Nara, located in Nara Prefecture and south of Kyoto, is the ancient capital city of Japan. Although the official name was Heijō-kyō during the 8th century CE, it was due to its location that this epoch was called the Nara Period (710-794 CE) in Japanese history. The city, planned on a grand scale, was modelled after the Chinese capital with the configuration of streets in a grid pattern. The Nara Period was a period of flourishing ties with China, at such a rate that Nara was one of the first Japanese capitals built with Chinese influence. 

As the government officially supported Buddhism, Nara architecture was affected by Buddhist architecture. Most of the ancient heritages were built with Japanese culture, and also Chinese culture. Therefore, it is possible to say that the Nara Period’s synthesis architecture consisted of cultural and religious dynamics.

In December 1998, the World Heritage Committee selected for registration several sites and historic structures in Nara, including the remains of the palace, a primitive forest, and temple buildings dating back to 1300 years ago.

These are Todaiji, Kofukuji, Yakushiji, Gangoji, Toshodaiji, and the Heijo Palace together with Kasugayama Primeval Forest, and these ancient heritages survived to the present day without deterioration. 

Nowadays, Nara is described as the cradle of Japanese culture, and is believed to be one of the best places to explore Japanese architecture because temples and palaces built in ancient heritage sites present to us how cultural, social, political, and religious dynamics affect the architecture of Ancient Nara.

Architecture of Cities: Nara- The Historic City of Japan - Sheet1
The example of UNESCO World Heritage Site in Nara: Mount Yoshino_©QUENTIN Mahe

The Influence of Buddhism in the architecture of Ancient Nara

The architecture of Ancient Nara focused on religious dynamics. The path to higher civilization and international prestige for the Japanese was the Buddhist religion and its accompanying architecture. Since epidemics and many disasters in Japan caused instability in the country, the emperor encouraged the construction of a temple in every region to prevent epidemics and natural disasters, and around 2,600,000 people contributed to the construction of the temples. 

Temples, which were built under the official establishment of Buddhism permanently by the government, of the time have managed to survive for over 1,000 years down to the present day. Their grandeur is a testimony to the flourishing culture of the period. The six temples are registered as UNESCO World Heritage. Five of them are Buddhist temples (Todaiji, Kofukuji, Yakushiji, Gangoji, and Toshodaiji) and the other is a Shinto temple (Kasuga -Taisha). 

All temples provide a vivid picture of life in the Japanese capital in the 8th century, a period of profound political, cultural, and social change. These temples present the best examples of their time with their unique construction techniques and sculptures on the heritage site. Especially in the classical period (eighth to twelfth centuries) and medieval period (thirteenth to sixteenth centuries), Buddhist architecture took the lead in introducing new structural and decorative features. Therefore, Buddhist buildings are not just for all other Japanese architecture; It is critical to the entire corpus of Japanese art.

Architecture of Cities: Nara- The Historic City of Japan - Sheet2
The example of UNESCO World Heritage Site in Nara: Todaiji’s Main Temple_©Camille Co

The temples usually consist of independent building parts such as pagoda, main hall, conference hall, bell tower, storage, dormitory, and refectory. Each building serves a different function. An example of this is pagodas, which were built in front of the temples or the center of the courtyard. This type of building is the symbol of Buddhism. Pagodas, originally wooden, were built with brick and stone materials later. 

This structure, which starts from the ground and extends to the roof, depicts the axis connecting the center of the earth to the sky. The floors are always different sizes from each other. These floors, which have eaves all around, represent the heavenly floors of the Gods. The religious significance of pagodas is that they are places where Buddha’s remains are preserved. Pagodas are not only used for religious purposes but also used as watchtowers for military units. Therefore, not every pagoda has a relic of Buddha.

Architecture of Cities: Nara- The Historic City of Japan - Sheet3
The example of UNESCO World Heritage Site in Nara: Five-storied Pagoda in Kofukuji Temple_©Camille Co

Every Buddhist temple has a Buddha statue. These skillfully made sculptures are used for worship purposes. The statue dedicated to Buddha, the teacher of Buddhism, symbolizes his greatness. An example of this is the Daibutsu. The Daibutsu (Great Buddha Hall) houses the largest Buddha statue known as the Nara Daibutsu or Great Buddha of Nara. It is made of copper and bronze. Daibutsu’s intricate hairstyle alone is made of 966 bronze balls.

Architecture of Cities: Nara- The Historic City of Japan - Sheet4
The Example of Statue of the Buddha: The Daibutsu in Todaiji Temple_©Camille Co

The Design Characteristics of Nature in the architecture of Ancient Nara 

Temple complexes of Buddhism often include gardens and ponds because Zen, the value and refinement of simplicity, was learned through Buddhism. Japanese monks, who learned about the Zen sect in China, devoted themselves to the art of garden design. Temple gardens, which are filled with natural beauty and have a worldwide reputation, were created into a limited area. These temple gardens were reduced in size and enriched in miniature landscaping depending on the living conditions of the Japanese. 

Each garden element symbolized an object. For example, mountains of mounds, waters of ponds, and rock moss symbolized living nature. Finally, the importance of garden preservation in Japan has made it possible to see several parks and gardens dating back to the 11th century today.

Architecture of Cities: Nara- The Historic City of Japan - Sheet5
The Design Characteristics of Nature in Nara Temples: The view from Sarusawa Pond to Five-storied Pagoda in Kofukuji Temple_©Jo Sorgenfri


Co, C. (2015). Nara’s Kofukuji and Todaiji Temple. [online] Camille Tries to Blog. Available at: [Accessed 18 Aug. 2021] (2020). Japan Atlas: Ancient Capital of Nara. [online] Available at: [Accessed 18 Aug. 2021]. (2021). KOHFUKUJI Temple. [online] Available at: [Accessed 18 Aug. 2021]. (n.d.). The Tōdai-ji. [online] Available at: [Accessed 18 Aug. 2021].