Nara- Lost to History
A pleasant autumn day back in Nara, heart of the Japanese polity in the 8th century, when Kyoto was just an open plain!
I always walk through Kofukuji when I’m in Nara. One of the grand original temples of the Heijo Capital, it retains many of its renowned national treasures despite losing some of its ground to the fires of war over the centuries.
But on this particular day, I wanted to seek out some of the fainter traces of history, places where only a little is left.
Gangoji, another of the original city temples, was a truly gigantic compound more at the southeast corner of the old capital. The fires erased almost all of it. One small priests’ dormitory on the east side of the temple survived to become the new main hall of a greatly diminished Gangoji in medieval Nara Town.
As my earlier comments suggested, there was a bit of discontinuity between the ancient capital of Heijo and the medieval town of Nara, even though the area was continuously populated throughout its history. The old town of Nara is still the heart of the city, around the ancient temples and downtown area. But the original capital was actually a bit further west, a little removed from the modern cityscape.
Oddly enough, it was Kofukuji that contributed to the end of the Heijo Capital. Heijo was home to the main “Six Schools” of Buddhism, and Kofukuji was headquarters of the influential Hosso sect. A priest named Dokyo got very close to the reigning empress after healing her, gathering power until he managed to get himself selected to be the new emperor. The court managed to intervene and get him exiled, and it was decided that the imperial capital simply had to move away from the power center of the religious institutions to retain its independence.
It was this that lead to the founding of Heian (Kyoto), and the state approval of the emergence of Mt. Hiei‘s Tendai Buddhism and Mt. Koya’s Shingon Buddhism, as new religious sects that could take power away from the old temples. With these shifts, Japan entered a new era in the 9th century.
Without the imperial court, the town of Nara re-centered around its temples, leaving the capital lands to the grasses and winds.