Nara became the capital of Japan in the year 710 and remained so for 84 years! Today, its vast collection of historic treasures make it a popular tourist destination for Japanese and non-Japanese alike.
During the period in which Nara served as the capital city, it was called Heijo-kyo and the Imperial Palace was known as Heijo Palace. The design of the palace grounds was based on Chang’an, the capital of China during the T’ang Dynasty. The entire palace compound occupied an area approximately 1,100 yards from north to south and 1,300 yards from east to west. The primary buildings consisted of: Daigoku-den, where governmental affairs were conducted, Chodo-in, where formal ceremonies were held and Dairi, the Emperor’s residence. The palace was surrounded by walls thirty feet tall, but was accessible through a number of gates (12 total), chief among them the Suzakumon. The Suzakumon was situated at the southern end of the complex, directly to the south of the Daigoku-den.
When the capital was moved to Heian-kyo (Kyoto) in the 8th century, Heijo Palace was simply abandoned. Over the years the ravages of time and the elements slowly destroyed the buildings. By the beginning of the Kamakura period in the late 12th century, there was practically nothing left standing above ground. However, those sections that lay underground were preserved and were re-discovered by modern archaeologists. The site is officially designated as an Imperial Property, therefore no new buildings or developments can be established without prior Imperial approval. Archaeological and restorative efforts of the site began in 1955 and the grounds were opened to the public in 1998. Heijo Palace along with the surrounding area were established as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998.
Three major structures of the former palace complex have been reconstructed in recent decades. Among them is the Daigoku-den, the largest building on the palace grounds, which was reconstructed for the occasion of the 1,300th anniversary of the Nara Capital and opened to the public in April 2010. Its ceiling is decorated with animals from the lunar calendar. A throne stands in the center of the hall and is housed within a hexagonal compartment, which opens towards the south.
The other full-scale reconstructions involved the Suzakumon and the East Palace Garden (Toin Teien), which features a pond, streams and bridges. It was used by the Imperial family for banquets.
Scattered across the palace grounds are various building foundations such as the imperial living quarters and administrative offices. At the northeast corner of the palace grounds stands the Excavation Site Exhibition Hall, where exposed excavation sites were left open for the public to view. At the western end of the grounds is the Nara Palace Site Museum, which houses artifacts, models, photographs and maps.
The palace is just 15 minutes on foot heading east from the Yamato-Saidaiji Station. There is limited parking available and visitors are encouraged to use public transportation. Heijo Palace grounds are open year round with the exception of public holidays and during the observance of the New Year (December 29 to January 3). Hours of operation are 9:00 AM to 4:30 PM.