Nara is the perfect day trip from Kyoto — plenty of delicious snacks, plenty of temples, and most importantly plenty of deer!
The ancient capital of Japan is a wonderful place to visit, filled with history, nature, and fresh air aplenty. The main sight-seeing area — which has Shintō shrines, some of Japan’s oldest Buddhist temples, expansive parks, and amazing views — is relatively small and can be explored easily on foot. With no buses to catch nor busy roads to navigate, it’s a stress-free wandering experience.
Nara is less than an hour away from Kyoto (and a little farther from Osaka). Get on your walking shoes, empty your pockets, and prepare for a deer-filled day of adventure. Bike rental is also possible if you’re short on time. And if you’re keen to explore the rest of the city, check out the temples Yakushi-ji, Horyū-ji, and Tōshō-dai.
Nara’s Top Three: Tōdai-ji, Nigatsu-dō, and the deer
With so much to see in Nara, it’s good to know you’re seeing the big ones — here’s our top three to put some names to those guidebook/instagram faces.
1. Tōdai-ji Temple: The one off the postcards
Tōdai-ji is home to a number of awesome structures. The most well-known is the Great Buddha Hall, which is said to be the largest wooden structure in the world. Destroyed twice by fire, it was most recently rebuilt in the Edo Period — albeit slightly narrower due to financial constraints 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 a UNESCO World Heritage site (along with seven other sites in Nara). It is also one of the Seven Great Temples of Nara, as mentioned in the 11th century work of literature, The Tale of Genji.
Inside the Great Buddha Hall is a statue of the Vairocana Buddha — the Buddha of Light and Compassion. Standing 14.8 meters tall, it is said to be the largest bronze Buddha statue in the world (Nara sure does like its world records).
You can attempt to slither through the Buddha’s nostril if you dare, as there is an equivalent-sized hole in a pillar within the main hall. A successful slither grants a long life of happiness (it can be done — just wriggle and expect bruises). The statue has been recast numerous times due to damage from earthquakes, but is still looking incredibly impressive. 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 8th century Emperor Shōmu.
Entry to the Great Hall is ¥500, or you can combine it with entrance to the Tōdai-ji Museum for ¥800
2. Nara Park: What we’ve all been waiting for
Needless to say, the deer are here. You can wander in the realm of these fabled beasts, hundreds and hundreds of them in fact, who alternate between looking very photogenic and trying to attack you for senbei (rice crackers, but in this case, deer food). Dotted around Nara Deer Park are a number of stalls selling paper-tied packs of senbei for ¥100 a pop to feed the deer. 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.
In Shintō, the deer are sacred — believed to be messengers from the gods — and allowed to roam free. If you bow to the deer (with senbei in hand), they might just bow back! Don’t be fooled though, these are not tame deer, they are still wild and can nip, so keep your wits about you and your kids close.
Interlude: souvenirs, snacks, and the ancient Nandaimon Gate
When you walk along the pedestrianized street that runs alongside the park and towards Tōdai-ji, 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 food stalls have yakitori and chestnuts, kakigōri and senbei, so you can have yourself a snack before you move on.
Nandaimon (above), the South Gate for Tōdai-ji, is the largest temple entrance gate in Japan. The original was destroyed in a typhoon during the Nara period (in the eighth century). Construction of the current structure began 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 five 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, and that the designs originated in Yamaguchi Prefecture.
3. Nigatsu-dō: Panoramic views and a bell tower
Nigatsu-dō, established in 752, is one of sprawling Tōdai-ji’s many sub-complexes. It is best known for the stunning views from the hall’s veranda and the annual Omizutori Festival. This repentance service was introduced in 760 and has taken place without fail every year since. The ceremony involves priests holding large flaming torches above the balcony, allowing the burning embers to fall below onto the onlookers — bestowing good fortune rather than minor burns (hopefully). Sacred water is drawn at 2 a.m. on the final day from the well — the climax of the two-week festival.
Nigatsu-dō has a long balcony with views over Tōdai-ji and Kōfuku-ji stretching towards Mt Ikoma on the border of Nara and Osaka prefectures. Nearby is Sangatsu-dō (also called Tōdai-ji Hokke-dō), which is known for its Nara-period statues.
You can take the scenic route from Nigatsu-dō and follow the winding paths with shops and small cafes back to Tōdai-ji. The cafes here are small and family-run, making them a nice stop-off for a late lunch.
On the way, you may stumble across the bell tower of Tōdai-ji, 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 its excellent echo effects).
More great sights in Nara
So those may be the big hitters, but Nara is a network of amazing temples, gardens, and shrines and so far we have only scratched the surface.
The glorious Kōfuku-ji temple complex is host to pagodas and a number of National Treasures. It was established in 669 by the wife of Fujiwara no Kamatari, who wished for her husband’s recovery from illness (a common reason temples were built at the time).
It was originally located in present-day Kyoto, before being moved around and settling in Nara in 710. Although it has been damaged by fires and civil war, it retained its importance due to its links to the Fujiwara family. Kōfuku-ji’s six remaining structures include: the two round halls, five- and three-storied pagodas, the recently-renovated Central Golden Hall, and the Eastern Golden Hall.
If you need an extra temple in your day, have a read about Gangō-ji Temple, a short walk from Kōfuku-ji.
Entry to Kōfuku-ji’s National Treasure Hall is ¥700, the Central Golden Hall is ¥500, and the Eastern Golden Hall is ¥300. A combined ticket for the National Treasure Hall and the Eastern Golden Hall is also available for ¥900. The rest of the complex is free to admire and explore.
Nara National Museum
This museum in Nara Park is dedicated to Buddhist art and has an amazing collection. If you were hoping for some Nara-based history, apologies — but the temples and treasure houses can give you plenty of that. Instead, this place holds statues, scrolls, paintings, archaeological finds, and ceremonial objects in its permanent collection. It was founded in 1889 and has remained in its original building (plus a new wing). Temporary exhibitions may show treasures from Tōdai-ji or modern-day apperarnces of Buddhist art.
Tickets cost ¥700 for adults and ¥350 for college students. Entrance is free for those in high school or below.
Kasuga Taisha Shrine: Lanterns for days
Just past the Nara National Museum (a good stop-off if it’s raining) and going through the park, you’ll find Kasuga Taisha, a particularly important Shintō shrine. Founded in 768 and also related to the Fujiwara family, the shrine is famed for its 3000 stone lanterns that line the way and make for a spectacular walk.
Tamukeyama Hachiman-gū Shrine
The small but special Tamukeyama Hachiman-gū Shrine can be found close to Nigatsu-dō. 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 the kami (deity) Hachiman, the shrine, established in 749, is certainly quite significant.
Pro tip: You can enlist the help of a local guide for a different perspective on Nara’s popular sights.
Isuien Gardens and the Neiraku Art Museum
A little further north than most people wander, Isui-en is a peaceful haven in the form of beautiful Japanese gardens. There are two distinct gardens: one formed in the Meiji period (1868–1912) and one in the Edo period (1603–1868), both with small buildings and teahouses to admire. The gardens are designed around water: there are ponds and streams and areas where the only sound is that of flowing water. The garden’s Sanshū-tei offers light lunches and matcha — a perfect spot for a break.
The art museum is host to the Nakamura family’s collection of over 2000 works. There are occasional special exhibitions, and even the roof of the museum is notable, with a convex curve designed by Kenzo Tōhata in 1969.
Entry to the garden and museum is ¥1,200 for adults; ¥500 for high school and university students, disabled people, and those with a Nara City Nanamaru Card; and ¥300 for elementary and middle-school students.
If you want the garden and not the price, next-door Yoshikien is owned by Nara Prefecture and is free to enter. There’s a pond, a moss garden, and a tea ceremony garden with its own tea room!
Detour: The Catship Museum
OK, so an unusual bonus to this stop: there is a tiny museum dedicated to cats, and it’s called the Catship Museum. I mean, need we say more? Ok we will — its director is a sweet ginger cat and the co-director is a local woman who just really loves cats and wanted to share her passion for them with everyone. Cat-people, this is for you!
Day-trip Itinerary: See it all
There’s a lot to see in Nara, but it’s all grouped pretty close together. If you arrive at a decent time it’s easy to see a lot of the sights in a day. If you’re keen to spend time wandering around the musuems, this may mean a few temples are left out, but on a rainy (or very hot day) that might be exactly what you need.
- 1. Nakatanidou (A foodie pitstop) As you walk from either of the two train stations towards the first stop, we suggest going through the backstreets rather than the main road. The reward? A declicious handmade treat in the from of freshly-made mochi, pounded right in front of you. Try the specialty yomogi-mochi (flavored with mugwort), which is green and has a refreshing taste. Nakatanidou also sells freshly-baked senbei (rice crackers), which come in a variety of sweet and savory flavors.
- 2. Kōfuku-ji Temple Coming up on your left you’ll soon see the temple Kōfukuji with its Gojuno-tō (Five-story Pagoda). The temple grounds are easy to expore, with stunning pagodas and halls — it’s a great introduction to the city. You can also buy a shrine book, called “Goshuincho”, here.
- 3. Kasuga Taisha Shrine This is a short walk away, just past the National Museum and through the shrine’s botanical gardens. Try counting the lanterns and enjoy the quieter pace before the crowds (and deer) kick in.
- 4. Nara Deer Park If you double back a little and head north, you’ll soon find yourself in the fated land of the deer. Pick up some senbei (rice crackers) for the deer and some shaved ice and/or mochi-dango for youself and enjoy.
- 5. Nandaimon Gate Following the shopping street to the left of the park, you’ll spot the incredible Nandaimon, the largest temple gate in Japan.
- 6. Tōdai-ji Temple This is the big one: Tōdaiji’s Great Buddha Hall is amazing, and well worth the entry price of ¥500. Admire the Buddha, squeeze through his nostril, and live forever.
- 7. Tamukeyama Hachiman-gū Shrine Once you’ve explored the grounds, you can follow the path behind the temple to see the small shrine, Tamukeyama Hachimangū. Peaceful and often much quieter than elsewhere, this shrine has pretty peace dove ema you can buy for a few hundred yen and write your wish upon.
- 8. Nigatsu-dō Hall This balconied hall, a subcomplex of Tōdai-ji, is set on the hill to the east of the Great Buddha Hall, and is well worth the winding walk (only about 10 minutes). Enjoy the view and see which landmarks you can spot from your day so far.
- 9. Tōdai-ji’s Belltower Just a nice stop off on your way back down, especially if you leave via the Urasandō (the name of a path); the bell tower is one of the country’s top three, and great for echoes.
- 10. You’ve made it! And you’re probably starving since we just suggested snacks (hope you brought some onigiri). May we suggest a hearty curry (and comfort food staple) at Coco’s to end the day? With adaptable spice levels, vegan and vegetarian menus, and affordable prices, it’s a win-win.
The best food in Nara
Nara is a great spot for sushi and sake — be sure to add a spot or two from our Nara eating guide for lunch during your day. Take a peek at the suggestions in the interary for senbei and mochi from Nakatanidou, and stroll through stalls at the deer park for some refreshing shaved ice and more mochi. If the deer get snacks, so should we!
Nara’s Festivals: fire, fire, and more fire
Nara has a whole lot of festivals, as you might expect for a city so heavily historied. There are a few really special ones to look out for though. And just to make things interesting, there’s a lot of fire involved.
- Wakakusa Yamayaki (4th Saturday of January): Literally meaning “Wakakusa mountain burning,” this festival won’t dissapoint. During the annual event, the mountainsides are set alight, a sight that is visible from across the city. The origins of the festival are unknown, but ceremonies still take place at Tōdai-ji, Kofuku-ji, and Kasuga Shrine. There is a fireworks show before the burning, with ceremonies starting around the city from around 1 p.m.
- Omizutori Matsuri (1st–14th March): Held annually for over 1200 years, this festival is all about purification and sees local monks brandishing burning torches while lucky visiors hope for embers to land on them. The water part happens in secret…
- Nara Daimonji Matsuri (Aug 15th): One of the largest Daimonji festivals in Japan, this summer event sees a huge “dai” symbol (meaning “big”) set alight on the slope of Mt Takamado. It is believed to destroy earthly passions in the mind and memorialise those who have died at war.
Getting to Nara
Nara is really easy to access from all the Kansai area cities, including Kyoto and Osaka — you simply hop on one of the local trains.
From Kyoto to Nara
If you’re traveling with a JR Pass, then hop onto a JR Nara line train, ideally the rapid, which only takes 45 minutes (instead of 60 minutes) on the regular local line. If you’re not bound by the pass, take the Kintetsu Kyoto Express instead, which also takes 45 minutes, is cheaper, and pulls into the station that’s within closer walking distance of the sights in Nara.
From Osaka to Nara
JR Pass holders 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 the Kintetsu Nara Line Rapid Express.
From Tokyo to Nara
If you’re coming from the capital, see our Tokyo to Nara transport guide.
While we do our best to ensure it’s correct, information is subject to change. The post was first published in 2017. Last updated in July 2022.