Japan: 1300 years in the making, celebration in Nara

While both culturally and physically a long ways from the modern capital of Tokyo, tracing back well over a thousand years into Japanese history one comes across Nara, a quiet, highly rural area which was established as the capital in 710. In doing so, a more centralized national administration was formed, stimulating Japan as a nation towards a significant amount of economic and cultural development. Doing a bit of calculation, this year is the 1300th anniversary of the original capital establishment in Nara, and festivities are aplenty (en/jp)!

Aplenty is perhaps not a sufficiently inclusive word. Planning has been ongoing since as early as 1998, with the formal establishment of a prefecture-operated working committee being ironed out in mid-2005. With the restoration of key historical sites, effective promotion via advertisements in every conceivable medium, a nice anniversary theme (はじまりの奈良、めぐり感動, or roughly “Experience the depth of Nara, Japan's beginning”) and of course the beloved mascot characters, in terms of scale, historical celebrations do not get much bigger than this.

Crowds wait for the Kintetsu line trains, Suzakumon (朱雀門) in the distance

Crowds wait for the Kintetsu line trains, Suzakumon (朱雀門) in the distance

First a quick briefing on the words utilized in advertisements and such. While geographically located in Nara (奈良), historically the capital (while in Nara) was referred to as “Heijō-kyō” (平城京). Moving of the capital from one region to another has a specific word, “sento” (遷都), and thus the formal celebration name we are left with is 平城遷都1300年祭 – the 1300th anniversary celebration of the moving of the capital to Nara (or Heijō)!

Let's take a look at exactly what's going on over there. There are three main initiatives constituting the celebration as a whole – from the anniversary working group:


First, we have projects centered around the Heijō palace ruins. The result of a half-century's worth of archeological finds, as well as related research, preservation, and restoration, the Heijō palace is being highlighted as a historical and cultural artifact which Japan can proudly share with the world. We are looking to present activities and exhibitions which allow people to interact with and experience the passion and knowledge of the countless people who contributed to the construction of the capital and the development of this nation. In addition, we will be carrying out special hands-on educational tours which showcase the value and appeal of having a museum right at the dig site.


Through our “Experience Nara” initiatives, we have designated a number of pilgrimage and excursion-type events and activities throughout Nara prefecture as a means in which to shed new light on the historical and cultural importance of the regions which contributed to the birth of the new capital.

In addition to previous events highlighting historical prosperity and tradition, themes centralized around nature, shrines and temples, national artifacts, and ancient roads and paths are being promoted.

Finally, we have the “seek out history” tours. Charging Nara's history and culture with a new appeal, exhibits revolving around such themes as Japan's diplomatic missions to Tang China, Shōsōin (ancient imperial treasure storehouse), or the Man'yōshū (historic poem compilation text) form the core content of this initiative.


For our special activities, we recognize Japan's development as a nation, driven strongly by the Nara-based administration and its interaction with Tang China, and have planned a wide variety of conventions aiming to generate new interaction between Nara and the rest of the world.

遣唐使船: Recreation of ships sent on diplomatic missions to Tang China.

Essentially, the reconstructed Heijō palace area is the central site for this anniversary celebration. The festivities began on April 24, and will run until November 7 of this year. There is a tremendous amount of information online (en/jp) regarding the activities carried out there. A short bus ride from either Kintetsu or JR Nara station is the typical access route, though Kintetsu Saidai-ji station (近鉄西大寺駅) is also very close by.

Unbelievably, (while predominantly in Japanese) there's even more information online for the “Experience Nara” events (en/jp), which are running from January 1 until December 31 of 2010. I placed links to the Japanese sub-sections in the above translations.

The earliest events have been going on since January, but the real hub of activity only just opened up in late April, so reactions are still fresh. The author at Syuhari Design posted a write-up of their visit.

めざすは目玉である 「大極殿」

Centralized in the Saidai-ji area of Nara prefecture, the 1300th anniversary celebration of the establishment of the Heijō-kyō capital kicked off on the 24th of this month (April). As a matter of fact I lived in Nara for about four years, so I was feeling pretty confident in navigating the roads. That said, due to the development that's taken place over there in the meantime, I did not arrive as smoothly as anticipated, only arriving (without the use of car navigation) after a fair amount of wandering.

First, over to the Heijō palace ruins site… sights were set on the site's key landmark, the Imperial Audience Hall.

内壁に描かれた絵は奈良県在住の日本画家、上村 敦之画伯による直筆画!

It feels as if the uneven coloration of the roof tiles really make for an interesting overall building style. Inside we go…

First we have a throne assuredly fit for none other than the emperor himself. The illustrations on the inner walls were drawn at the skilled hands of artist Atsushi Uemura, a resident of Nara prefecture no less! Countless intricate designs are also painted on the ceiling.


On the opposite side from the Imperial Audience Hall, stands the suzakumon (the main southern gate). It's quite a ways away, and having visited a number of times already, this time we'll pass. As for the main event area, lively stage performances were ongoing.

Besides the exhibits and displays, there have been a number of large-scale events held at the palace site in the weeks since opening. Via the celebration committee's staff blog, we have a report on the evening light-up of the main Imperial Audience building.


Ordinarily, the Heijō palace ruins are entirely dark at night, lit only by the moon and stars in the vast night sky. The openness, emptiness of this wide area is one of its appealing features. Until the start of the April festivities, only the suzakumon gate was lit up, drawing gazes as it stood brightly in the dark night. Between April 24th and May 9th however, the main Imperial Audience Hall was also illuminated!


The first light-up ceremony took place on the evening of the 24th. Responsible for the night's lighting was none other than Motoko Ishii, known for her contributions to the Tokyo Tower and Yokohama Bay Bridge. Watching over the lighting with anticipation… 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 – huh? It's still totally dark! Just as it seems something might be up, the building is gradually bathed in a green light from the bottom up. Soon the (apparently environmentally friendly) lighting changes from green to orange, then into a bright, clear white.

That special event has finished, but the staff noted their excitement about the evening events to come in the summer fair (August 20-27). Golden week was especially packed with events, and there seems to be focus on a certain numerical theme in these events… for a bit of historical fashion:

こんな感じです← ここをクリック

Today was the final day of the Flowers and Greenery Fair, closed out with a parade of 1300 people in Tenpyō period clothing! With kids and adults alike participating, a wide variety of clothing reflecting the past social class structure made a reappearance. Here's an idea of how it looked. During the time the capital was in Nara, the color of one's clothing was dictated by one's place in the social hierarchy.

On May 3, the site saw a record 69,000 visitors, perhaps drawn in by the day's activities:


Today, in (continued) celebration of the Heijō capital, the “1300-person Body Drum” event took place in the courtyard in front of the main Audience Hall. 1300 participants of all ages joined professional dancers and performers in clapping and dancing to the beat of Japanese Taiko drums and various percussion instruments! The choreographer of the tap dance scene in Takeshi Kitano's film Zatōichi, HIDEBOH (Hideyuki Higuchi) also joined in. The sounds people drummed up with their movements echoed across the wide palace grounds. Even onlookers were drawn in by the group rhythm, swaying with the beat without even realizing it!

There are naturally festivals of all sorts which take place annually in Japan, but this celebration has both the financial backing and support of local residents and visitors alike to make it really a truly outstanding event.

A final tip to foreign residents of (or visitors to) Japan: since this is a prefecturally-run operation, access to many admission-based areas is made free to non-Japanese citizens. I've ran into this government policy elsewhere in Nara, and while I naturally never carry my passport around with me, in the past my ID has been sufficient!


  • […] of note, my latest article at Global Voices Japan has been published, it should provide useful general reference to anyone […]

  • Blair

    Hi. Interesting article. Just a note. In proper English one would not say “a long ways from”. One would say “a long way from”. thought you’d like to know.

  • Thanks for the comment, but I can’t help but respond to an English-related call-out.

    I’m aware that when “a” comes you’re generally expecting a singular noun, but the use of “ways” as a noun to refer to distance can be spotted throughout modern and classical literature, and as I’m sure you’re aware as a modern colloquial expression. Lord Byron and Henry Fielding are among the names of authors that used it in this way, found just by a 45 second internet search. MW also recognizes it.

    If we’re on the note of English corrections, periods are generally kept within the commas.

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