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The Ancient Japanese City of Nara

Development Issues in Japan


The Todaiji Temple complex in the city of Nara in Nara Prefecture, built in the year 743.

The Todaiji Temple complex in the city of Nara in Nara Prefecture, built in the year 743. Inside is Daibutsu, the world's largest gilded bronze Buddha (15 meters).

Steven Rolland (c) 2005

The Japanese capital city of Nara Heijo-kyo was built in 710 AD, in a layout based on the Chinese grid system of streets and avenues. At the north central part of the city was the Nara Palace, seat of the centralized local state government. During its heyday, ancient Nara held a population of 100,000, making it the largest of the ancient cities of Japan; wealthier and higher status people such as bureaucrats lived closer to the palace.

Nara's Inscribed Tablets

A total of over 135,000 inscribed wooden tablets (mokkan) have been recovered from the excavations at Nara; they represent official documents, shipping labels, inventory tags, and other written documentation. The recovery of mokkan from various parts of the city have revealed volumes concerning the bureaucratic structure of the government and the day to day lives of the inhabitants. State supported Buddhist temples were built within Nara's walls, including the Todaiji Temple, pictured here.

Sometimes too much history is a bad thing. Up until the early 1960s, the precincts of Nara Palace was understood from historical sources to be "eight cho square" cho being a measurement of approximately 109 m or 330 feet. The earliest extant plans of the palace grounds were from a 17th century guide book. Subsequent references to the palace continued to describe it as "eight cho square," up until the 1960s. Over time, the expression came to mean "splendid estate and grounds".

Salvage Archaeology in Nara

After World War II, the modern town of Nara expanded to include the vicinity of the Nara Palace; and since 1959, salvage archaeological excavations have taken place at the site almost constantly. During the early 1960s, a highway bypass was proposed for the main portion of the modern town of Nara, and the plans were drawn to avoid the palace, using its traditional description. Archaeological excavations at the site were conducted before the bypass was begun, and they determined that the site was not, in fact, eight cho square, but extended eastward at least another two hundred meters. In this eastern portion of the main palace were the archaeological remains of a lovely ornamental garden and the Heijo Palace, or Mountain Plum Palace, residence of the crown prince. Despite some local pressure to build the bypass quickly, it was rerouted, delaying the construction by two years, but preserving in place one of Japan's national treasures.

Significance of Nara Heijo-kyo

The importance of Nara lies both in its meaning to the history of the first consolidation of the Japanese state, and the actions of the Japanese Diet to protect the cultural resources in preference to the speedy construction of a bypass for the use of present day people. Development issues are with us today, and will always be with us, and it is decisions such as that made by the Japanese people that continue to provide support for the world's cultural resources.

In 2010, Nara Heijo-kyo celebrates its 1300th birthday, and in honor, Nara Prefecture plans a reconstruction of the ancient Mountain Plum Palace.

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