Tsubosaka-dera Temple

Tsubosaka-dera Temple is a Buddhist temple located on the mountain of Tsubosaka, which overlooks Mt. Yoshino, one of the most popular cherry blossom viewing spots in Nara. It is considered to be one of the oldest and most historically significant temples in Japan, with a history that dates back more than 1,300 years.

According to the temple’s “Nanhokuji Koroden”, it was originally built in the late Taiho era in 703 CE. The temple is officially named Tsubosakayama Minami Hokkeji Temple, however over the years people have become used to calling it Tsubosakadera temple. In this article, we will explore the history and significance of Tsubosaka-dera Temple, its architectural features, and the best time to enjoy this hidden gem.

After a long gap of three years, Mani and I were back in Japan. Due to the stringent travel restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic, we missed out on two opportunities to visit this captivating island nation. Following a day of relaxation in Kyoto, we made the decision to venture into the outskirts of Nara. Although the cherry blossom season had recently concluded, a time renowned for its enchanting beauty, we remained thrilled about the prospect of exploring the splendid temple.

Starting from Kyoto Station, we embarked on the Kintetsu Limited Express bound for Kashiharajingu-Mae Station. Upon reaching Kashiharajingu-Mae Station, we made a transfer to the Local Yoshino train, which conveniently transported us to Tsubosakayama Station. The journey from Kyoto Station to Kashiharajingu-Mae Station typically lasts around an hour, whereas the Tsubosakayama Station is just a brief 10-minute ride away from Kashiharajingu-Mae Station.

From Tsubosakayama Station, you can either take a cab to the temple or wait for the local bus. The buses are at wide intervals, so we walked down to the local mall nearby. After a quick lunch from a sushi box, we walked back to the station to find the bus already waiting. Apart from us, there were hardly any passengers on the bus. Once we started from the station, it took us around 15 minutes to reach the temple parking lot.

A brief history of Tsubosaka-dera

Tsubosaka-dera Temple was founded in the early 8th century by the monk Benki Shonin, a monk of Gango-ji Temple, who is known for his role in spreading Buddhism throughout Japan during the Nara period.

The temple was originally named Tsubokokubun-ji and was dedicated to Yakushi Nyorai, the Buddha of healing. Over time, the temple became known as Tsubosaka-dera and became associated with Kannon, the bodhisattva of compassion, who is now enshrined there. It is also called Minami (south) Hokke-ji Temple, while Kiyomizu-dera Temple is known as Kita (north) Hokke-ji Temple. During the Heian period, it was listed as a fixed temple along with Hase-dera (847), and the Heian aristocrats often visited the temple.

Sadaijin Fujiwara no Michinaga (966 – January 3, 1028), whose son is credited with building Byodo-in Temple in 1052 stayed at this temple on his way to visit Yoshino in 1007 CE.

During the Heian period, Tsubosaka-dera Temple was an important center of Buddhist learning and scholarship. Many prominent scholars and monks studied and taught at the temple, and it was renowned for its extensive library and collection of Buddhist scriptures.

In the 12th century, Tsubosaka-dera Temple was severely damaged by fire and had to be rebuilt. Tsubosaka-ji Temple also declined with the downfall of the Ochi clan (12th – 14th centuries), which had been protected at that time, as it was involved in the upheavals of the Northern and Southern Courts and the Sengoku period. The temple was restored several times over the centuries, with major renovations taking place in the 17th and 19th centuries. Many roof tiles from the time of the Fujiwara Palace have been excavated from the precincts. At its height, there were thirty- six halls and sixty-odd temples on the mountain, but only a three-storied pagoda and a few temples remain in the precincts today.

Daikodo (Lecture Hall)

The lecture hall has traditionally been one of the seven structures on the grounds of Buddhist temples in Japan. It is one of the main structures on the compound of a Buddhist temple, in which sutras are read, Buddhist doctrines taught, and rituals performed.

The Hina dolls are not dolls people play with, but very elaborate, decorative dolls depicting members of ancient Japanese society. Hina dolls, also known as Hina-ningyo, are traditional Japanese dolls that hold great cultural significance. They are typically displayed during the annual festival called Hinamatsuri or Girls’ Day, which takes place on March 3rd.

Hina dolls represent the imperial court of the Heian period in Japan and are a symbol of good luck and protection for young girls. These dolls are beautifully crafted, usually made of wood, and dressed in elaborate silk costumes reminiscent of traditional court attire.

In the lecture Hall, you can also find several ancient pieces from India. Here we see two rock-cut heads of Budha. The left one is from the 5-6th century CE from the Gupta period. The one on the right is from Mathura dating from the 7-8th century.

Below them are two bas-reliefs of Shiva. The one on the left looks very much like Buddha and the right one is a depiction of Shiva with his consort Parvati.

From the lecture hall, we went up the hill toward the upper part of the temple grounds. The grounds are adorned with stone lanterns at several points. Stone lanterns, known as Ishidōrō in Japanese, hold a significant place in the aesthetics and symbolism of Japanese temples. They serve both practical and spiritual purposes, providing light to guide visitors during evening visits to the temple and symbolizing illumination of the spiritual path.

Even though we didn’t come expecting to see any cherry blossom, we were greeted by some Yae-Zakura. Yaezakura, which means “multi-layered cherry blossom,” is used to refer to all cherry blossoms with more than five petals. These flowers bloom a little late in mid-to-late April. The Yaezakura have petals that range from light to dark pink.

Because of the double layers of petals, they’re known as a symbol of strength in comparison to the delicate “Somei Yoshino”. The normal type of one-layer sakura tends to be fragile and easily blown away by strong wind or rain.

The mix of Japanese and Indian styles makes this temple unique. There are several Indian-style stone Buddhas and bas-relief carvings in white stone. These were presented by the Indian government as a gesture of thanks for the temple’s work to help leprosy sufferers.

To the left of the stone Buddha idol, you can find the Chōzu-ya. The Chōzu-ya is a water pavilion for ceremonial purification. It is a designated area within the temple grounds where visitors can perform the act of cleansing before entering the sacred spaces. The Chōzu-ya typically consists of a stone basin, known as a Tsukubai, filled with water. Visitors use a long-handled ladle to pour water over their hands and rinse their mouths as a symbolic act of purifying themselves before engaging in religious activities or paying respects to the deity.

This is an important place to purify one’s mind and body before approaching the main shrine and conversing with the gods to symbolize this people wash their hands and mouth in a small personal purification ritual before going further into the shrine. The act of purification is considered essential in Japanese religious and cultural practices, emphasizing the importance of physical and spiritual cleanliness. The Chōzu-ya serves as a peaceful and contemplative space for individuals to prepare themselves spiritually and mentally before entering the sacred precincts of the temple.

Taho-to Pagoda

We kept walking towards the left to reach the Tohoto Pagoda. Tsubosaka-dera Temple is known for its distinctive architectural style, which blends elements of both Japanese and Chinese Buddhist architecture. The temple complex consists of several buildings, including a main hall, a pagoda, a bell tower, and a number of smaller structures.

The Tahoto Pagoda is an exquisite example of Japanese architecture, featuring intricate wooden carvings, elaborate roof decorations, and ornate details. It is unique among pagodas because it has an even number of stories (two). Its name alludes to Tahō Nyorai, who appears seated in a many-jeweled pagoda in the eleventh chapter of the Lotus Sutra. With square lower and cylindrical upper parts, a mokoshi “skirt roof”, a pyramidal roof, and a finial. After the Heian period, the construction of pagodas in general declined, and new tahōtō became rare.

According to the Hoke-kyo (Lotus Sutra), when Shaka Buddha was preaching, the ground cracked open and a stupa appeared from below. From inside the stupa, a voice emanated saying “Wonderful, wonderful, Sakyamuni Buddha. Your sermon is the truth.” That was Taho Nyorai (the Buddha of the Past) proclaiming the truth of Shaka’s words. Hence, traditionally the temples which practice the chanting of the Lotus Sutra build Tahoto pagodas.

Kanjo-do Hall

Just beside the Tahoto Pagoda lies the Kanjo-do Hall. It is built in irimoya-zukuri style (a hip-and-gable roof construction, or a building with this roof construction) and hongawarabuki (tile roofing in which round and square tiles are laid down alternately). An irimoya style roof is composed of a kirizuma-zukuri style roof in its upper part (which inclines backward and forward when viewed from the longer side of the roof) and a yosemune-zukuri style roof in the lower part (which inclines in each of the four sides of a rectangular house). This roof style was introduced in medieval Japan from China at the same time as Buddhism in the mid-6th century.

There were some very ancient wooden idols inside the Kanjo-do Hall, but they were prohibited from photographing. Just beyond the hall, we found a huge stone idol of Kannon.

Couples Kannon

Juichimen Kannon (ekadaza mukha in Sanskrit) is one of the venerable entities of Bosatsu This is also a Kannon that was brought over from India to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the founding of Sawa City and the 50th anniversary of the establishment of a nursing home for the elderly. This stone idol was commenced in 2011.

In front of the Kannon lies a flat circular platform. Several visitors were standing on this power stone bare-naked foot and asking for Kannon’s power and blessing. The power stone contains green malachite, which is said to improve eyesight and ward off evil, and blue is lapis lazuli, which is said to improve health and improve brain clarity.

The pedestal for praying to this Kannon is made of power stone. If you look closely, you can see the seams. It is also called Daikofusho Kannon, and it is said that the 10 faces on the front, back, left, and right among the 11 faces on the head show Jicchi (ten stages) while the topmost Butsumen (the head of a Buddha) shows nirvana. It is said that this shows the pious act of cutting away 11 kinds of ignorance and the earthly desires of living things opening the path to nirvana.

Sanju-do Pagoda

The pagoda at Tsubosaka-dera Temple is also an impressive structure. It is a three-story tower with a hexagonal base and is said to be one of the oldest surviving pagodas in Japan. It was rebuilt in 1479 in the Muromachi period. It is designated as a “National Important Cultural Property”.

Hakkakuen-do (Octagonal Hall)

When most people think of Hakkakuen-do, they think of the Yumedono Hall of Horyu-ji Temple. Yumedono was built by a monk named Yukinobu in 739 CE. The octagonal hall of Horyu-ji Temple was the mausoleum of Prince Shotoku, and Yukinobu built Yumedono to comfort Prince Shotoku’s spirit. Benki, who is said to be the founder of Tsubosaka Temple, may have had the same motive as Yukinobu when he built the octagonal hall.

Another octagonal building that comes to mind is the North Round Hall of Kofuku-ji Temple, which was proposed by Emperor Gensho as a mausoleum for Fujiwara no Fuhito. There is no other way to think that the Octagonal Hall of Tsubosaka Temple was built by Benki to mourn for the spirit of Emperor Jito.

As you enter the hall, you will find hundreds of hina dolls lined up. Tsubosaka-dera holds an event called “Dai-hina Mandala” every year during the Hinamatsuri, in which many Hina dolls are displayed around the statue of Buddha.

A total of 3,500 Hina dolls are displayed on the temple grounds. Of these, the Raido, which is an important cultural property of Japan, has about 2,300 Hina dolls on the tiers surrounding the statue of Dainichi Nyorai.

The dolls depict the Emperor, Empress, court attendants, musicians, merchants, their wives, lords and ladies, wizards and wise teachers, girls and boys, men drinking sake in an izakaya, etc., all dressed in the traditional court dress of the Heian period. Tsubosaka Temple’s “Dai-hina Mandala” remains open to the public until the 18th of April.

These Hina dolls are handmade treasures, and people keep them for generations. Please note that these precious dolls are not on display all year round. They are shown only once or twice per year depending on the temple authorities.

When inside the Octagonal hall, remember to follow the guided path indicated by arrows. You’ll end up walking around the sacred statue 3 times (clockwise direction), the last round will see you out of the building to witness the beauty of the mountain.

Rei-do (worship hall)

The Reido Hall was built around 1103 CE and again rebuilt before the middle of the Muromachi period (1336 -1392). The main focal point of the temple is the eleven-faced Kannon Bosatsu Zazo, a seated statue of Kannon. This revered Gohonzon stands at an impressive height of 3 meters, making it quite imposing when viewed up close.

The statue portrays Kannon seated on a lotus throne with its forty hands gracefully extended. Originally constructed during the Muromachi period, the current idol replaced the previous Thousand-armed Kannon that resided there. Made with oak marquetry, this masterpiece holds significant cultural and historical value. The Kannon enshrined in this temple is widely worshipped as the “Buddha of the eyes.” It has garnered national treasure status in Japan, representing one of the finest examples of early Buddhist sculpture in the country. While rare, there are occasions when visitors are allowed to touch this revered statue.

According to legend, the temple was built on a sacred site. In ancient Japan, a monk was in the midst of prayer when he noticed a bluish light outside his room. Upon investigation, the light was emitting from the ground. He dug that location and uncovered a statue of Senju Kannon (Thousand Arm Avalokitesvara)

Many years later after the story of the Buddha statue and of monk Benki’s healing skills had spread and grown popular, he was summoned to the Imperial Palace by Emperor Gensho, who founded Heijo-kyo in Nara. The Empress was suffering from an eye disease. Benki cured the Empress of an eye ailment. She rewarded him by financially supporting him in building Tsubosaka Temple and also enshrining the Senju Kannon in the Hakkakuen-do in 717. Subsequently, this temple became renowned for curing eye ailments.

Within the room, you can find a number of additional idols. Behind a glass wall, a pair of bronze statues caught my attention, conveying a sense of antiquity and value. Positioned slightly behind the main Kannon, I observed a distinct variant of Kannon. While I am unsure of its specific narrative at the moment, I will make sure to provide an update to this post once I gather more information.

After capturing some shots of the main hall, we hiked up the hill towards the Grand Stone Statue of Avalokiteshvara brought from India. On the way, we noticed some devilish oni statues. One of them holding out 2 fingers in a sign of peace.

This majestic Kannon is the largest stone statue in the world, standing tranquilly on the mountaintop. The mudra or hand gesture in this image is known as Karana Mudra. It means subduing evil forces!

Placed before it you can also see the stone statue of Buddha in Nirvana, also brought from India. The garden area is paved with fine-grained gravel.

By the way, the size of the Great Buddha in Nara is 14.98m in height and the base is 3.05m, so the total is 18m. The Daikannon of Tsubosaka Temple is even bigger! The huge statues were created by thousands of Indian stonemasons, and sent to Japan in pieces. The pieces were then assembled on location at this mountain. Some of the stone used to create the Buddha statues dates back millions of years.

The statue of Shaka Nyorai Dainirvana is 8 meters long. it presents a beautiful view of the Yamato Basin making Tsubosaka a memorable and grand place to visit.

Did you know: The nighttime illumination of the Tenjikutorai Daikannon stone figure located on the temple grounds is fully using solar panels installed at the site.

Tsubosaka Temple is in the mountains, so it is rich in nature. You can enjoy all four seasons, with yamabuki and cherry blossoms in spring, lavender in summer, and autumn leaves in autumn. The mountain scenery is beautiful too.

Myths relating to Tsubosaka-dera

There is a Bunraku story called Tsubosaka Reigenki. According to this story, a blind man, Sawaichi, found out his wife, Osato, went to Tsubosaka-dera Temple every day to pray for a cure for his blindness. Sadly, Sawaichi suffered from depression and tried to commit suicide by throwing himself off the edge of the temple. His wife lept after him. However, the Kannon of Tsubosaka-dera Temple saved them and Sawaichi regained his sight.

There are no souvenir shops nearby, so maybe this is not a tourist spot, but it is certainly a big temple if you compare it to the other temples of the Saigoku Pilgrimage.

At Tsubosaka Temple, you can also enjoy viewing the cherry blossoms at night during this period.

The cherry blossoms that cover the temple grounds and large stone Buddha statues are lit up, creating a magical beauty that is different from the daytime.

How to get to Tsubosaka-dera Temple

From Shin-Osaka Station: take the subway to Tennoji Station (about 20 minutes), then walk to Kintetsu Osaka Abenobashi Station (just across the street from Tennoji) and take a limited express train to Tsubosakayama Station (about 40 minutes).

From Kintetsu Kyoto Station: take a limited express train to Kashiharajingu-mae Station, then change to Tsubosakayama Station (about 70 minutes).

Tsubosakadera Temple is 10 minutes by taxi from the Kintetsu Tsubosakayama Station.

Admission Timings:

Opening hours : 8:30 to 17:00

Admission Tickets:

Adults: ¥600
Children: ¥100
5 years and under: free

What is the best time to visit Tsubosaka-dera?

late March to early April

Annual Events:

18th of every month except for February and June: Kannon fair
August 18: Segaki-e (hungry ghosts’ feeding rites)

When is Tsubosaka-dera Illumination?

March 25th (Sat) to April 9th ​​(Sun), 2023
*Subject to change depending on the cherry blossom season

Viewing hours during illumination:
Gate opening time during the light-up period: 7:30-20:00
Lighting time during the light-up period) 18:00-20:00

Fall at Nara Deer Park

Through my early teens, I grew up consuming detective tales from the likes of Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle. These classics have led me into believing the concept of criminals eventually going back to their place of crime. My crime is that I fell in love with the heritage city of Nara. Since knowing it from the Fall season of 2015, I have tried my best to visit the city that has somehow stopped in time, to breathe in its pure air and enjoy its hospitality.

Nara was the first capital of Japan and has a rich history that has kept me captivated since I first set my foot here in the fall of 2015. Nara Park is the central attraction of the ancient city and also one of the most amazing places to enjoy the fall season in the Kansai region. The lavish park contains hundreds of Momiji (Japanese maple) trees that turn red, brown, and yellow imparting a vivid range of colors to the area. The wandering herds of deer adds a touch of fantasy to the already beautiful canvas created by nature.

Fall in Nara

In Japan, the fall season or Koyo starts towards the middle of September, just like in most countries in the upper reaches of the northern hemisphere. The Japanese maple or Momiji is native to Japan, Korea, China, and eastern Mongolia, and southeast Russia. The northern-most island of Hokkaido is the first to experience the fall season and the leaves already start turning red towards the middle of September.

This phenomenon gradually spreads towards the south of the Japanese archipelago until the middle of November when it reaches the southernmost areas. Late November to early December marks the beginning of fall colors in western Japan, and even though Kyoto is where the real magic plays out, Nara is not bad either.

I and my wife, Mani were staying at the Piazza Hotel in Nara. It is kind of a lavish place to stay but it is also kind of difficult to find lodgings in Nara with most hotels booked almost 6 months beforehand. We woke up at dawn, freshened up, and after a hot cup of coffee walked down to Nara Park. The hotel is located adjacent to the JR Nara Station and it is at least a 20-minute walk to Nara Park. I was back after almost a year and the old memories of Sanjo-dori came flooding back as I made my way along the narrow road which had been a big part of my life when I used to live in Nara. On the way, we grabbed a couple of onigiris for breakfast from a convenience store.

Ukimido Pavilion

Our first stop was one of the hidden treasures of Nara Park – the Ukimido Pavilion, located in the middle of the Sagi-ike Pond. I call this place hidden because most of the tourists remain concentrated near the Todai-ji, Kasuga-taisha, and Kofuku-ji areas. Very few of them have the energy for the walk to this little place located in a corner of Nara Park.

The beautiful wooden pavilion looks as if it is floating on the pond’s water and is a tranquil place to visit. The early morning mist makes it all the more irresistible. The pavilion is usually lit up every night, which is when I love it the most. If you are in Nara in mid-August, do not miss out on the Nara Tokae Lantern Festival when you can indulge in the visual pleasure of a hundred lanterns lighting up the pavilion. That sight is guaranteed to take your breath away.

After capturing the pavilion, we hung around the place wandering about the Sagi-ike Pond since our next stop was Todai-ji and it doesn’t open before 8 am. Most of the trees surrounding the pond had lost a good part of their leaves during this time. Some of the trees that had started later were still hanging on to their colorful leaves.

Specifically, the word “oyo” refers to yellow leaves, and the word “katsuyo” refers to brown leaves.

The species of maple generally determine the color the leaves will change to red, yellow, or brown. Here in Japan, people refer to this phenomenon as Koyo. Although the word Koyo literally means “red leaves,” it is colloquially used to refer to the phenomenon of changing autumn colors, mainly when it occurs to the leaves of deciduous broad-leaf trees before they fall to the ground.

No visit to Nara Park is fulfilled without a visit to Todai-ji. We were the first couple to enter as the admissions booth opened. The temple attendants were still getting everything ready inside the temple grounds. It was pretty cold so we skipped the purifying ritual at the Chozuya and went directly towards the Great Buddha hall also known as Daibutsu-den.

Before entering we grabbed some incense sticks and lit them up at the altar in front of the Daibutsu-den gate. It is not required but recommended that you donate some Yen here before you take the incense sticks. The scent emanating from the incense slowly surrounds you driving your mind and soul away from worldly distractions. Please note that this is not how Todai-ji will be if you visit a little later in the day. The place is literally crawling with tourists as the day moved towards the after.

While climbing down the steps of Todai-ji, I clicked this shot of the Nakamon Gate with the Octagonal lantern in front. The lantern is as old as the temple itself. In fact, the wooden temple was recreated many times but the lantern has remained as is throughout the history of Todai-ji. I have written a detailed article on the history of Todai-ji, if you are interested to know more.

After paying respects at Todai-ji, we walked towards the back of the temple where I knew there was an interestingly shaped Momiji looking all beautiful in shades of red and yellow colors. The Momiji trees around Nara Park are kind of spread out, so you need to know from before the spots where they are the most alluring.

We gradually walked towards the front of Todai-ji, where near the Kagami-ike Pond, you can also find some lovely Momiji trees. Of all its close kin, this Japanese red maple is not only a sensation because of its brilliant fall color, but also because of the hues of red, it lends to the landscape throughout the winter.

The history of Momijigari

From Todai-ji we slowly moved towards a wooded area of Nara Park. This area is full of Momiji trees. Even though some of the trees had already become bare it was still a lovely sight to behold.

When autumn deepens and the leaves begin to turn color in the fields and mountains, hunting for autumn foliage is a popular pastime in Japan. Over the years it has become like a ritual with its own name called Momijigari – the Japanese tradition of visiting areas where leaves have turned red in the autumn.

This tradition of Momijigari was born during the Heian Era (794 – 1185) among the aristocrats of Kyoto. The word comes from the two Japanese words Momiji and Kari. Momiji means red leaves. Kari originally used to refer to the act of hunting wild beasts, but over the years it came to be used as a word for catching animals and harvesting crops. You can find its use in Japanese words like “kudamono gari” (fruit hunting) and “shiohigari” (clam hunting).

Such alluring was the beauty of the fall foliage that the Japanese nobility became great admirers of this nature’s beauty. They borrowed the words Momiji and Kari and combined them to create Momijigari to mean “red leaves viewing”. Trees were planted specifically in continued rows for this autumn hobby of the era’s elite.

Poetry about Momiji

In Japan, the maple is said to possess a poetic, rather than visual, quality although I would beg to differ. Cherry trees are generally depicted in Japanese painting, but the maple is best described in waka – Japanese songs, and haiku – Japanese poetry.

As more and more trees were planted across each prefecture in Japan, it lent a fantastical beauty to the temples in the region. The ancient collection of Manyoshu poetry compiled in the eighth century includes numerous stories involving Momijigari.

If you have read the classical Heian Period novel “The Tale of the Genji,” the hunting for fall leaves also finds a mention here. A large section of the Kokin Wakashu poetry collection, compiled around the beginning of the same period, is dedicated almost entirely to autumn leaves.

Varying in size from large shrub to small tree, the Japanese maple is a species with many variations. You can enjoy the spectacular fall colors at the many historic shrines and temples at Nara Park. During Nara’s autumn foliage season, many places have various events, special viewing admissions, and scenic night lightings. As we kept walking we went past the wooded area into the wide-open spaces at the base of Wakakusayama with herds of deer grazing around.

The deer are generally gathered around this area because the tourists feed them the local Shika senbei. They love it! We also bought 5 packets, each costing 200 yen.

Be prepared! even as you open the packets, they will come charging at you sniffing the subtle smell of the pancakes from long away.

After feeding the deer, we walked to the base of Mt. Wakakusa where lay a couple of Ginko trees. Among the beautiful Momiji trees, the Gingko is another group of trees that make autumn brilliant with its color. Also called “ichō” in Japanese, they are completely different from Momiji as they are not red but bright yellow and do not have the same shape. Unlike the Momiji trees, the Gingko trees grow to long heights.

Ginkgo is an ancient species, so old that it is said to have flourished during the age of the dinosaurs. Around 1 million years ago, though, the population began to fall and it only narrowly avoided extinction. Until a few hundred years ago it grew almost exclusively in northwest Asia, but global cultivation efforts have brought numbers to such a level that the ginkgo was removed from the endangered species list.

The Ginkgo is a relative newcomer to Japan, having arrived from China around 1,000 years ago. It has thrived over the centuries to become a familiar aspect of Japanese life. The area takes on the appearance of being carpeted in gold – there’s something truly magical about it. The smell of the senbei quickly gathered a couple of deer to us.

Nearby you can find a wooden pavilion. We kept our bags on the benches and had a lovely time feeding the deer.

After an entertaining morning in Nara Park, we went back to get some lunch at Kasuga Chaya. Its located near all the souvenir shops before you reach the Nandaimon Gate of Todai-ji. It’s a cute ticket restaurant where you need to buy your meal tickets from a vending-type machine before you take a seat. I had a big bowl of Udon. The warm soup sure made me feel good after the early morning wandering in a cold and cloudy Nara Park.

In the evening we came back to the Park to catch a beautiful sunset at Nigatsu-do. Once the sun had set behind the mountains, we wandered about the grounds catching a few of the Momiji trees in the street lights

You can find this tree near the Kagami-ike Pond. It was getting pretty cold by then, so after we got a couple of shots, we started on our way back to the hotel.

Thanks for reading! One of the best aspects of travel in Japan is enjoying the natural beauty of the four seasons. Fall is known for its especially nice weather and is a season when one can taste many delicious foods, making it a great time for sightseeing. Just like with the sakura, this season holds a very special place in Japanese people’s hearts as it reminds everyone that everything is ephemeral and that we need to enjoy what is given to us before it vanishes.

The autumn foliage of Nara Park is exceptionally impressive. You can see beautiful autumn leaves in every part of the expansive grounds. The ability to enjoy seeing deer and maple trees while you gaze at the temples through the trees is unique to the park. I hope you liked my story. Please leave your comments or questions using the comments form below. I would love to know about your experiences at the park. You can also connect with me on Instagram.

What are the other places to enjoy the Fall season in Nara?

Apart from Nara Park, you can also visit these recommended spots:
1. Isui-en Garden
2. Hasedera Temple
3. Mt. Yoshino

What is the best time to enjoy Momiji in Nara?

Nara has a scattered fall where some of the trees begin to go red with the onset of November and some of them stay red till early December. It is always smart to come with a couple of days in hand because you will run into grey days with extreme cloud cover and intermittent rainfall.

Photowalk to Ukimido Pavilion

Ukimido is a hexagonal gazebo over the Sagiike Pond in Nara Park. The park is generally crowded with tourists all through the day, but they usually stay away from this area. The airy structure in the middle of the pond, surrounded by herds of deer, is one place where I can find peace at any time of the day.

I have been to Ukimido in Nara several times before but never during the evenings. A few days before I came across a flier at the Nara Tourist Information Center that had a cover photo of the pavilion at night. It looked so immersive that I couldn’t miss photographing this lovely gazebo.

So, at around 5 pm I walked down to the park. I had with me some acorns that I had gathered at Nagoya Castle grounds. The deer love munching on these acorns.

On my way, I went past the meadows beside Todai-ji temple where the deer were busy munching on the green grass. I was a bit surprised to see so many gathered at a single place. A couple came running towards me hoping to get some tidbits. I fed them the acorns I had stuffed in my cargo pockets. The sun was on its way down, so I hurried towards the floating pavilion.

Ukimido, Nara Park

It was almost sun down by the time I reached the pavilion. Some elderly ladies were sitting inside the dimly lit structure. The sunset was playing its magic creating a blend of purple and orange sky.

I stayed around till the ladies moved away after having their fill of the enchanting surroundings. During the summer evenings the floating pavilion is illuminated and it feels very relaxing sitting in the center of the pond amid dimly lit lanterns. I took a few shots of Ukimido Pavilion until the sun had fully set.

Once I was done taking pictures, I went back the along same path towards home. With the fall due in a month, some of the trees had started to turn red already. The lanterns along the Sagiike pond lit up the trees casting a reddish glow over them.

Nara Park is lovely in the day, but its mesmerizing at night. If you are in Nara, try to visit the place at night. Kofukuji and Todai-ji grounds remain open all night. The five-story pagoda at Kofukuji looks like a painting with the moon rising behind. The Todai-ji temple closes at around 5-5:30 pm depending on the season but you can still enjoy the beautifully lit park surrounding the temple. On certain days Todai-ji does remain open during nights. I was lucky to visit Todai-ji on New Years Eve, one of the rare times when the temple is opened to the public at night.

Thanks for reading! In a couple of days, I go back to India but in these few months, I have been so captivated by the rich culture and traditions of Nara, that I am certain that I will be back soon to complete my understanding of this western island of Japan. I would love to know about your experiences. Please post your thoughts using the form below or connect with me on Instagram.

The moonlit Kofuku-ji Pagoda

I walked down to Kofukuji today in the evening to catch the huge Pagoda with the moon rising behind it. The five-story structure(Gojunoto) is the second tallest Pagoda in all of Japan. Built in 725 AD by the Empress Komyoh and last rebuilt in 1426, it is also a UNESCO World Heritage listed site.

The walk to Nara walk is generally entertaining.

Sarusawa Pond

Kofuku-ji Pagoda from the front

Kofuku-ji Pagoda

Petting the deer near Kofuku-ji

Deer at Nara Park

Dusk begins to take over Kofuku-ji Pagoda

The kofuku-ji Pagoda in the evening

A close-up shot of Kofuku-ji Pagoda

Nan’en-dō, Kōfuku-ji

Read all about my walk to Kofukuji. If you are visiting Nara, you can also check out my day at the Nara Deer Park.

Exploring the Horyu-ji Temple

Hōryū-ji (法隆寺) is one of the seven great temples of Nara. The temple is a central artifact in the history of Japan and just invoking its name is enough to bring a sparkle in the eyes of most Japanese. The original temple was commissioned by Prince Shōtoku in 607 CE. and even though the complex has been hit by fire more than a few times, it still boasts the presence of the world’s oldest wooden building known to man.

Summer was upon us. On a lazy Sunday, Me & Mani, left our dorm for Hōryū-ji at around noon. In the steaming hot weather, with only the occasional breeze providing some relief, we walked all the way to Nara Station.

From the station, we caught the local JR-Namba along the Yamatoji line. It takes about 11 minutes to reach Hōryū-ji Station. The train dropped us off at a small quiet station. A shuttle bus is available to Hōryū-ji Temple from the south exit at Hōryū-ji Station, but you can also walk to the temple quiet easily in around 20 minutes.

If you have been following my stories, you will know that I love to walk. I did think twice, because of the sweltering heat, but walking gives me an additional motivation as I pass through the streets of these heritage towns, past age-old houses. Google maps was there to guide us, but there were ample road-signs along the way, including the one like this below – designed into the footpath.

The day was bright with intermittent clouds spread across the sky. On the way, you can find various casual cafes, restaurants and convenience stores.

As you near the temple, the concrete buildings, give way to a lane lined with beautiful green trees. This long path is referred to as Hōryū-ji Sando and the waving trees welcome you into the temple.

On both sides of this path you can find some restaurants and souvenir shops. These wooden structures take me back into a time where we didn’t have copy-pasted rows of rectangular concrete buildings with no soul. We made it a point to stop at one of these eateries while going back.

Brief history of Hōryū-ji

Before we begin our exploration of the temple grounds let me brief you a bit about the rich history of the temple. The full name of the temple is Hōryū Gakumon-ji, or Temple of the Flourishing Law.

The story of Hōryū-ji’s founding is laid out in the historical writings engraved on the back of the halo of the Yakusi Nyorai Buddha statue, located on the eastern side of the room in the temple’s Main Hall, and in the official inventory of Hōryū-ji property holdings recorded in 747.

According to these records, the emperor Yomei vowed to build a temple and an image of a Buddha as a form of prayer for his own recovery from illness–a vow he was never fated to fulfill, for he died shortly thereafter. These same writings state how Empress Suiko and Crown Prince Shotoku fulfilled Emperor Yomei’s deathbed wish by building the temple in 607 CE. The temple was dedicated to Yakushi Nyorai, the Buddha of healing in honor of the prince’s father.

When the temple was originally commissioned by Prince Shōtoku, it was called Wakakusa-dera, a name that is still used sometimes in official documents. Because of its location, it was also referred to by locals as Ikaruga Temple.

The original temple was lost to fire after being hit by lightning in 670. The massive blaze swept through the temple grounds, leaving “not a single building” standing, as it is recorded in the ancient Chronicles of Japan (Nihon Shoki).

The temple was reconstructed around 711, but the layout was slightly re-oriented. From its conception, Hōryū-ji was considered by the royalty as its protector and thus it always enjoyed protection of the Imperial family.

Early Heian period (794 – 1185) brought new additions to Hōryū-ji, including the dedication of several new halls in the Eastern and Western compounds. In addition, during the Kamakura period (1185–1333), a cult consisting of followers of Prince Shōtoku rose to prominence in Japan and Horyū-ji became an important site for veneration of the long-dead prince.

Ritual practices dedicated to Prince Shōtoku increased in number during this time. A memorial service for the late prince, called the ceremony of Shōryō-e was introduced in the early 12th century and it is still practiced at the temple to this day. According to records during the time of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Hōryū-ji’s annual stipend used to be around 1200 koku. The Koku used to be a unit of measure in feudal Japan, which used to the amount of rice needed to feed one person for a year.

Political shifts in Japan during the early years of the Meiji period (1868 – 1912) brought new challenges for Hōryū-ji as Shinto was instated as the official state religion in 1868. This resulted in government confiscation of many Buddhist lands, strict government supervision and categorization of Buddhist temples, and a steep decrease in financial support for Hōryū-ji itself.

At the outset of the Meiji period, the new government cut the temples annual stipend to 250 koku and later reduced it further to just 125. One of the first laws of the new government , separating Bodhisattava and Kami, set off widespread pillaging of Buddhist temples.

Due to the lack of resources during the early Meiji period, the monks at Hōryū-ji decided to donate many of the temple’s treasures for museum display. They were able to secure compensation for this donation, improving the financial situation of the temple. With the destruction of Kofuku-ji in Nara during the Tokugawa period (1603 – 1868, Edo period), there was a time when it was also considered to burn down the pagoda at Hōryū-ji. Fortunately for us, because of the residential clusters around the temple and the collateral damage it would cause, it was left to be.

Over the years the temple fell into a bad state from centuries of neglect. The outer areas began to be used to house cows and horses. Around the time of Meiji Restoration, people living in the vicinity of Hōryū-ji called it a bimbotera, meaning “poor temple.”

A restoration project was initiated after the Second World War and by 1985 most of the temple complex was repaired. During the restoration, older paintings of the temple were used to determine the original layout of the complex, and many of the living quarters built during the intervening years were demolished.

In 1993, Hōryū-ji Temple was registered as Japan’s first UNESCO World Heritage site under the name of Buddhist Monuments in the Hōryū-ji Area. I hope I have not bored you with all this data, but it was essential to understanding why the Japanese hold this temple to so high importance.

Nandaimon, South Main Gate

Lets now move on to explore the beautiful structures inside Hōryū-ji. The broad avenue of majestic pine trees along Hōryū-ji Sando led us straight to this elegant eight-pillar gate. This is the South Gate and it leads visitors into the temple grounds. This gate was once situated near the Middle Gate but was moved when the temple was expanded. Fire destroyed the original structure in 1435, but it was rebuilt shortly afterwards in 1438.

The Hōryū-ji Central Gate was undergoing repairs during the time of our visit. The entrance was thus free during that period.

As I mentioned before, the grounds of Hōryū-ji house the world’s oldest surviving wooden structures, conveying images of Japan as it existed more than 1,300 years ago, during the Asuka Period. The main compound is laid out on a north-south axis with the main entrance facing south. The four main components, the pagoda, the Main Hall, the Lecture Hall and the Middle Gate and the South Gate, are aligned symmetrically through a central axis.

The temple complex is made up of two areas, the Sai-in in the west and the Tō-in in the east. The Sai-in Garan or western part of the temple contains the Kondō (Main Hall) and the five-story pagoda. The Tō-in area holds the octagonal Yumedono Hall (Hall of Dreams) and sits about a 100 meters east of the Sai-in area. The complex also contains monk’s quarters, lecture halls, libraries, and dining halls.

A corridor with a colonnaded interior and walled exterior surrounds the temple complex on all four sides. Dating back to 990, the sheltered walk way exhibits the use of Chinese style window openings and plaster exterior walls. The pillars in the temple complex bulge slightly in the middle, a feature known as entasis.

Entasis is an architectural style that features curvature of columns where the body of the structure appears to bulge or bend outwards to compensate for an optical illusion, where a physically straight column would appear narrow at its feet appearing to be weak. It is quite possible that this was influenced by the architecture of ancient Greece.

Hōryū-ji Kondō

The Kondō, located side-by-side to the Pagoda in Sai-in, is one of the oldest wood buildings extant in the world. The hall has two stories, with roofs curved in the corners. The first story has a double roof. According to records, this was added later in the Nara period with extra posts to hold up the original first roof because it extended more than four meters past the building.

The Kondō is the main hall of the temple. It is comprised of an enclosed porch and an altar that is contained within a space that is 3 x 2 bays. While the main altar faces south, less important statues face the other cardinal directions to stress the importance of radiating towards all directions. The Kondo also uses wood columns that utilize a slight entasis and support a cluster of brackets that are required to carry the weight of the large roof structure that is further burdened with the use of tiles as opposed to the traditional roof material of choice, wood or thatch.

The exterior wood decoration includes dragons, a water deity thought to protect against fires. The railings on the second level are carved to represent swastikas, and they join inverted V-shaped support posts, both typical features of the architecture of the Asuka Period.

The interior of the Hall is made to resemble the Buddhist vision of paradise via brightly colored murals on all four walls. There are 12 distinct panels and depicting scenes with the Buddha and bodhisattvas.

Hōryū-ji Pagoda

The five-story pagoda standing adjacent to the main hall was built during the Asuka period (593–710) to house the site’s main relics. It is the oldest pagoda of this type in Japan and one of the oldest surviving wooden towers in the world. The pagoda is five stories tall and contains various important Buddhist scriptures and relics. Its central pillar, over 35 metres tall, is confirmed via a Dendrochronological analysis to have been felled in 594.

Partially supported by a main central column, the cantilever brackets branch out from outer columns to support the weight of the roof. The roofs of each level curve upward and diminishing in size as you go up.

The central pillar rests three meters below the surface of the massive foundation stone, stretching into the ground. At its base, a relic believed to be a fragment of the bones of the Buddha is enshrined. Around it, four sculpted scenes from the life of the Buddha face in the four cardinal directions. Access to the interiors of the pagoda is restricted.

A unique feature of the pagoda are the scythes attached to the uppermost roof. Lightning was once considered a celestial monster, so swords and implements with sharp edges were added to the pagoda as it was said that this would prevent the celestial monsters from alighting on them. 

At the base of the Five-storied Pagoda are a series of Buddhist tableaux dating from 711 which are shaped like caverns and contain 97 clay figurines. The four sides of the tableaux represent famous scenes from the story of the Buddha. On the east side, Yuima, a layman, is engaged in a religious dialogue with Monju, the bodhisattva of wisdom. On the north side, the Buddha is passing from this world into Nirvana, mourned by his weeping disciples.

The agonized faces of his devotees are depicted in the scene, as well as a doctor taking the Buddha’s pulse. The west side shows the division of the relics of Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, when his remains were distributed among eight tribes after his death some 2,500 years ago. On the south side, Maitreya, the Buddha of the future known as Miroku Bosatsu in Japanese, has achieved enlightenment and is giving a sermon.

Daikodo, Lecture Hall

The Daikodo, or Lecture Hall, aligns through the center with the Nandaimon, or Great South Gate, and the Chumon, the Middle Gate along the main central axis. This is the only time the plan of the complex differs from the typical Chinese monastery plan, because usually all of the buildings are aligned symmetrically.

It is believed that the reason for offsetting the plans of the Kondo and pagoda was to allow the viewer to see both simultaneously, rather than as a sequence of buildings and because the proportions of the two buildings in addition to the colonnade offered a pleasing composition of varying heights and widths.

The Daikodo was rebuilt in 990 CE after the original was destroyed by fire. Inside it are two bodhisattva statues – Nikko and Gekko – either side of a figure of Yakushi Nyorai.

Kudarakan Nondo

The Great Treasure Gallery was built in 1998. The center of the building contains a hall which enshrines a statue of Kudara Kannon, and there are galleries to the east and west of the central hall. These two galleries house many important artifacts including a statue of Yumechigai Kannon, the Tamamushi no Zushi altar, the Lady Tachibana altar, and statues of Prince Shotoku. Photography is not allowed inside.

By this time the heat had taken a toll on us. We took shelter under the shade of large tree sipping on a chilled plum drink. After resting for a bit we began our exploration of the To-in area.

This internal gate links the Sai-in with the To-in area of the complex. It is a about a five-minute walk from the Western Precinct.

Shōrō Bellfry

The first interesting structure we came to face in the Eastern Precinct was the Bell House. It is constructed in a trapezoidal form known as hakamagoshi (spreading skirt). Within it hangs a Nara-period bell that has the words “Chūgū-ji” engraved on the inside, indicating that it has been in the possession of at least one other temple over its more than 1,000-year existence.


A few paces ahead, you can find the Chugu-ji, which was founded as a nunnery in the seventh century by Prince Shōtoku. Chūgū-ji used to be the palace of Hashihito, mother of Prince Shōtoku. After her death it was converted into a temple. Later, it was converted to a nunnery by the nun Shinnyo in the late Kamakura period. Originally standing three hundred metres to the east, it was moved to its present location in the Muromachi period. In this temple, there is a famous Miroku Buddha, which is designated as a national treasure.

Chugu-ji is a small temple but worth a visit for its elegant statue of a sitting Buddha, Hankashii Bosatsu, who crosses the right leg over the left and show a classic and gentle smile. From Chugu-ji, we moved towards the most popular building in the To-in area – Yumedono.

House of Dreams, Yumedono

Yumedono is one of the main constructions in the Tō-in area, built on the ground which was once Prince Shōtoku’s private palace, Ikaruga no miya, where he lived until his death in 622. The scholar-priest Gyoshin Sozu commissioned its construction in 739 as a monument to Prince Shōtoku. Octagonal wooden halls were adopted in Japan primarily for use as memorial chapels and the Hall of Dreams is one such example. I have been to one another in Yakushi-ji in Nara where the ashes of Hiuen Tsang, the Chinese Buddhist monk / traveler, have been laid to rest.

The Hall of Dreams derives its name from a legend that a golden Buddha once appeared to Prince Shotoku in a dream. The hall also contains the famous Kuse Kannon, which is only displayed twice a year for about a month each during the spring and fall. This seventh-century statue of Kuse Kannon is one of Hōryū-ji Temple’s most mysterious treasures.

After exploring a few more buildings surrounding the Yumedono, we were ready to leave the Hōryū-ji Temple complex.

After walking out of the temple complex, we went into the Heiso Hōryū-ji Store to try some Kakinoha Sushi. Kakinoha-zushi (or Persimmon leaves sushi) is different from what you may know as “sushi.” It is wrapped neatly like a present, and is a local cuisine inherited in Nara. Its history dates back to Edo period. In ancient times it used to be prepared only using mackerel. Today it comes with a variety of fish options. The Kakinoha-zushi served in Nara and Kyoto generally have mackerel or salmon.

Japanese legend says that Prince Shotoku, son of the emperor Yomei, built the temple so that he could pray for his father’s recovery from illness. Today, the temple can be identified as the headquarters of the “Shōtoku” sect, and is a popular site for pilgrimage.

As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Hōryū-ji is also an attractive site for tourists. Excavations done in 1939 confirmed that Prince Shotoku’s palace, the Ikaruga-no-miya, occupied the eastern part of the current temple complex, where the Tō-in sits today.

By itself, the main complex of Hōryū-ji is a perfect example of the temple planning of the Asuka period. It incorporates much of Chinese planning and construction techniques, and the location placed it out in the plains away from the hustle and bustle of the city center of Nara.

According to the temple’s website, it is currently home to over 180 of Japan’s designated National Treasures and Important Cultural Properties, and was the first structure in Japan to become a World Heritage Site. Hōryū-ji also still holds frequent events in a variety of locations in the complex, and many of its structures are open to the public.

Thanks for reading! Please leave your comments if you enjoyed my story or follow me on my journey as I visit Nagasaki to understand the pain that shocked the entire world.

Who built Hōryū-ji

Prince Shotoku

When was Hōryū-ji built

607 CE

Admission Fees to enter Hōryū-ji

¥1,500 (Adults)

Timings for visiting Hōryū-ji

8:00 – 17:00 (Feb 22 – Nov 3)
8:00 – 16:30 (Nov 4 – Feb 21)

The secret world of Kasugayama Primeval Forest

I had a great time in Hasedera the day before. The temple grounds were lovely but what struck me most was the abundant hydrangeas blooming all over the garden. I had been to Nara Park several times, but each time I always used to miss visiting the Manyou Botanical Garden, located near Kasuga-Taisha shrine bordering the Kasugayama Primeval forest. The garden contains a Wisteria Garden, Camellia Garden, Iris Garden, Ajisai Garden and a Five Grain Garden. With the Ajisai blooming all over Nara, I decided it was the perfect time to check out this garden.

The garden can be easily accessed by entering Nara Park and walking on your right towards Kasuga Taisha shrine.

The Manyou Botanical Garden (萬葉植物園) opened in 1932 and contains over 300 species of plants and trees mentioned in the Man’yōshū, the oldest existing collection of Japanese poetry, compiled sometime after 759 AD during the Nara period. The foundation for this garden was laid by a botanist by the name of Honda Seiroku. He visualized the creation of this recreational botanical garden by utilizing the land set aside for the Nara Imperial Villa in Nara Park towards the end of the Meiji period. However it wasn’t until 1927, when a proposal was forwarded to create the Manyo Garden. Sasaki Nobutsuna, a scholar of Japanese literature, formed an organization to champion the idea of establishing the Manyo Gardens where the exact varieties mentioned in the poems of the Manyoshu would be grown.

I have compiled a gallery of all the flowers and other interesting experiences of the garden. Some of the flowers were easy to identify, others are still a mystery to me. If you recognize any, please add it in the comments.

Honestly, I would not suggest visiting the gardens in Summer if you are mostly a flower person. If you only want to experience Ajesai, there are loads to take pictures of. If you are tired of all the walking one has to do visiting Kasuga Taisha, this is a nice place to come and rest. There is a small pond full of Koi fishes. The colorful fishes stalked me as I stood near the edge of the pond expecting some food from me. After a couple of hours of lazy wandering, I made my way back out of the garden.

Thank you for reading. Please leave me a comment if you liked the shots.

The Ajisai Garden of Hasedera Temple

On a lovely sunny day, Mani & I left for Hase-dera Temple in Nara. It had been raining incessantly for the whole week and we were lucky to have caught a break over the weekend.

Hase-dera is not very far away from Nara but we had to change a couple of trains to reach the Hasedera Station. From Kintetsu Nara Station we took the train to Yamato-Saidaiji Station, then from there, another to Yamatoyagi. At Yamatoyagi we changed to a semi-express train for Hasedera.

On the train Mani explained to me how the original Hasedera was founded in 686 A.D. when a Buddhist priest named Domyo enshrined a bronze plaque carved with a three-storied pagoda and two sitting Buddhas. The bronze plaque, known as Douban Hokke Sessou Zu, is today listed as a National Treasure of Japan. Later, in the year 727, the temple was expanded by order of Emperor Shōmu and a statue of the eleven-faced Kannon was placed near the original temple that enshrined the bronze plaque. The temple has burned down and rebuilt several times over the years.

It didn’t take us long to reach Hase-dera Station. It’s a small building surrounded by lush green mountains. Only a handful of Japanese got down alongside us.

From the station it takes about 20 minute walk to reach the temple grounds. The streets are narrow and steep. It’s a quite neighborhood and it felt very peaceful walking through old rural city of Sakurai. One can also take a short-cut using stairways but we preferred to walk down the road, passing by old-fashioned wooden houses that will make you feel like walking in medieval Japan.

The road led us down into the Hase valley and across a bridge over the Hase River. Information boards are conveniently placed along the way to guide visitors towards the temple.

As we walked towards the temple, we came across a small red bridge on the right continuing towards a dense forested area. The vermilion gate meant there was a shrine up there but we decided not to go up that path.

As we neared the temple, we started to see some more people. Soon, we were at a crossroad. On the left there is a fleet of steps leading up to the temple gate. At the base is a small temple building known as Souketsuke. Just opposite was a road where the wooden houses have been converted into tiny shops and restaurants. Mani picked up a green kusamochi (sweet rice balls) from one of the roadside Mochi stores. Further down the road one can find many traditional restaurants. It was lunch time so we also picked up a Kakinoha Sushi box and headed towards the temple.

It was hot and we were sweating profusely from the walk. Once we reached the base of the stairs, we decided to take a break at the Souketsuke. It serves as sort of resting place for visitors. Couple of benches are placed inside the building along with some vending machines serving fizzy drinks.  I grabbed a drink while Mani feasted on the sushi.

A deity named Akiba Gongen is enshrined at the Souketsuke, a god protecting against fires.

After lunch, we made our way towards the Niomon Gate. Unfortunately the gate that was covered up for repairs. Maybe because of the repairs, the entry to the temple was free for the day. Past the Niomon Gate, we took a diversion to the left. The temple grounds were laden with Ajisai. The hydrangeas in baby blue. pink and purple greeted us into the grounds.

The gardens were laden with hundreds… no, thousands of hydrangeas in different colors. We walked past the lovely flowers checking out closely the different petals of each.

I was also surprised by the red maple trees in Summer. Generally they only turn red during Fall.

After spending some lovely time with the hydrangeas, we strolled up the path towards the Main Hall of Hasedera.

The Main Hall is, as the name suggests, the heart of the temple. It houses the Eleven-Faced Kannon, an image depicting Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy and her 11 faces. The original statue of Hase Kannon is said to have been carved out of a camphor tree in the year 727 by a priest named Tokudo Shonin. Tokudo Shonin was a fervent worshiper of Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy, and he started the pilgrimage network of 33 sites in Kansai sacred to Kannon, including one in Nachi.

The current statue was crafted in the year 1538. It is about 10 m high, probably the largest wooden statue in Japan. These faces are made up of one primary face and 10 secondary and are said to allow Kannon to see 360 degrees, in case anyone is in need of her assistance.

During the Heian period the temple was regularly visited by members of the nobility. It was helped by the fact that it was situated along the route to the Ise Shrine.

Hase-dera flourished as one of the centers of the Shingon Buddhism, particularly after the arrival of priest Sen’yo from Negoro-ji in 1588. Upon his arrival, Hasedera became the main temple of the Buzan sect of Shingon Buddhism, a position it holds to this day.

Photography of Kannon is prohibited, so we just went up the main hall and lighted some incense sticks praying for health and happiness. Beside the public area, some visitors were entering the inner hall and praying at the feet of Kannon. Admission to the inner area requires a fee of ¥1000 yen. We skipped it and walked towards the front where a large veranda outside the Main Hall allows for a spectacular view over the Hase Valley and the surrounding hills.

Beside the main hall there are a few smaller temples with Jizo statues beside them. One can spend hours walking around the temple grounds and will still discover new sights.

From the Main Hall we went up the hill towards the Five-Storied Pagoda. It’s not very old and was constructed in as recently as 1954. It has been named Showa Pagoda after the period it was built in.

It was early evening. We were a bit dehydrated in the Sun, so we walked back to the station to catch a train back to Nara. The best part of Hase-dera is its gardens. Though the statue of Kannon is something but the lovely gardens will take your breadth away. Try to come during cherry blossoms or like I did during the Ajisai blooms. I have heard it is also great during fall when the maple leaves turn red all across the garden.

Thank you for reading, I’m excited to hear your comments!

Best time to visit Hasedera Temple

New Year’s Eve: The most celebrated event at Hase-dera is during New Year’s Eve. In a ceremony called Kannon Mandoe, the entire staircase corridor is lit up with thousands of lanterns. This continues for evenings of January 1st, 2nd and 3rd.

Sakura Season: From late March to early April, the cherry trees of the temple blossom, providing an exquisite scenery.

Chinese Peony Season: From mid-April to early May, the 7,000 Chinese peonies planted alongside the Stairway Corridor are in bloom.

Momiji Season: Momiji are Japanese maple trees turning bright red in autumn. The temple celebrates their autumn colors from mid-October to early December.

From April to September: 8.30am to 5pm
March, October, November: 9am to 5pm
December to February: 9am to 4.30pm

Adult 500 yen, child 250 yen

Lights of NaraRurie

Nara Rurie, a winter illumination festival is celebrated in early spring in Nara. The Park is covered in a beautiful world of azure blue, believed to usher happiness into everyone’s lives. The deep blue Rurie, has been held sacred as a supreme color by the Japanese people since being introduced via the Silk Road. This year Nara Rurie marks its 5th anniversary.

Once I started to discover Nara, the first thing that impressed me about this city is its amazing historical highlights. Nara is an ancient city with thousands of historic treasures. It is most noted for the many ancient Japanese Buddhist buildings and artifacts in and around the city, including the Seven Great Temples.

Nara was established as Japan’s capital in 710 CE by Empress Gemmei, and remained so for another 80 years. But for a small duration of 5 years(740-745), when the capital was moved elsewhere, it emerged as the fountainhead of Japanese culture. During this period Nara enjoyed great prosperity. The city was heavily influenced by the Chinese, so much that it was remodeled after the Chinese city of Chang’an. During the time of Emperor Shomu, who very much patronized the Chinese, the Japanese upper classes adopted Chinese written system and the religion of Buddhism. The historic monuments of ancient Nara that still stand, bear witness to the evolution of Japanese architecture and vividly illustrates the cultural evolution during that time. The city’s Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines and the excavated remains of the great Imperial Palace provide a vivid picture into the lives of the Japanese in the 8th century.

During the first couple of weeks of February, these monuments are being showcased with light projections and laser shows culminating with the Izumi Iwaki festival, celebrating the 136th anniversary of Nara Park. The winter evenings are illuminated with colorful lights at the symbolic structures of Nara Park — including Nara National Museum, Kasuga-Taisha Shrine, Kofukuji Temple and Todaiji Temple.

The walk to Nara Park is not more than 15 minutes from where I stay. To escape the crowds we left home late at around 8 p.m. Note, the lights stay on only till 9 p.m. We entered the park from behind the Todaiji. Todaiji wasn’t open but the Kagamiike Pond in front was illuminated with a laser show. Inside the temple, the organizers had opened the window of the hall so Daibutsu’s face could be seen from the gate. The window stays closed for the better part of the year. So if you want to witness the face of Todaiji’s Buddha from outside, this would be a nice time. We stayed there for a few minutes enjoying the cool laser show over the pond.

We then head off towards the Nara Forum, where the main illumination takes place. The park was lit up with illuminated gates along the path. Stalls offering Japanese delicacies are set up along the entrance path.

The entry to the Nara Rurie cost us ¥500 each.

The garden inside was immersed in a carpet of glowing azure. Rurie or Lapis lazuli, a deep blue semi-precious stone that has been prized since antiquity by the Japanese for its intense color.

We walked into the astonishing meadow of blue lights. At some places along the Tanabata Road, some life-sized illuminated figures of the famous Deer of Nara Park are also placed.

It was really an immersing experience of lights at the Park. The walk around the azure lights is very romantic and great for a pre-valentines date.

One can get the latest information about the upcoming schedules of the Nara Rurie festival from here: http://rurie.jp/en/

Hike to Uguisuno-taki Falls

I have been to Nara Park several times. The ever popular Tôdai-ji temple and Kasuga-Taisha shrine are always crawling with inquisitive tourists, but today Mani & I wander beyond these cultural landscapes into the Kasugayama Primeval Forest. The natural environment of Kasugayama is an integral yet invisible part of the shrines and temples in Nara Park. The park is so large you could easily wander into the Primeval Forest, without even knowing it.

Kasugayama Primeval Forest is a primeval forest spread over 250 hectares, near the summit of Kasugayama. It contains around 270 different kinds of trees. Hunting and logging have been prohibited in the sacred forest since 841 CE. As a result, the forest backdrop of the shrines that you see today have remained unchanged since the Nara period, retaining the authenticity in spirit and feeling from yesteryear.

I had been looking forward to hike to Uguisuno-taki Falls for some time now, but the wet weather in Nara kept preventing me. Eventually the rains gave way this week and we took the opportunity to hike up the Wakakusa mountain. After a quick meal at the college cafeteria, Mani & I walked towards Todaiji from where the trail starts.

The hike to the Falls is about 10 km round trip, from the base of Wakakusayama. You can find the trail somewhere between Todai-ji and Kasuga Taisha which leads into the woods. A signboard is present at the start of the trail, so it won’t be tough to find. 

None of the busybee tourists flock this trail. It was only after maybe half an hour that we we came upon a group of cheerful elderly ladies, trudging back towards the city. They greeted us with smiles and “Konnichiwa.” I always find the friendliest of people on hikes. Maybe its the mountain air or the excitement from conquering the hike. 

There are some Snake warning signs along the path so be careful.

Deep into the forest, we found some lovely looking Japanese beautyberry shrubs. It is a deciduous shrub, most notable for producing purple berries during fall. These fruits are not toxic but also not edible for humans. They serve as al alternative food to the birds and deer in the forest.

Halfway up the mountain the woods become thicker and the trees become taller. With the thick forest of pine trees surrounding me, I felt like a tiny little ant. There was silence all around us except for the sudden chirping of the birds. It was a welcome break from the increasing number of temples I had been visiting of late. The inside of the forest is dim even in the daytime as sunlight is not able to penetrate through the tall trees.

The waterfall lies at the northeastern end of the Kasugayama primeval forest. The fall does not lie along the main trail so you will have to follow the directions provided along the way. There are proper signs that will tell you once you have reached the exit point to get to the waterfall. From there you have to descend down from the main trail. The path becomes very narrow here and at some curves, are a bit tricky to negotiate in the wet mud. After about 15 minutes of descent, we reached the waterfall at around 2:30 pm.

Mobile internet services might be intermittent at several points of the trail

Uguisuno-taki Falls has been a popular local spot since the Edo period (1600-1868). It takes its name from the popular Uguisu bird, also known as the Japanese bush warbler. The Uguisu, with its camouflaged colors, is more often heard than seen. Its distinctive breeding call can be heard throughout most of Japan from the start of spring. Since the Edo Period, the Japanese have anticipated the first calls of the bush warbler as it heralds the coming of spring in Japan.

We spent some time at the base of the falls, capturing some photos of the surrounding area. It is not a grand waterfall. It would be about 8 meters in height and due to the season, the water was a little more of a trickle. However what is interesting is that the water flow never dries up here. Still it was a nice place to sit down and relax. The water at the base of the fall was very very cold.

By 3:30 pm we started our walk back. The way back was much faster. We were quickly out of the wooded area where the skies were much more visible. In the late afternoon, the Sun had sprayed the forest with a golden glow.

Once you are out of the woods, it feels quite pleasant walking on the pebbled path. Surprisingly I didn’t notice any deer in the area, though this isn’t very far from the Nara Park where they can be found loitering in abundance.

After walking for about an hour, we were back at Nara Park in front of the glowing, brown Wakakusayama, slated to be burned in a couple of weeks as part of the Yamayaki festival. Every winter on the fourth Saturday of January, Wakakusayama’s slopes are burned during the spectacular Wakakusa Yamayaki festival.

I love to be able to experience wilderness areas in peace.The Uguisuno-taki Falls is not a very big waterfall, but the hike alone is gratifying in itself. It is the only waterfall in the vicinity of Mt Kasuga. The trail to Uguisuno-taki continues beyond the waterfall and I hope we can come back another day to continue on that path and see where it goes.

Thank you for reading. Please leave me a comment or ask away if you need any information for hiking to the hidden waterfall.