During our year in Kashiwara, Nara was the most popular place to photograph. The amount of temples and shrines in this ancient capital makes it one of the most interesting places in Japan. It's like Kyoto minus the crowds although at certain times of the year crowds can get huge. There is always something interesting there. Every month, there is some kind of a festival in one of the shrines or temples. Spring and autumn colours make the buildings look beautiful all over the city. And the park itself is a very relaxing place with deer running freely around it. It is only 30 km from Kashiwara and usually took me about 1 and a half hours to get there. My record was 1 hour and 10 minutes once.

The access is very easy. The road, (R25) connecting Osaka and Nara runs through Kashiwara city. This was the route I used the first few times I went to Nara. Later I used back roads which were less crowded and much more interesting. It helped me discover some new places full of history, but free of tourists because of the distance from Nara city.

The R25 follows Yamato river all the way to Oji city, 10 km away from Kashiwara. There are 1 or maybe 2 places before Oji where cormorants can be seen on the water between Kashiwara and Oji. The road is on the right side of the river and across is an alternative route. It enters the mountains in Kashiwara and a very nice mountain village, Aotani. The Yamatoji JR line between Nara and Osaka runs through the sleepy village. The village itself is a great place to relax from the traffic and the noise of larger towns and cities. The small road later enters Oji city.

A few minutes passed Oji is one of the most famous temples in Japan - Horyuji, an oldest wooden structure in the world (607 AD). The huge complex is on Unesco World Heritage list. The entrance to the grounds of the temple is free, but to the building isn't. The entire complex is made of smaller sections that are separated from each other by walls and narrow streets between the walls. The road in the back of the temple leads to other 2 temples in the area - Horinji and Hokiji. All three temples are marked with high pagodas and are very near each other. Hokiji's pagoda is the oldest 3-storey pagoda in Japan.

The road further leads to a river with a cycling path. A few kilometers further is another big temple complex called Yakushiji. There is an entrance fee there, but the highlight of this temple isn't inside, but outside. The temple is famous for its pagodas viewed in the early morning with the rising sun behind them. The best place to view the sunrise is on the opposite side of a small pond south-west of the temple. It attracts photographers all year round. They're on the shores of the pond every single morning. In the evenings, the temple is illuminated for a couple of hours what gives the 60 year old amateur photographers with the most expensive equipment another reason to be there.

From the temple it's only 10 kilometers to Nara city. The road towards the city leads to R24 which branches off R25 further to the south and goes straight to Nara station. Very busy. There is another road (R169) about 2 km east running parallel to R24. The road is sort of a by-pass to Nara park. This route enters the park and the city from the southern, deserted part of the city away from Nara station. There is a bus station where I always parked my bicycle. This section is far away from the jungle that is the route between Nara station and the park and is always empty even during the major festivals.

Nara is really the highlight in Kansai. Many people consider Kyoto as the place, but for us Nara is the one. Kyoto is overpopulated and overcrowded especially in the spring and autumn.

Nara is a home of some really great temples, interesting festivals and deer roaming the park grounds. The most popular building is Todaiji, also on Unesco World Heritage list. The main building is housing the largest sitting Buddha (J) in the world. Todaiji is a very big complex of buildings scattered over a large area. Other temples and shrines worth visiting are Kasuga Taisha Shrine, Kofukuji with its huge pagoda near the station and other larger and smaller places around the area.

Niigatsudou which is a part of Todaiji, but located far from the main building is the place where one of the most known festivals in Japan takes place. The festival is called Omizutori/Shuni-e and it lasts for 14 days every February. It attracts masses of people from all over the country. The festival begins after the sunset and lasts for an hour or so each day. On the balcony of the main building monks run from one end to the other holding bamboo trees with their roots set on fire. This is one of those times when Nara's population triples. People gather around the temple and by the time the first monks run with the burning bamboo trees the people in the back of the crowd are almost hundred metres away. The organizers came up with an idea of a rotation system. The crowd slowly moves towards the building, enters a gate that is on the side of the temple and moves away. This way people who are way in the back without any possibility of seeing anything can eventually get to the front and enjoy the show.

On the eastern side of the park is a mountain called Wakakusa. It is a mountain covered with grass from the bottom to the top. Believe it or not, they charge people Y250 to climb it (J). There is an alternative route that leads to the top from the other side and it's a very pleasant half an hour to 1 hour walk through the forest.

Every January, there is a grass burning ceremony on front side of the mountain that attracts many people to the park. The top of Wakakusa is a great place to see the sun setting behind the city and the pagoda of Kofukuji temple.

Nara festivals:

SPRING
Mar 1 - 14: Omizutori/Shuni-e at Toshiodaiji, Niigatsudo.
Mar. 13: Kasuga Festival at Kasuga Taisha shrine.
Mar. 30 - Apr. 5: Hana-eshiki Ceremony at Yakushiji temple.
Apr.1 - 7: Hina-eshiki ceremony at Hokkeji temple.
2nd Sat. & Sun.: O-chamori Ceremony at Saidaiji temple.
2nd Sun.: Tsubaki Festival at Byakugoji temple.
Apr. 19: Manju Festival at Kango shrine.
May 2: Emperor Shomu ceremony at Todaiji temple.
May 11 & 12: Takigi Noh at Kasuga Taisha shrine and Kofukuji temple.
May 19: Uchiwa-maki at Toshodaiji temple.

SUMMER, FALL & WINTER - give me a little more time...

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