Nara is the perfect day trip from Kyoto—plenty of delicious snacks, plenty of temples, and most importantly plenty of deer!
Well known for its roaming deer, the ancient capital of Japan is a wonderful place to visit, filled with history, nature and fresh air aplenty. Since it’s under an hour from Kyoto and a little farther from Osaka, it can be the perfect day trip between travels, and is an excellent spot to get a break from the big cities. Nara is relatively small and can be explored easily on foot, but bike rental is possible if you’re short on time. With a great combination of shrines, temples, parks and amazing views it makes for a stress-free wandering experience, with no buses to catch nor busy roads to navigate. The city is a great spot for sushi and sake, be sure to add a spot or two from our article for lunch during your day. Of all the major visiting spots, it is one of the most relaxing, so get on your walking shoes, empty your pockets and prepare for a deer-filled day of adventure.
When you start your walk towards the first pit stop, you may want to grab a snack along the way; Nakatanidou is a famous mochi (Japanese rice cake) shop where they pound fresh mochi and serve it straight to the crowd of customers. Try the specialty of yomogi-mochi (aka the unattractive name of mugwort) which is green and has a refreshing taste. They also sell freshly baked senbei (rice cracker) which come in a variety of sweet and savory flavors.
If you arrive at either the JR Nara Station or Kintetsu Nara, you’ll be a short walk from the first must-see temple of the city: Kofukuji. Established in 669 by the wife of Fujiwara no Kamatari to wish for his recovery from illness, the temple was originally founded in present-day Kyoto, before being moved to the original planned capital and finally to Nara in 710. Although it was damaged by fires and civil war, it has remained important due to its links to the Fujiwara family, and has 6 remaining buildings. Currently, the East Golden Hall is under reconstruction, but the 5-story pagoda and South Octagonal Hall are impressive enough, along with the three-story pagoda nearby. If you need an extra temple in your day, have a read about Gangoji Temple, a short walk from Kofuku-ji.
Kasuga Taisha Shrine
A short walk away from Kasuga, heading past the National Musuem (a good stop-off if it’s raining) and going through the park, you’ll find Kasuga Taisha. Founded in 768 and also related to the Fujiwara family, the shrine is famed for its 3000 stone lanterns that line the way and is a spectacular walk. If you want to explore the nearby primeval forest of Kasugayama stroll on up to the sacred hill of Kasugayama behind the shrine.
Nara Deer Park
Next, you wan wander in the realm of the deer, hundreds and hundreds of deer who alternate between looking very photogenic and trying to attack you for senbei. Dotted around Nara Deer Park are a number of senbei-stalls selling the paper-tied packs of biscuits for deer at 100 yen a pop. Once you have your pack, make a fast retreat because you’ll soon be surrounded, and they can get quite aggressive. It’s also best to make sure all bags are securely closed and there’s nothing sticking out of your pockets, because it will be gone before you know it.
Believed to be the messengers of the Gods in Shinto religion, the deer are sacred and allowed to roam free, with annual antler-cutting ceremonies held on the second weekend of October. If you bow to the deer (with senbei in hand) they will bow back, and you can even try holding the senbei between your teeth for them to take, if you’re feeling brave!
Souvenirs, snacks and the ancient Nandaimon Gate
When you walk along the pedestrianized street towards Todaiji, you’ll find a selection of busy souvenir shops and snack stalls lining the way. You can find everything from deer-themed Hello Kitty key rings to deer-shaped biscuits and wearable antlers, and probably some actual deer too. The picture above is a self-syruped shaved ice called kakigori which is perfect in the summer to cool down. It’s traditionally served at festivals and is a kids snack, with fancier ones with real fruit and condensed milk.
The food stalls have yakitori and chestnuts, kakigori (shaved ice) and senbei so you can have yourself a snack before you move on. You can also try the warmed mochi dango freshly grilled on sticks by stall-holders and costing ¥100 each.
Nandaimon (above) is the largest temple entrance gate in Japan and is the South Gate for Todaiji Temple. Although the original was destroyed during the Nara period in a typhoon, the structure currently standing was started in 1199 with the first ridgepole and finished in 1203 with the guardian deity statues. The statues are believed to have been carved in just 69 days and measure over 8.4 meters high. Neglected for many years, they were restored over a period of 5 years from 1988 and many ancient documents were found within them. Some of the most significant were inscribed with the names of the sculptors and dates showing when they were begun and completed simultaneously—and that the designs originated in Yamaguchi prefecture.
Home to a number of structures, the most well-known is the Great Buddha Hall which is the largest wooden structure in the world. Destroyed twice by fire, it was most recently re-built in the Edo period—albeit slightly narrower due to financial restraints at the time. Within you can see miniature structures depicting the changing size and style of the hall. The temple is the headquarters of the Kegon school of Buddhism and also a UNESCO World Heritage site along with 7 other sites in Nara. The Vairocana Buddha within is the Buddha of Light and Compassion, and is the largest bronze Buddha statue in the world (Nara sure does like its world records).
Standing at 14.8 meters tall, you can attempt to slither through his nostril if you dare—as there is an equivalent-sized hole in a pillar within the temple—where success grants a long life of happiness (it can be done—just wriggle and expect bruises). He has been re-cast numerous times due to damage from earthquakes recently, a collection of gold and jewels were discovered in the knee of the Buddha using X-rays, and are thought to be relics of Emperor Shomu.
Entry to the Great Hall is 500 yen, or you can combine it with entrance to the Todaiji Museum for 800 yen
Tamukeyama Hachiman-gu Shrine
Once you’ve explored the grounds you can follow the path behind the temple to see the small Tamukeyama Hachimangu Shrine. A peaceful and quiet shrine, it is much less visited and has some beautiful ema and lanterns on display, featuring the dove of peace.
With three enshrined emperors and an empress, and dedicated to Kami Hachiman, the shrine is certainly not unimportant and was established in 749.
Part of the collection of historically important sites in Nara, the Nigatsudo Temple is best known for its stunning views and annual Omizutori Festival. While the temple was founded in 752, the repentance service was introduced a few years later in 760 and has taken place without fail every year since. It involves priests holding large flaming torches above the balcony allowing the burning embers to fall below onto the onlooker—bestowing good fortune rather than minor burns (hopefully). Sacred water is drawn at 2am on the final day from the well—the climax of the 2-week festival.
The temple has a long balcony with views across Todaiji and Kofukuji, stretching towards Mount Ikoma on the border of Nara and Osaka prefectures.
A final stroll through streets and bell towers
You can take the scenic route back from Nigatsudo and follow the winding paths with shops and small cafes back to Todaiji. The cafes here are small and family run, making them a nice stop-off for a late lunch.
On the way back, you may stumble across the bell tower of Todaiji, which is one of the three famous bell towers of Japan (if you’re keen on a precise bell ranking). It weighs 26.3 tons and is known for its long ring (and unofficially for it’s excellent echo voice effects). The structure surrounding the bell combines Zen and Daibutsu styles of architecture and is unusually large.
You can carry on strolling or make your way back to the station, with a Coco’s Curry on the way, there’s no judgement here if you stop off for one of the most excellent comfort foods Japan has to offer.
Getting to Nara
From Kyoto: If you’re on the JR Pass then hop onto one of JR Nara Line trains, ideally the rapid which only takes 45 minutes instead of 60 on the regular local line. If you’re not bound by the pass, hop on the Kintetsu Kyoto Express which also takes 45 minutes, is ¥100 cheaper and is in closer walking distance to the sights.
From Osaka: JR passholders can hop on the Yamatoji Rapid from Osaka Station which takes 50 minutes. If you’re pass-free and near a station on the loop line, you can change at Tsuruhashi and catch a Kintetsu Nara Line Rapid Express. (¥670 from Osaka Station compared ¥800 for the direct JR train).
From Tokyo: If you’re starting your Kansai adventure here, then catch the bullet train to Kyoto and follow the above steps from there. You can also take a night bus from Tokyo and arrive bright and early in Nara.