At the epicenter of the Yamato
plain, the Nara region is considered by many to be the birthplace of Japanese culture
. The city of Nara, formerly called Heijokyo
, was the capital
of Japan until Emperor Kammu
had his palace moved to the city of Heiankyo
, which we now call Kyoto
Nara today is an out-of-the-way little city without an airport or Shinkansen station. The easiest way to get there is to take Kintetsu trains from Namba or Kyoto Station, or JR from Kyoto, Kyobashi, or Tennoji. You can also get bus service from Kansai International Airport, which takes about an hour and a half to get to the city.
When you get to Nara, the first thing you will be expected to see is the Great Buddha (daibutsu) statue at Todaiji. Finding the temple is easy, because it is surrounded by many friendly deer who will probably try to eat you. On the other side of the city, you can view the world's oldest pagoda at Horyuji.
To get into the really old side of Japan, you have to travel farther south in the prefecture to the Asuka area. This is where many of the Yamato Empire's rulers from prehistory are buried, within elegant, elaborate, and undeniably mysterious mound tombs. Ishibutai, believed to be the tomb of Soga no Umako, is the most famous of these, as seismic activity has stripped off the top layers of the tomb and made it possible for archaeologists to peek inside. Takamatsuzuka, a mound filled with cave paintings on the inside, is also very famous, and worth a visit. This part of Nara has so many conflicting histories associated with it that you might want to get a tour guide to explain what all the rocks in the ground represent.
Of course, Nara is no longer what it once was, and has since become a minor part of the Kinki region in comparison to Osaka, Kyoto, and Kobe. This is largely due to the fact that it lies on a small inland plain, surrounded by mountains on all sides that keep it shielded from the megalopolis next door. Tourism and light manufacturing account for most of its economy.
The prefecture's population is just over 1.4 million, 361,000 of which live in the city. Kashiwara (123,000), Ikoma (123,000), and Yamato Kooriyama (96,000) are the only other sizable cities.
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