Nara an amazing town with a rich history is located just a 45-minute train ride away from Kyoto. Nara was formerly known as Yamato and was Japan’s first capital and seat of the emperor. There is much to see in Nara. Most people think of the many deer that call Nara their home but this town has so much more to offer. Enjoy culture, nature and of course great food.
What to see and do in and around Nara Park
Nara park is a twenty-minute walk from Nara station following the main street. The park extends about 4 kilometers from east to west and about 2 kilometers from south to north. The perfect place to start your day in this beautiful town. Enjoy exploring this spacious park, with its many lawns, small streams, and temples. Also, meet the many deer roaming around the Nara park. They are not afraid of you and the moment they know you have some deer crackers (a package of crackers is 150 Yen) they may just stalk you to get them. They love them.
The park has more to offer next to nature’s beauty.
Todaiji temple is beautiful and dates back to 728, founded by Emperor Shomu, who placed great importance upon Buddhism. It is said this temple was called Himugashi-no-Odera (large temple in the east) because the location of the temple was to the east of the former capital Heijo-kyo. The size of the temple is impressive. The large Buddha room is 57 meters long and 50 meters wide, making it the largest wooden building in the world. Inside you’ll find the biggest Buddha statue in the world with a height of 15 meters and a weight of 300 tons. The temple is a World Heritage site and located inside Nara Park.
Kofukuji Temple can be found at the entrance to Nara park. The 50-meter-high five-story pagoda is the second tallest in Japan. The pagoda got rebuild in 1426 and is a National Treasure. The complex is free to visit with the exception of National Treasure Museum and the Eastern Golden Hall.
Nara National Museum
The Nara National Museum was established in 1889 as the imperial national museum, the first exhibition next to the permanent collection took place in 1895. The museum has a big collection of Japanese Buddhist art, such as sculptures, paintings, scrolls and ceremonial objects. Temporary exhibitions can also be found inside the museum. Volunteers are present in the museum to ask questions and are happy to show you the highlights of the collection. Volunteers are present from 10:00 to 16:00. The museum is opened from 9:30 am to 5:00 pm and is located in Nara Park a bit past the Kofukuji temple.
Kasuga Taisha Shrine
Kasuga Taisha is famous for its many lanterns. You’ll find hundreds of bronze lanterns attached to the building and many stone lanterns approaching the complex. The lanterns are only lit twice a year during the Lantern Festival. In the forest around the complex, you’ll find twelve shrines dedicated to the twelve lucky gods. Just a short walk from the main complex you can enjoy the botanical garden. The many wisteria flowers planted in the garden will bloom from late April too early May.
Mt. Wakakusa is the grass-covered mountain behind Nara Park. You can climb the 350-meter high mountain all year except for winter. They will charge you a small fee to climb up (150 Yen). Once on top, you are rewarded with a beautiful view of Nara. Every fourth Saturday of January the Yamayaki festival is held here.
You can also get up Mt. Wakakusa going through:
Kasugayama Primeval forest
Kasuga Primeval Forest became a sacred area around 841 and since then hunting and logging are prohibited. After WWII the forest became accessible to the public. It’s not allowed to leave the trails. Follow the main trail to reach Mt. Wakakusa. There are some smaller trails leading away from the main one that will let you explore the waterfalls.
More to see in Nara
During the greater part of the Nara period (710-794), Nara served as the capital of Japan and was known as Heijo-kyo. The Palace and the grounds measured about one square kilometer in size. The palace home to the emperor also housed the government offices. Because of its historical and cultural importance, the palace is on the World Heritage List. Unfortunately, almost all buildings have been lost, except for one building that moved to the Toshodaiji temple in the eighth century. After the capital moved in 784, the palace and a large part of the city were abandoned. The grounds of the palace were used as rice fields after the capital moved.
Toshodaiji temple dates back to 759, founded by the Chinese priest Ganjin Wajo from the Tang dynasty Jianzhen. He arrived in Japan on an invitation by Emperor Shomu in 754 after five unsuccessful attempts to cross the sea to teach Chinese Buddhist rules of life. After the establishment of the temple, he spent four years in Nara until his death at 76 on May 6, 763. In the Meay-do Hall, you can find a statue of him, unfortunately, only accessible to the public on 5, 6, and 7 June.
One of the most famous Buddhist temples in Japan. Once one of the seven great temples of Nanto in Nara.The temple has a rare seven-story pagoda and ancient statues of the healing Buddha and Kannon. The Emperor built the temple in 680 to pray for a cure for his wife Empress Jito. Empress Jito finished building the complex in 698 after the death of her husband. After twenty years, Yakushiji temple moved to his current location in 718.
Horyuji temple about 12 kilometers outside central Nara and can be accessed by bus number 97 to Horyuji-mae from either train station. Horyuji temple is one of the oldest temples in Japan and dates back to 607. The temple complex also houses the oldest wooden building in the world. It is, therefore, no surprise that Horyuji temple is on the world heritage list. The story of the founding of Horyuji is written on the back of the Yakusi Nyorai Buddha statue on the east side of the main hall. According to the information, Emperor Yomei swore that he would build a temple and a Buddha statue as a prayer for his own healing. Unfortunately, that wish did not come true, he died shortly thereafter.
Should you stay the night in Nara?
You can visit Nara easily on a day-trip if you pick out just a few things to do. However, if you want to see all Nara has to offer it will be hard to do in a day. Even if you manage to do so it might feel rushed and that would be a shame. Personally, I recommend staying one night so you can enjoy everything at a leisure pace.
Depending on your budget I found some well-rated hotels you might want to check out:
How to get to and around Nara
Nara is best accessed from Kyoto or Osaka. However, just in case you want to go there while visiting Tokyo I added Tokyo to the list as well.
- From Kyoto take the JR Nara Line Rapid Service for Nara to arrive in Nara in 45 minutes.
- From Osaka take the JR Yamatoji Rapid Service for Kamo to arrive in Nara in 50 minutes.
- From Tokyo take the Shinkansen to Kyoto, then take the JR Nara Line Rapid Service for Nara the total travel time is 158 minutes by shinkansen and 45 minutes on the Rapid line.
The best way to get around town depends what placed you want to visit. Nara park itself you can access on foot from the JR station in about twenty minutes. However if you like to visit the Toshodaiji, Yakushiji and Horyuji temples you best use the bus since they are located several kilometers outside of central Nara.
There are bus passes available to get around Nara:
- 1-Day Pass for 500 yen will get you to Nara Park, Todaiji, Kasuga Taisha Shrine, Kofukuji, Naramachi, Yakushiji and Toshodaiji.
- 1-Day Pass Wide for 1,000 yen will get you to Nara Park, Todaiji, Kasuga Taisha Shrine, Kofukuji, Naramachi, Yakushiji, Toshodaiji and buses out further to Horyuji.
- 2-Day Pass Wide for 1,500 yen will get you to Nara Park, Todaiji, Kasuga Taisha Shrine, Kofukuji, Naramachi, Yakushiji, Toshodaiji and buses out further to Horyuji.
Passes can be purchased at the JR Nara Station or the Kintetsu Nara Station Bus Information Center.