NARA — Japan’s first permanent capital, Heijo-kyo, was built on the Yamato plain where the modern city of Nara is located. Heijo-kyo was founded in the year 710 (from which year the Nara Period is dated) with a design based on that of the contemporaneous Chinese Tang Dynasty capital Changan.

The powerful aristocratic house of Fujiwara, who wielded great influence in Nara during the Tenpyo Era (724-729), established Kofuku-ji Temple and Kasuga Taisha Shrine. Kofukuji, counted as one of the seven great temples of Nara, includes a five-story pagoda 50.8 meters high, the second tallest in Japan. The temple was moved to its present site in 710 from the village of Asuka, which is located to the south of Nara City.

Kasuga Taisha was established in the year 768, during the reign of Empress Shotoku. The four gods enshrined here are collectively known as the Four Kasuga Myojin. A number of important festivals are held annually on the grounds of this important shrine, with its historic wooden buildings painted in bright vermilion colors.

On the slopes of the low mountains immediately behind Kasuga are the remains of a primeval forest (genseirin in Japanese), known, reasonably enough, as Kasuga-yama Genseirin. Farther back is Mount Hana (497 meters) and finally Mount Ho (520 meters).

Looking up from the city, one sees a grass-covered hill to the left of the genseirin, one of Nara’s landmarks: Wakakusayama (342 meters). Every Jan. 15 the dry grass on Wakakusa-yama is set alight (yamayaki) by priests from Kofukuji Temple and Todaiji Temple as part of a winter festival.

This mountain has been a shinzan (a sacred mountain where one of the Shinto gods resided) since ancient times. Nara Park was established by the Meiji government in 1880 and now has an area of 660 hectares, of which 493 hectares belong to the nation. The forest was designated as a special natural monument Feb. 15, 1956.

Along with Yakushima island in Kyushu and Shirakami-sanchi in Aomori Prefecture, this is the only forest to receive this special designation. The two latter sites were recognized by UNESCO as very special areas of cultural and scientific importance in 1993; then in December 1998 seven places in Nara City received the recognition they rightly deserve by UNESCO. The primeval forest on Kasugayama was one. (The other six are Kasuga Taisha, Todaiji, Kofukuji, Toshodaiji, Genkoji and Yakushiji.)

Wakakusa-yama has an area of 33 hectares; the combined total of the primeval forest is around 299 hectares. Most of this forest is managed by Nara parks department. Before the last war (1939-45) these forested mountains were owned by the Kasuga Taisha Shrine. No one is allowed to enter the woodland, but the public can hike up along the forest road, known as Kasuga Okuyama Trail.

The trail begins about 150 meters from Kasuga Shrine. Just head on up the main approach road from Nara Kintetsu railway station (2 km below); it soon becomes a nice hiking trail, with a gradient suitable for all members of the family.

The trail runs for 9.2 km. I walked 1.8 km, to the point where the trail joins with Kasuga Okuyama driveway. Then, instead of continuing along the woodland trail, I turned left and entered Wakakusayama. This shorter route still offers ample views of the natural forest from within, and from Wakakusayama you can view the whole forest, as well as Nara City down below.

There are estimated to be 801 species of plants that grow naturally in this forest. Plants from the warm temperate forest zone (dan’ontai-rin) number some 254 species, plants from the temperate forests (ontai-rin) 357 species, cosmopolitan species (fuhen-sei) 172 species and finally 10 species from the arctic zone (kantai-sei).

Aside from the unusually large variety of plants, the forest is home to the white-cheeked flying squirrel (musasabi, Petaurista leucogenys), and a brightly colored butterfly, Loomis’ lycaenid (ruumisu-shijimi, Panchala ganesa loomisi) which has been designated as a natural monument.

The park is also well known for its herd of Japanese deer (shika), estimated at over 1,200 head. The deer are said to be protected by the god that lives on Kasugayama. They are tame for most of the year, except during the rutting season when the bucks become aggressive. After giving birth the does also become very protective of their fawns.

During the 16th century approximately 10,000 Japanese cedars (sugi, Cryptomeria japonica) were planted, some on Kasugayama, but most on Mount Hana. Many have grown to very large proportions, and do indeed look very majestic in their old age. Some of the natural sugi are reckoned to be 800 years old, and many are 400-500 years old.

In the summer of 1998 a powerful typhoon hit central Honshu and toppled many large Japanese cedars, some causing great damage to nearby shrine buildings, and in 1961 the Muroto typhoon also hit this mountain area and caused extensive damage, especially to the sugi.

On the shorter trail through the forest you can see some tall evergreen oak trees such as the tsukubane-gashi, Quercus sessiliflolia, which can grow to a height of 20 meters, and four other species. The evergreen Japanese chinquapin (tsuburaji, Castanopsis cuspidata) is also known as shii in Japanese, because there are two very similar-looking species here.

One unusual-looking tree from the warm temperate region is karasu-zansho, Zanthoxylum ailanthoides. This deciduous tree with stout thorns on the trunk and odd-pinnate leaves is a much taller cousin of the popular Japanese pepper tree, sansho (Zanthoxylum piperitum); it attains heights of 5-15 meters.

Climbing up the tree trunks is an evergreen epiphytic (chakusei; epiphytic plants use other plants for physical support only) fern, mamezuta (Lemmaphyllum microphyllum). The tiny fronds are shiny green above, 1-2 cm long and 6-15 mm wide. It can be seen in low mountains all over Japan except Hokkaido.

Wisteria (fuji, Wisteria floribunda) climb to the top of the tallest trees here, and are worth a special trip just to see them flower in the spring. Another climber is the evergreen teika-kazura (Trachelospermum asiatticum).

The autumn colors here must be pretty, judging by the numbers of Japanese maples (iroha-momiji, Acer palmatum). Close to Wakakusayama you can see uriha-kaede (Acer rufinerve), a maple with white-striped bark that can reach 18 meters in height. It grows well on the drier slopes of the mountain, and makes a good garden tree. Its leaves turn rich yellow and gold with bright crimson during the autumn.

Aside from the Japanese cedar other conifers you can see are the northern Japanese hemlock (tsuga, Tsuga diversifolia). In ideal conditions, as in northern Honshu, tsuga will grow to 40 meters, but normal height on Kasugayama is 20-25 meters.