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Happy 1,300th to Nara, Japan
THE ancient city of Nara has lived in the shadow of its neighbor, Kyoto, for centuries. So this year, as Nara marks the 1,300th anniversary of its ascension as Japan’s imperial capital, the city might be forgiven for going over the top.
Nara was a splendor in its time — a world of silks, Chinese scripts and Buddhist culture set in a sleepy landscape. Built by the emperor Shomu, a convert to Buddhism, Nara played an important role in the spread of that religion in Japan, as evidenced by the ancient temples that still dot the city. Now it is celebrating that history in style.
After a $100 million investment, the eighth-century palace that once anchored Heijyokyo (Nara’s ancient name), only to be razed following the transfer of the capital to Kyoto in A.D. 784, has been painstakingly rebuilt and is scheduled to open on April 24. To celebrate the cultural diversity of the Nara Period, when the city reigned as the capital, Nara has built a life-size replica of a ship that carried Japanese envoys to and from Tang China.
But the restored palace and ship are just stage-setters for a yearlong festival (300.jp/foreign/english) to celebrate the city and its history. In the works are carnivals, fairs and musical performances drawing on an era that saw the rise of Buddhism in Japan, as well as the increased influence of the Tang Dynasty.
A highlight, officials say, is the “Corridor of Light” festival from Aug. 20 to 27, when the palace will be illuminated with candles and LED lights.
At the recreated palace, a 15-minute walk or short shuttle bus ride from Kintetsu Yamato-Saidaiji Station, guards in period armor will re-enact something akin to an ancient Japanese version of Buckingham Palace’s changing of the guard three times a day, between April 24 and Nov. 7.
At the heart of the city is Nara Park, and nearby is the Todaiji Temple, and home to Japan’s largest Buddha statue, erected in 752.
The city’s modern-day charms, however, lie in Naramachi, a historic merchant area in the heart of the city, which is now home to small museums, traditional town houses and a scattering of quaint cafes and restaurants.
Ryo Yonehara, a Nara native who recently started an English language magazine, Nara Explorer, recommends taking at least an afternoon to explore Naramachi’s mazelike paths. “Strolling through Naramachi is when you’ll really fall in love with Nara,” he said.