When Court became Capital – at Nara’s Heijo Palace and Nara Palace Site Historical Park


In Nara period court clothing, at Heijo Palace Site Historical Park. (Photo courtesy of Natsuko.)


It is a strange and puzzling fact that Nara’s status and material existence as the first imperial capital (then called Heijokyo) in the 8th century lasted a mere 75 years before the court jettisoned it only to spend an even shorter time – 10 years – in Nagaokakyo, before finally stopping in Kyoto where it remained in power, at least nominally, for around four hundred years. This trajectory traces the political rise of the powerful Yamato house, then the Fujiwara family, and then – post-Kyoto – the warriors. The rapid abandonment of these capitals remains ill-understood, but it was common for palaces of greater or smaller size to be relocated with a change of reign, and in fact other sites were also occupied during the 8th century for very short stretches. But geography, resources, defense, and even concerns with supernatural influences, would have played a part in the relocation decisions. The construction efforts and expense required to create a site suitable for a ruler and their court, one sufficiently splendid enough to distinguish the uppermost rung of the social hierarchy – one that was godly and transcended it, in fact – and to bestow appropriate exclusive status, as well as humility, on the visiting regional heads subservient to the Yamato, and to make a place that was militarily defended and on the desired par with China’s Chang’an, whose city model it adapted, would have been a considerable feat.


Heijokyo. (Photo: Nara Visitors Bureau)



Heijokyo, as Nara was known at the time, was simply abandoned and left to deteriorate, and for hundreds of years the palace site was totally invisible, submerged beneath the ground and repurposed into agricultural land. Then, in the 1970s archeological excavations began – and reconstruction work soon followed. The site of the palace is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is now called Nara Palace Site Historical Park. And this site will be stage to a parade of courtiers from the past this May 3rd in its annual show in the precincts of the reconstructed buildings (see details below).


At the East Palace Gardens in Nara period courtly apparel. (Photo courtesy of Natsuko.)


A few of its buildings – the Suzaku Gate which led to the palace, the Daigokuden (Hall of State, with the emperor’s throne within), a second Hall of State, and the East Palace Garden – have been reconstructed, and though the site is easy to visit (a worthwhile and short trip out of the centre of Nara) it is very often experienced as a curious sight, a flash of anomalous grandeur glimpsed from the window of the Kintetsu Line trains. Surrounded by the vast flat land that was once part of a large city with a grid-like, feng-shui based framework, it has been formed into a quite beautiful park, well-loved by the locals. There is plenty of outdoor space and vast lawns, ponds, and wildlife to enjoy.


Sunset at Heijo Palace. (Photo: Nara Visitors Bureau)


There is also a museum – Heijokyu Izanaikan – connected to a research centre that focuses on the historical site and gives more information about it including “A Day in the Life” at the palace in its heyday, and an Excavation Hall which exhibits excavated artifacts. English information, including via QR codes readable by smartphones, is available.


(Photo courtesy of Natsuko)


The museum reveals a great deal about the architecture and carpentry techniques used to build the palace, 8th century courtly cuisine (which included cheese and venison), a variety of curious artefacts (such as wooden “curse dolls”) and the clothing (which can be tried on by visitors), make-up, and hairstyles that made up the appearance of Nara period courtiers. The latter differ in many ways from the colour palette and heavier layered, longer robes of the subsequent, and today more widely-known, Heian court of Kyoto. One gets an impression of the quite profound differences (at least, aesthetically) between Nara and Kyoto, and it’s not just about historical period but also region. The aesthetics reflect continental influence strong in both Nara the period and Nara the place. This was a world in which much of that influence was still very new, foreign, fresh, exciting, and status-signalling, and it is a hallmark of Nara culture.


(Photo courtesy of Natsuko)


This is a vivid reconstruction of the site where court finally became capital, and where the rulers of Japan spent their first few decades shaping and wielding power –  the very beginnings of Nara 1300 years ago as a domestically and internationally important city. Well worth a visit both to site and to the historical costume parade.


Please feel free to contact us here at Kansai Treasure Travel anytime for further details or a custom tour, and see our 1 Day Nara and Uji Tailor-Made Tour.


2024 Costume Parade (Image provided by Heijokyo Tenpyo Gyoretsu no Kai – the Heijokyo Tenpyo Parade Association https://tenpyosai.jp/)


Nara Palace Site Historical Park

English Website here

Free Admission

Most facilities are open until 4:30 or 5pm everyday. Normally closed on Mondays and over the New Year period (Dec 29th-Jan 3rd). (Please see the website for details here)


By train: An approximate 20 minute walk the South Exit of Kintetsu Yamato-Saidaiji Station or Shin-Omiya Station (also 20 minutes on foot)


By bus: From Kintetsu Nara Station: Gurutto Bus Omiya-Dori Route – every 30 minutes weekdays and every 15 mins weekends/public holidays from Boarding Point 8 to “B18 Suzakumon Hiroba-mae”, then 2 minutes walk


From Yamato-Saidaiji Station: Gurutto Bus Omiya-Dori Route – every 30 minutes weekdays and every 15 mins weekends/public holidays from Yamato-Saidaiji Station South Exit Square to “B1 Suzakumon Hiroba”, the 1 minute walk


From Nara Station: West Exit Bus Boarding Point 13 take bus 160 or 161 to “Suzakumon Hiroba-mae”, the 2 minutes walk


Costume Parade:


From in front of the Izanai Pavilion to the Suzakumon Gate at Nara Palace Site Historical Park, a procession of nobles dressed in period costume with gagaku music groups, led by Emperor Koken. The “Tenpyo Costume Experience”, in which you can walk around the Heijo Palace ruins wearing Tenpyo period costume, will be held at the same time. This is available from 10:30 to 16:00 (registration closes at 14:30).



May 3rd (Friday (public holiday).

Part 1: 12:00-13:00
Part 2: 14:00-15:00


Free (though there is a charge for the Tenpyo Costume Experience)

For more information, please visit the website (Japanese only). Event details may be changed or canceled without notice.






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