Where Diego does not visit a castle (for once), sets foot in two former capitals, and sees a train rumble through the Emperor’s front yard.
The long route from Fukuoka to Kyōto. I’ve included a route map below for illustrative purposes, but bear in mind that depending on Google Maps’ rather quirky behaviour, it might show a Nozomi shinkansen service which I would not have been able to take (JR passes are not valid for Nozomi trains). The shinkansen services I actually travelled on were the 7:00 AM Sakura 540 (scheduled arrival at Shin-Ōsaka Station 9:44 AM), from which I transferred to the 9:53 AM Kodama 646 (scheduled arrival at Kyōto Station 10:07 AM).
Ahh, Kyōto Station. I’ve passed through here many times before, but that view just never gets old. (Well, maybe it does if you’re a local.)
Impressive, yes – but no time to linger. After dropping my bags off at the hotel, I headed straight back through the station and into a train on the JR Nara line.
Now I don’t usually make too many mistakes when travelling by train in Japan – not due to any exceptional expertise on my part but mainly a credit to the country’s impeccably precise rail services (which lend themselves so very well to minute-by-minute planning). However, on this occasion my choice of train turned out to be sub-optimal: instead of boarding a rapid-service train (which skips certain stations and cuts journey time to about 44 minutes), I walked onto an all-stopping local train that took approximately 75 minutes to reach Nara. The map data below reflects the faster service, but the route taken by both trains is the same (the variation only lies in the number of intervening stops) so no real difference as far as the graphical representation is concerned.
I first visited Nara more than three years ago, and it was during that visit that I covered most of the city’s major attractions, including Tōdai-ji, Kōfuku-ji, and Kasuga-taisha. (Interestingly, the only part of that visit I ever wrote about is the short time I spent gawking at cherry blossoms in the precincts of the relatively minor shrine Himuro-jinja; blog post here.) This time around, I turned my sights to the west of the city, towards the seat of imperial power before Kyōto rose to prominence.
A quick chat with the helpful staff at the tourist information office – located just outside JR Nara Station in the beautiful former station building – put me on track for the site of the Heijō Palace. The sprawling complex was the official residence of the imperial court during most of the Nara Period (AD 710-794), when Heijō-kyō (modern-day Nara) was the capital of Japan. After the government relocated to Nagaoka-kyō in AD 784, and thence to Heian-kyō (now Kyōto) ten years later, the former capital lapsed into relative obscurity and the palace area fell to ruin.
Excavations conducted at the site since the 1950s have revealed extensive remains, some of which have recently been restored. One of the first to rise from the ground was a recreation of the palace’s southern gate, Suzaku-mon, completed in 1998.
Behind the gate, a long footpath leads to the former heart of the palace compound. Back in the Nara Period, this would have all been within the palace walls, which means that the Kintetsu railway line we see in the picture is running through what was once the Emperor’s front yard.
Tsk, tsk. His Majesty will not be amused.
Moving on, we arrive at the remnants of what was an inner gate of the palace.
State buildings once stood on the grass-covered platforms flanking the broad plaza.
After a long walk in the baking sun, through yet another gate, we arrive in front of the reconstructed Daigokuden, which was finished just in time for Nara’s 1,300th anniversary celebrations in 2010. This massive audience building is actually the first of two such throne halls built at the palace, though the later one is still an unrestored ruin.
Through the entrance now, and into the hall’s cavernous interior. There are some great exhibits here – no worries, lots of English descriptions throughout – about the palace and about the recent reconstruction project.
Guides were on hand to offer explanations to visitors. I fell in with a friendly chap who spoke almost no English, but my limited Japanese and his enthusiastic gestures helped with the exchange of information. He eagerly pointed out various architectural features, repeatedly encouraging me to look up and admire the splendid artwork covering the ceiling.
The spaces between the roof and the columns were decorated with images of four mythical guardian animals, each assigned to watch over a particular direction. The paintings were executed by artist Uemura Atsushi, a resident of Nara Prefecture.
Genbu, guardian of the north.
Byakko, guardian of the west.
Suzaku, guardian of the south.
Seiryū, guardian of the east.
At the centre of the room stands a full-sized recreation of the Takamikura, the canopied imperial throne.
The hall is glassed in for protection from the elements, but you can step out onto the surrounding balcony for views of the grounds. That’s the Suzaku-mon in the distance.
One of the great doors on the side of the hall.
As you exit, glance back for another look at the building’s vast interior.
Back out into the bright spring sunshine.
From here, I trekked back to the area of the Suzaku-mon. A small museum dedicated to the history of Heijō-kyō stands nearby.
One of the museum’s most prominent features is a replica of a Nara-period ship. The vessel’s exterior is best viewed from the parking lot, but to walk around on deck you’ll need to enter the museum first and board it from inside.
Back through the Suzaku-mon on our way home.
Part of the broad ancient boulevard known as Suzaku-Ōji was recreated in the area between the gateway and the road. The boulevard could not be restored to its full width due to a complex of modern buildings on the western side, but there was enough space on the east to resurrect part of the row of trees, canal, and wall that once ran along both sides.
Opening hours – might be of some use to potential visitors (though bear in mind that schedules could already have been changed since I took this photograph).
Back to Kyōto now, the other former – or, as some would have it, present(?) – capital of Japan, for a well-deserved rest in preparation for more adventures ahead.