The quiet town of Nara was once Japan’s most important city. Back in the mid-3rd century the nation started to take form and in the 6th Century the capital was placed in Asuka, in the northwestern part of Nara Prefecture. Later in the early 8th century the capital was relocated to what is today Nara City and many temples and shrines were built.
While it’s been long ago since Nara lost its power place in Japanese history, this charming city is a must day trip when traveling to Kyoto and Osaka. Partly because of the charming (but wild) deer that camp around and partly because of the stunning collection of temples that has been declared World Heritage Site. While there is plenty and more to see and do in Nara…
Here’s our top 5 things to do in Nara, Japan:
The park – Nara koen
One of the main icons of Nara is the park where the deer live. While you will find deer since the very first step you take into the park and around the many temples, my favorite pictures (like the one on top) I took outside the main routes to the temples.
If you want to feed the deer, they sell cookies for them all around town. Just be careful and remember they are wild animals (they can bite and kick if nervous).
If you have enough time, take a walk around the park, it’s a great place to find samples of japanese real life. We came across with wedding couples in traditional dresses, school kids, groups of Japanese women wearing kimonos…
Probably the first thing you see when you come from the JR Station towards Nara Park, Kohfukuji Temple and its 5 storey pagoda makes an interesting World Heritage Site that is easy to visit (although a bit hidden at first sight).
The temple was created in 710, when Nara became Japan’s capital city, and used to be way bigger than it is now, with about 175 buildings. Many were destroyed by fire and the land was confiscated during Edo, but Tokondo building and the 5 storey pagoda date back to the XV century and the 3 storey pagoda was built in the XII century.
The Treasure Museum (now under restoration until December’17) has some of the best Buddhist carvings in Japan.
Todaiji and the great Buda of Nara
Inside the park and surrounded by deer, the Todaiji temple is worldwide known because of its bronze Daibutsu. About 16.2 meters high, it is the biggest bronze buddha statue in the world (the biggest buddha statue in Japan) and it dates back to the VIII century.
It is not the only ranking it tops: the building where it is kept is the biggest building in the world made of wood.
While you enter through Nandaimon Gate, the main entrance to the temple, take a look at the two 8-meter tall guardian figures that guard the site. And don’t forget to go around the great buddha, you’ll see some impressive statues there too, which are on our favorite list for this trip.
The temples up the mountain
While many prefer to spend the day feeding the deer, don’t forget that Nara is a city of temples and there are many that go up the hills that surround the park, offering some amazing views of the city and some more quiet places to explore.
My favorite are Nigatsudo and Sangatsudo halls, right behind of the great buddha. They are free to walk by and they have beautiful views over Nara (and some great carvings too.)
From there, you can continue up to Kasugataisha Shrine, Nara’s most famous Shinto shrine. The way there goes through a beautiful forest path, lined with hundreds of stone lanterns (and, yes! deer.)
The traditional Nara village: Naramachi
Naramachi is the old area of Nara. A street of merchant houses from the Edo period (1603-1869) that is great to walk by and shop or dine.
Here you can enter some traditional houses like Koshi-no-Ie, a preserved machiya or traditional japanese house. But also other historical houses have been reconstructed into cafes and restaurants, which make this area a great place for discovery.
You will find the most traditional shops, homes, workshops, restaurants, cafes and ryokan. It is south of Sanjo-dori Street (east of JR Nara Station).
Some extra info
Nara is a perfect side trip on your travels to Kyoto and Osaka.
The city is almost flat (with some beautiful exceptions listed above) and is best explored on foot. Everything is in about 20 minutes from the JR train station.
How to get there
By train: JR operates direct trains from Kyoto and Osaka that take you to Nara in about 1 hour (take the rapid line that goes direct for Nara, included in the JRPass.)
By plane: Closest international airport is Kansai (KIX) in Osaka.