The historic city of Nara is a popular and must visit tourist destination in the Kansai region, and the small city is jam-packed with unique spots and districts to explore. Many of the Nara’s most famous attractions are located around Nara Park on the eastern side of the city, and these include UNESCO world heritage sites such as Todai-ji, Kasuga Taisha and Kofukuji. The western side of the city encompasses a broad area known as Nishinokyo, and despite being somewhat less visited by tourists than the eastern side of the city, it is home to a number of interesting sites that are well worth a look.
Nara was the capital of Japan between 710 and 794 AD, and the Nishinokyo area was the capital’s administrative center, clustered around Heijo Palace. In its heyday, there were numerous buildings, gates and structures as well as the Imperial Palace buildings, but over time and after the capital moved to Kyoto many of them were abandoned, lost or sometimes even moved to other locations.
The area is now known as the Nara Palace Site Historical Park and the handful of remaining original structures are protected as part of Nara’s UNESCO world heritage listings, while there are also some impressive reconstructions located on the site, including the Former Imperial Audience Hall and Suzakumon Gate. Much archaeological work still goes on at the site, and many artifacts from the Nara period and later are on display at the various museums which are dotted around the park.
Nara Palace Site Historical Park is a fifteen minute walk east of Yamato-Saidaiji Station on the Kintetsu Nara Line, or can be reached by bus from JR Nara and Kintetsu Nara stations.
Another of the Nishinokyo area’s most well-known landmarks is Toshodai-ji. This world heritage temple was founded in 759 by Ganjin, a Chinese priest who was tasked with refining Chinese Buddhism in Japan and training priests, and so this temple was vital for the spread of Buddhism throughout the country. The temple complex is a peaceful and serene space full of trees and nature, and there are a number of buildings and interesting features to explore.
The main hall was reopened in 2009 after ten years of careful restoration, while the lecture hall (kodo) was actually relocated from the Heijo Imperial Palace site, and is the only surviving original building from there.
Toshodai-ji is a short walk north of Nishinokyo Station on the Kintetsu Kashihara Line, or can be reached by bus from JR Nara and Kintetsu Nara stations in around 20 minutes.
Just next to Nishinokyo Station is Yakushi-ji, one of Japan’s oldest temples and another of Nara’s world heritage sites. It dates back to the late 7th century and is based on a symmetrical layout with the main hall flanked by two three-story pagodas. Numerous fires have damaged many of the temple's structures over the years, so only the East Pagoda (dating back to 730) is truly original. The main hall was rebuilt in the 1970s, but it houses a masterpiece of Japanese Buddhist art called the Yakushi trinity.