During my stay in Ōsaka, I made trips to Nara and Himeji, because of their obvious historical significance and their status as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. And because I had a JR Rail Pass.

Japan was known as Nihon 「日本」sometime between the 6th and 8th century AD, during which time she was already an actual state and Buddhism was first introduced to the country from Korea. Japan as an organised and structured state flourished to the point that it became an empire, and it was during this time in the 8th century AD, the capital city was established in Heijyō-kyō situated in Nara. Whilst this was described as a golden age (the Nara Period or Nara-jidai), political struggles occurred amongst different factions, one of which was a clan of regents known as Fujiwara-uji who dominated the politics of the nation for about 400 years[1].


Kasuga-taisha 「春日大社」 was established in 768 AD, and is famous for the thousands of stone lanterns lining the path leading to the shrine. This is the south gate or minamimon of the shrine.

The clan established a number of important monuments in the city which included Kasuga-taisha which is a Shinto shrine, and Kōfuku-ji, one of Nara’s seven great temples (nanto shichi daiji – 南都七大寺).


Kōfuku-ji 「興福寺」 is a temple complex that is also one of the eight Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara listed by UNESCO, and includes this five-storey pagoda called Gojū-no-tō, and next to it, the Tōkon-dō (East Golden Hall).

Nara-jidai lasted about 80 years or so. Buddhism began to flourish in Nara as it was embraced with vigour by the then emperor named Shōmu. During this time, Shōmu built the Tōdai-ji (Great Eastern Temple) which houses the Daibutsu-den (which is the largest wooden building in the world) containing a large wooden Buddha, the entire complex of which was purportedly built by a massive number of people totalling 2.6 million!


The Nandaimon (南大門, or Great South Gate) greets the visitor on entering the Tōdai-ji temple complex.

Over the centuries, structures within the Tōdai-ji complex had been destroyed by earthquakes and fires. The current Daibutsu-den was actually constructed in the 18th century, and the Buddha it houses had also been recasted several times as a result of calamities, like earthquakes, and the like.


TOP: The Daibutsu-den 「大仏殿」.
BOTTOM: The daibutsu 「大仏」 or the great wooden statue of a Buddha Vairocana. Recasted many times over the centuries due to damage, the hands were made in the 16th century whilst the head in the 17th century.

Tōdai-ji is currently located in a park on the east of the city (Nara-kōen) and apart from the Buddhist structures, the area is well known for its wild deer (shika). There are more than 1000 shika deers roaming freely in the park and they are considered sacred, as one of the four gods of the Kasuga-taisha was said to have descended on a nearby mountain riding a white deer.


The mountain behind the two shika is Wakakusa-yama 「若草山」. It is said that after a boundary dispute between the Tōdai-ji and Kōfuku-ji temples in 1760, Wakakusa-yama was set on fire as mediations failed. This led to the current festival held annually in January called Yamayaki, where dried grass on the mountain is burnt.

Interestingly, the shika deer were even conferred divine status, but this is not the case after the Second World War. The deer are now protected as national treasures. But I digress.

At the end of the Heian period, Japan had a growing number of military clans and the 12th century saw internal clashes leading to civil war. At this time, Japan entered the feudal/medieval period which lasted about 400 years. The country was dominated by military shōgunates and daimyos (regional families).


Depiction on a screen of the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 at the end of the Sengoku-jidai. Victory achieved by Tokugawa Ieyasu led to the Tokugawa Shōgunate which lasted until the Meiji Restoration in 1868.

One notable period during medieval Japan which is of interest was the Sengoku-jidai which began in the mid-15th century when the nation was constantly in a state of war waged by rival daimyos. This volatile period of the nation’s history culminated in unification of the entire country (well, almost) by very powerful daimyo named Oda Nobunaga at the end of the 16th century. After Nobunaga’s death in Honnō-ji, Kyōto, he was succeeded by Toyotomi Hideyoshi who ultimately achieved success in unifying the war-torn country[2].


Toyotomi Hideyoshi and his five wives viewing the cherry blossom at Higashiyama (Taiko gosai rakuto yukan no zu 太閤五妻洛東遊観之図), currently housed in the British Museum in London.

During Hideyoshi’s rule, the massive Ōsaka-jō was built to protect the capital, Kyōto, from any attacks from the west. Hideyoshi also remodelled Himeji-jō, another castle located to the west of Ōsaka.


Himeji-jō 「若草山」is basically a network of 83 buildings with an advanced defense system. Its white exterior is said to resemble an egret taking flight, hence it is also known as Hakuro-jō (White Egret Castle).

After his death in 1598, Hideyoshi’s successor was his son, Toyotomi Hideyori. As Hideyori was still too young to rule, this duty was left to five regents (go-tairō), one of whom was Tokugawa Ieyasu, another strong supporter of the late Nobunaga. However, conflict between these five led to a power struggle culminating in Ieyasu finally taking control as shōgun. As for Hideyori, to defuse any dissent between the Toyotomi and Ieyasu clans, he was later wed to Sen-hime, Ieyasu’s granddaughter, and they lived in Ōsaka-jō.


This 17th century screen illustration of Sen-hime is now housed at the Tokugawa Art Museum in Nagoya.

Hideyori died during the siege of Ōsaka in 1615 but Sen-hime was spared. Himeji-jō was given to Ikeda Terumasa, Ieyasu’s son-in-law, as a reward who later expanded the castle in the early 17th century. Honda Tadamasa later inherited Himeji-jō, and Ieyasu married off Sen-hime to Tadamasa’s son, Tadatoki, and they both then lived in Himeji. Are you still with me?


Sen-hime playing a card game called uta-karuta with her daughter, Katsuhime. 100 waka poems are written on two sets of cards that make up one full deck, and the players have to quickly match the cards to complete a poem and recite it.

Tadatoki later died of TB and Sen-hime retreated to Edo (present day Tōkyō) as a Buddhist nun to spend the rest of her life there. The castle they lived in remained intact to the present day, despite intensive bombing of the actual city of Himeji by American forces in World War 2. Himeji-jō was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993, the first Japanese historical landmark to be made so.

Credits to Fushimi-san, my guide at Himeji-jō, and of course, Wikipedia! Apart from the illustrations, all photos are from my personal collection. Please visit my flickr.com site for more photos of Nara and Himeji.

[1]The Heian period.
[2]Hideyoshi was also known as Japan’s second “great unifier” after Nobunaga.