A rather long time ago, Nara was the imperial capital of Japan. While most people head off to the grand legacies of this past, we decided to take the by-paths of Nara Park and put our (Google) navigation skills to the test. The Nara Park Loop, as we’ve coined it, is an offbeat walk around the perimeter of Nara’s main tourist attractions.
Take a hidden journey with us as we avoid the crowds and take Nara by the antlers. We stop by a tea house, a ‘pigeon love shrine’, a cosy moss-covered kissaten, a small botanical garden, and a forest walk to a famous writer’s house.
First hidden stop, Yoshikien Garden Nara
As we exit the station and headed up towards Nara Park, our navi sends us alongside Starbucks, with a souvenir shop next door, left at the lights, and then the first right. With Wakakusa Yama visible in the distance ahead, we feel positive we are on track.
The now public Yoshikien Garden is an old repurposed teahouse from 1919. It has a traditional koi pond with a lookout pavilion above, as well as moss and flower gardens. It’s free to enter but there’s no drinking or eating allowed here. So, if you really need that Starbucks, get it in a thermos.
Yoshikien is somewhat hidden right next to a more illustrious Nara counterpart, Isuien Garden and ceramic museum. We pop in, but it’s ¥1,200 to enter, so we pop right out again and head up the road.
Taking an offbeat route around Nara’s Todaiji Temple
As you head out of Yoshikien, you go straight up the road away from the direction you came. Navi beckons us to hang a right, but we dial into the steep staircase further up the way instead. We find ourselves close to the rear of Todai Temple.
This day, there happens to be a special exhibition sign pointing up to Kaidan Do / Kaidan In. It’s a small temple behind Todaiji. This is an excellent find, and we enjoy some prime artifact viewing. However, if you simply head out the back of Kaidan Do and take a right, you’ll see the signs pointing to Todaiji.
We notice another sign behind Todaiji pointing towards Shosoin, so we decide to investigate. It’s a rather hidden repository for Buddhist treasures in Nara and also free to enter. We skip this freebie, but go along the path to get a full view of the bull-horned Todaiji. Turns out the grounds behind Todaiji used to be a monks’ dormitory. The info sign there shows the way straight up, right, and around to Nigastudo.
Nigatsudo to Tamukeyama Hachimangu Shrine
The back path to Nigatsudo is quite a pleasure to walk with some beautiful old gates of local residences. Nigatsudo is well worth a visit, but usually kind of busy too.
However, you can’t miss Tamukeyama Hachimangu Shrine right next door for its lovey-dovey lantern inlays. The shrine is quite popular among foreign visitors and instructions on how to write your prayers are in English. They sell some really nice pin badges with the ‘two doves one heart’ logo.
The import of these Nara love doves is partly hidden in a pun on the Japanese word for pigeon or dove—hatto—and the katakana ‘ha-to’ or ‘heart’ in English. So ‘hatto no ha-to’ chimes to the pure loving heart of our coo-coo friends.
This shrine, though, doesn’t actually worship pigeons. A ‘Hachimangu’ shrine worships the same named god of archery and war, as well as writing and culture. The outline of the two pigeons is also similar to the hachi (八) kanji (meaning 8) as in Hachimangu (八幡宮). The symbol of Japan’s 15th emperor Ojin was a dove and he played an important part in the faith’s development. This shrine also plays a protecting role over the main Todaiji Temple.
The way to Wakakusa Yama
After praying for peace, we head straight up the way to Wakakusa Yama. It’s always quite touristy here, but nice to walk along. Our next destination is to check whether Mizuya Chaya has weathered the two-year slump in tourism. Mizuya Chaya is a quaint and offbeat Nara kissaten which has long stood its ground. It’s a great place for lunch if you like Udon or just want some green tea and mochi. The prices are okay and they advertise an English menu with vegetarian options on request.
We are uncertain if this place will still be open, so, having packed some onigiri, we give it a pass. You’ll notice a sign pointing to Kasuga Grand Shrine and Shin Yakushi Temple in the direction over the red bridge. However, you don’t want to go that way. You need to head down the road to your left as you leave the shop.
After you take a left at the intersection you will pass along a bamboo fence. That’s the Manyo Botanical Gardens. The way there we find is to follow the sign to the Kasuga Ninaichaya Garden Cafe. The entrance to Manyo Botanical Garden is right next door.
Kasuga Shrine Manyo Botanical Garden
The Manyo Botanical Gardens costs ¥500 to enter. Out of season there’s not too much to excite, but its amazing slanted tree and platform lake are very picturesque. There are nice places around to sit, vending machines, and you can eat your own lunch.
The best time to come here, however, is undoubtedly the latter part of April into mid-May. At this time, you can view their incredible collection of 40 wisteria species amid 200 tressled trees.
A short walk through Kasuga Forest
Coming out of Manyo Botanical Gardens, you take a left and head towards Kasuga Grand Shrine. Fortunately, a deer magically appears to mark the off-road we need to follow.
Just a little further down, you’ll also come to a sign pointing towards Shinyakushi Temple. That’s a little off on a tangent, so take the path to the right and head on down for another 10 minutes.
The Former Residence of Shiga Naoya
This forest path leads down to a hidden back way into a Nara residential area. It’s pretty neat because the path actually comes out right opposite our next destination. Shiga Naoya was an influential modernist writer at the turn of the last century. A Dark Night’s Passing is probably his most easily available translated work. The entrance fee is ¥350 with an informative leaflet in English!
The house is not so much a museum, but there are a few artifacts around. Shiga Naoya actually oversaw the design of the house which has a blend of western motifs. The skylit parlor room is quite wonderful, as are the gardens. The bathroom is interesting as well as the old gas heater and built-in leather couch. Not to mention, Mr. Shiga most certainly had an inspirational place to sit and write his books.
Takabatake Salon Cafe, an offbeat Nara garden cafe
The residential area here is quite nice to explore if you have the time. Right next door to the Shiga Naoya Residence, we decide to take a break at the Takabatake Salon Cafe (adjacent to the Tau no Mori 1919 Art Gallery. It’s a welcoming and friendly place with casual garden seating if you’re not into sitting inside. There is tea, coffee, cheesecake, juices, and the beer I would presume is for hotter days.
Home bound towards Ukimido boating lake
Back on the road from Takabatake Salon Cafe, and left at the corner, it’s a short walk to the Ukimido boating lake. Make sure to take a right at the big road, but you will spot the intersection sign. At Ukimido there is a little cafe with snacks, icecreams, and you can also rent a rowing boat.
This boating lake, although not so hidden, is one of the nicest spots in Nara. Nearby, there are plenty of grassy mounds, deer, and a little stream running along the way. Up above you’ll pass by some traditional old country style restaurants–but maybe for another day! You’ll soon come out to the road and path that takes you to Kofukuji Temple, the small octagonal Nanendo Temple, with Nara Station just a little down below.
This complete offbeat Nara Park Loop is around 6km. It can take half a day or so depending on how easy you take it and the stop offs. Even a mid morning start will get you back to Nara Station by late afternoon.