Todaiji Temple, Nara © JNTO
The city of Nara, 26 miles (42km) south of Kyoto, could be regarded as the place where Japan's culture was formalised. The city, originally called Heijo, became the first permanent capital of the country in 710. Although its capital status only lasted for 74 years, they were years that entrenched and enshrined Japan's arts, crafts and literature. Nara flourished as a political and cultural centre and thus was blessed with numerous temples, shrines, pagodas and palaces, which today attract locals and foreigners intent on glimpsing historic Japan. Most of Nara's historic treasures are conveniently contained in a vast park which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, making sightseeing easy and pleasurable. Highlights are Todaiji, the huge temple that contains Japan's largest Buddha statue, and Horyuji, the temple containing the world's oldest wooden structures. A good way to explore the city is on a historic walking tour and visitors should ensure that they take a stroll around the old Naramachi merchant district. It is easy to find your way around and enjoy a solitary foray into history with a guidebook should you so desire, but joining a guided tour can be very informative.