How to spend a day in Nara

Nara is located just an hour outside of Kyoto, established in 710, it was once the capital of Japan. The city is full of historic treasures, including some of Japan’s oldest and largest temples. Nara is also awash with nature and has several valleys, rivers and waterfalls on offer for tourists to enjoy. For my day trip, I focused solely on Nara Park where you will be able to find just over 1200 deer, as well as various important temples and shrines in the area. I really enjoyed my day trip to Nara, and would highly recommend visiting this area if you are staying close by in Osaka or Kyoto. The atmosphere is relaxed and fun, and it’s so easy to navigate, you’ll be sure to enjoy what Nara has to offer.

Important Notes

  • Visa – As a British National I was exempt from requiring a visa to visit Japan for less than 90 days, however, some nationalities will require a visa. For the most up to date information visit the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan
  • Immunisations – some are required, check out my go-to website for up to date information: https://nathnac.net
  • Safety – Just like London, Nara is a very safe place to visit. You should use usual common sense, around protecting valuables to avoid pick-pocketers, and staying safe at night.
  • Currency – Japanese Yen
  • Language – Japanese

Getting there

It was very straightforward visiting Nara as a day trip from Osaka. Simply board the JR Yamatoji rapid service and you will arrive in just under an hour. If you don’t have the JR Pass and will be paying for individual tickets, you might also like to take advantage of the Kinetsu Railway, which offers a speedier service at just over 30 minutes travel time. For the most up to date travel information, I always check Hyperdia.com.



Accommodation

I chose to stay in nearby Osaka and use it as a base for lots of day trips in the area, one of which being Nara. If you wanted to stay longer in Nara however, there are lots of options to chose from. Ranging from affordable hostels, mid-range hotels as well as luxurious Ryokans with natural hot springs.



Booking.com

Getting around

It’s quite straightforward visiting Nara Park for the day. As you exit Nara Train Station, turn left at the station and join the main road, follow it along for around 20 minutes and you’ll arrive at the entrance of Nara Park. As I was only visiting Nara park I wandered around by foot, however, if you were staying longer and visiting other parts of Nara then they are easily accessible by train or bus, or even taxi.



Nara Park

Situated in the central part of the city and a short walk from the main train station is Nara Park. Home to four World Heritage UNESCO sites, their origins date back to the 8th Century. As well as the beautiful temples and UNESCO sites within the Park, there are also approximately 1200 wild deer which roam free and call this park home.

Why are there so many deer in the park though? Where did they come from? According to legend, when Kasuga Taisha Shrine was founded as a family shrine for the Fujiwaras, they invited a mighty god from Kashima Shrine. This god is said to have arrived in Nara riding a white deer, and since then deer have been respected and protected as divine messengers by the community.

The deer in Nara Park, forage the grounds for food themselves and eat grass, bamboo leaves and buds, but they are also partial to a ‘Shika Senbei’ (deer cracker) or two! You can purchase the deer crackers at several vendors throughout the park. As you wander around you’ll also most likely see some of the deer bowing to people requesting a deer cracker.

Todai-Ji Temple

This temple was built during the Nara period (710-794AD). The chief object of worship of the temple is Vaircana Buddha (‘Buddha that shines through the world like the sun’) and is encased by the huge magnificent temple. The temple acts as a place of prayer for peace and affluence, as well as being a centre for Buddhist research.

Daibatsuden Hall

This is the hall inside Todai-Ji Temple which houses the Great Buddha. The huge statue of Vaircana Buddha, is made from cast bronze and then plated with gold. Sadly the Great Buddha Hall was burned down numerous times over the years, but each time the structure has been rebuilt.

Sourin of the seven-storied pagoda of Todaiji

Located just beside the Todai-Ji Temple you’ll find the magnificent Sourin of the seven-storied pagoda in dazzling gold.

Sourin of the seven-storied pagoda of Todaiji
Sourin of the seven-storied pagoda of Todaiji

Nigatsu-do Hall

If you keep heading east of the Great Buddha Hall on the side of Mount Wakakusa, you’ll find Nigatsu-do (which translates to “The Hall of the Second Month”). It is a beautiful hall that overlooks the city of Nara and provides a view of its ancient structures and cityscapes. Head over to Nigatsu-do for some quiet contemplation as you take in the views over the city of Nara before you continue with your sightseeing.



Kasuga Taisha Shrine

This was one of my favourite shrines in Nara to visit, both paths to the shrine are lined with approximately 2000 stone lanterns and the eaves of the shrine are decorated with around a thousand hanging bronze lanterns. It is also one of Nara’s most celebrated shrines. The structure was established at the same time as the capital and is dedicated to the deity responsible for its protection.

You can visit part of the shrine for free, but to visit the inner area you will need to pay an admission fee, which I think was well worth it. The many lanterns decorating the shrine are unfortunately only lit twice a year during two lantern festivals in February and August.  Fear not though, there is a small room available which is shrouded in darkness so visitors can appreciate the beautiful lanterns as they are lit, and imagine how the shrine might look during the festivals.

Isuien Garden

Located just west of the Todai-Ji Temple, you’ll find the Isuien Garden. Covering an impressive three acres, the garden was designated a scenic site by the government in 1975. The garden follows a typical Japanese garden design and consist of two ponds with winding paths encircling them. You’ll also find a number of tea houses, as well as a small museum fo art ‘Neiraku’, which holds a collection of various antique artefacts and works.

Yoshiki-en Garden

Before Yoshiki-en Garden was opened to the public in 1989, the site was once home to a branch temple of the larger Kofukuji Temple, called ‘Manishuin’ and was privately owned. However in 1919 ownership was transferred to Nara Prefecture. The grounds include the Pond Garden, the Moss Garden, and the Tea Ceremony Flower Garden. The Moss Garden also has a detached tea house, and the whole area is covered with ‘hair moss’. The garden is very secluded and peaceful, a beautiful tranquil retreat. Most people don’t tend to visit this garden, and even the tourism officer at the desk checked with me I was in the right place suspecting I was looking for the Isuien garden (located just next door). It’s free to enter if you have a foreign passport so if you have time do include a visit in your itinerary.



Kofukuji Temple

I saw the exterior of this Temple towards the end of the day but unfortunately was too late to see inside. A lot of the Temples close quite early around 4:30pm-5:00pm so plan your day accordingly if there are particular temples that you would really like to see. Kofukuji temple was originally founded in the 7th century, although the pagoda was rebuilt around 600 years ago after it had burned down five times. A lot of national treasures and cultural treasures can be seen here at the temple’s museum.

Kofukuji Temple, Nara Park, Nara, Japan
Kofukuji Temple, Nara Park, Nara, Japan

There are several buildings of great historic value within this temple complex, most notably The Central Golden Hall, The Eastern Golden Hall the National Treasure Museum, Five-storied Pagoda and Three-storied Pagoda.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about my day trip to Nara, and I have given you some inspiration for your own visit. For the most up to date information on opening times, and admission fees for the temples and gardens, please visit Visitnara.com.

Have you already visited yourself? or do you have anything to add that should be included on the itinerary? I’d love to hear from you, feel free to get in touch using the comments section below.

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How to spend a day in Nara

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jasonlikestotravel
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jasonlikestotravel

Interesting read. It’s quite cool that garden is free for foreign passport holders too.