Before Kyoto became the capital of Japan in 794 AD, this honour was held by NARA, a town some 35km further south in an area that is regarded as the birthplace of Japanese civilization. During this period, particularly the seventh and eighth centuries, Buddhism became firmly established within Japan under the patronage of court nobles, who sponsored magnificent temples and works of art, many of which have survived to this day. Fortunately, history subsequently left Nara largely to its own devices and it remains today a relaxed, attractive place set against a backdrop of wooded hills.
Its greatest draw is undoubtedly the monumental bronze Buddha of Tōdai-ji, while Kōfuku-ji and several of the smaller temples boast outstanding collections of Buddhist statuary. However, even these are outclassed by the images housed in Hōryū-ji, a temple to the southwest of Nara, which also claims the world's oldest wooden building. The nearby temples of Yakushi-ji and Tōshōdai-ji contain yet more early masterpieces of Japanese art and architecture.
Nara has the added attraction of packing all these sights into a fairly compact space. The central area is easily explored on foot, and can just about be covered in a long day, with the more distant temples fitting into a second day's outing. Many people visit Nara on a day-trip from Kyoto, but it more than deserves an overnight stop, not least to enjoy it once the crowds have gone. If at all possible, try to avoid Nara on Sundays and holidays.