-14(in the period of Todai-ji Omizutori Ritual)
Please note that the museum sometimes closes on other days as well.