Sunday, September 10, 2017

Kansai Diaries, Day 3.5: Yakushiji, Toshodaiji, and Heijo Palace Site in Nara City

November 25, 2016

This day is filled with UNESCO World Heritage Sites, five to be exact. After spending my morning visiting more-than-a-millenium-old wooden structures in Horyuji and Hokkiji in Ikaruga Town, I return to Nara City to visit two temples and a palace (or more accurately, its remains).

The bus lets me and two Japanese women alight at the bus stop for Yakushiji, by a large but near-empty parking area. 'Ah, good', I think to myself, 'not too many tourists here.' I follow my map and walk by a dozen vending machines all in a row and two small Shinto shrines (Yasumigaoka-hachimangu and Magotaro Inari) devoid of worshippers and visitors before I reach the south gate of Yakushiji.

If you have some yen, you'll never go thirsty here


Daily 830AM to 5PM
Admission fee: 1100 yen (800 yen when Genjo-sanzoin Garan is closed)
* Genjo-sanzoin Garan is closed from mid-January to February, July to mid-September, and December

Emperor Tenmu started the construction of Yakushiji in the year 680 in Asuka (a town south of Nara), as an offering and prayer for the recovery of his wife, but, ironically, it was he who died first. His empress continued the construction of the temple and it was completed in the year 698. When the capital was moved to Nara in 710, Yakushiji was also moved to the present site eight years later.

Typical of temples, Yakushiji too has gates, main hall, lecture hall, and pagoda (Yakushiji has two). But unlike Horyuji and Hokkiji, the two temples I visited in the morning, the buildings of Yakushiji were painted in red and white and with green windows.

Yakushiji's Main Hall

Because of fires and wars, most of Yakushiji was destroyed in 1528 and only the east pagoda and the Yakushi Triad (the temple's principal Buddha images) survived. (I wonder how the east pagoda looks. It is currently under a huge tent undergoing renovation and is scheduled to be completed in 2020.) The current Kondo (main hall) was built in 1976, the west pagoda in 1980.

The Yakushi Triad, a national treasure, can be viewed in the Kondo. It was originally covered with gold, but because of the fire in 1528, it is now black and shiny. In the center is Yakushi Nyorai, the Buddha of Healing. Flanking the Yakushi Nyorai are two bodhisattvas: Nikko Bosatsu and Gakko Bosatsu.

Yakushi Triad (Photo from Fudo Myo-o)

 West Pagoda

In the Daikodo (great lecture hall) are more religious national treasures like images of buddha, a stone with an imprint of buddha's feet, and a tablet inscribed with verses.

Yakushiji's Great Lecture Hall

There are a few more buildings but they don't look interesting to me. I proceed to Genjo-sanzoin Garan, a separate walled area a short walk north of Yakushiji.

Genjo-sanzoin Garan is only open seven months a year and I am lucky it is open on this visit. I was impressed with Yakushiji's main hall and pagoda, and, though small and recent (built in 1981), am impressed by Genjo-sanzoin Garan, too. There is something about this small complex that makes me linger and stare a few minutes more.

Genjo-sanzoin Garan

830AM to 5PM
Admission fee: 600 yen (+200 yen for Treasure House)

Just a short 500-meter walk north, I find another world heritage site: Toshodaiji, founded by Ganjin Wajo, a Chinese Buddhist priest, in the year 759.

The first building I see after entering Toshodaiji's gate is the main hall. I take a peek inside and see Buddha statues of different sizes.

Toshodaiji's Main Hall

Behind and to the right of the main hall is the Koro, a small hall containing relics (but I don't see the relics—the Koro is closed). Directly behind the main hall is the Kodo (lecture hall) which is actually a building from Nara/Heijo Palace and is the only surviving building of the former palace.


Also in the temple grounds are the Rye-do where memorial ceremonies are held; Higashi-muro, where monks sleep; Kyozo, a storehouse for sutras and also the oldest building in Toshodaiji; and Hozo, a storehouse for treasures.

Hozo (storehouse for treasures)

Northeast of the temple grounds I find a path shaded by trees. This path leads me to the Kaizan Gobyo, a memorial for Ganjin Wajo, the founder of Toshodaiji.

Towering trees shade the path to Kaizan Gobyo

A lantern at Kaizan Gobyo

From Toshodaiji, I go to the nearest bus stop, a 5-minute walk. It is a bright and sunny autumn afternoon and the temperature is perfect. The short walk gives me a glimpse of this local neighborhood, of locals whiling away time by fishing in the river.

 A peaceful neighborhood

 Gone fishing

A path by the river

Nara/Heijo Palace Site
Tuesdays to Sundays 9AM to 430PM
Free admission

A grand red and white gate (Suzaku Gate, reconstructed in 1998) welcomes me to Nara or Heijo Palace Site. When Nara was the capital of Japan, this was where the emperor's residence and the government offices were. I walk through the gate and find a vast area of grass and one solitary building in the middle that looks so small because of the distance.

  Suzaku Gate

I walk and walk and walk until the small solitary building becomes bigger and bigger and bigger. This building is the Former Imperial Audience Hall, which was the largest and most important building in the palace. The current building is a reconstruction and was completed in 2010, the 1300th anniversary of the Nara Capital. The reconstruction took nine years and it was based upon archaeological and architectural studies. Inside the building are exhibits about its reconstruction.

The grassy areas around are not all grass, there are foundation stones protruding, the only remains of the buildings in the palace.

Building foundations

On the southeast corner of the palace grounds is the East Palace Garden, a reconstruction completed in 1998, but I skip this. I go instead to the northeast side and find the Excavation Site Exhibition Hall. Inside are excavation sites showing visitors archaeological digs in situ. From the Excavation Site Exhibition Hall, I go to the west side, where the Nara Palace Site Museum is. This museum showcases unearthed artifacts such as roof tiles, ornaments, etc.

The Palace Site is so immense that going from one end to the other end made me too tired to go back to the Suzaku Gate. I look for the nearest exit and when I find it, I ask the guard if there is a bus stop nearby. Thankfully there is one just a hundred meters away and I find it without a problem. I wait for bus #12 or bus #14 in an open shed where a stooped Japanese grandma joins me.

Had I been short on time, I would have skipped these places. I am glad I started early in the day which gave me enough time to visit these oft–ignored (by tourists) world heritage sites. I love how quiet these places were. I look forward and kind of dread (the crowds) tomorrow when I visit the popular tourist sites in Nara City: Nara Park and Todaiji.

This article is now available as a mobile app. Go to GPSmyCity to download the app for GPS-assisted travel directions to the attractions featured in this article.

Know Before You Go
Single Entry Tourist Visa for Japan
Roam Around Japan with a Swagger
An Ignoramus in Japan: Vending Machines
An Ignoramus in Japan: Bathrooms and Toilets
An Ignoramus in Japan: Manhole Covers
I Spy With My Little Eye: Japan's Fashion Contradictions
I Spy With My Little Eye: On the Go in Japan

Kansai Diaries (2016)
9D/9N | Wakayama, Nara, Kyoto, Osaka
UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Kansai Region
Osaka: Day 0: Arrival
Osaka Accommodations: Hotel Raizan, Hotel Mikado
Wakayama: Day 1: Going to, Sleeping in, and Eating in Koyasan
Wakayama: Day 1.5: West Side of Koya Town
Wakayama: Koyasan Sidewalk Shorts
Wakayama: Days 1.75~2: Okunoin, Three Times
Nara: Sleep, Eat, and Explore Nara City
Nara: Day 3: Horyuji, Hokkiji, and some Japanecdotes in Ikaruga Town
Nara: Day 3.5: Yakushiji, Toshodaiji, and Heijo Palace Site in Nara City (you're here!)
Nara: Day 4: Early Morning at Nara Park
Nara: Day 4.25: Naramachi Walking Tour
Nara: Day 4.5: Todaiji, Yoshiki-en, and Kofukuji in Nara Park
Kyoto Accommodations: Guesthouse Wind Villa, Shiori Yado
Kyoto: Day 5: Rainy Day in Uji City
Kyoto: Day 5.5: Tofukuji, Kawai Jinja, Shimogamo Jinja
Kyoto: Day 6: Ginkakuji, Ryoanji, Ninnaji
Kyoto: Day 6.75: Gion Night Walking Tour
Kyoto: Day 7: All Day in Arashiyama
Kyoto: Day 8: Last Day in Kyoto
Osaka: Day 8.75: Dizzying Dotonbori
Osaka: Day 9: Osaka, Over and Out

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