Nara, often bypassed by tourists either heading straight to Kyoto or Osaka, is Japan’s first permanent capital city and definitely a place not to be missed! Not only it owns a lot of UNESCO historical sites, such as Daibutsu, Todai-ji, one of the most majestic sights in Japan. Nara is also well-known for its wild and tame deers running everywhere (YES you can easily spot them)! Most important, Nara can be explored in a day or two! Hence, if you want to indulge yourself in a peaceful and scenic place, make sure you pay Nara a visit!
Check out my Osaka travel guide if you haven’t –> here
Nara can be easily reached if you’re traveling from Osaka or Kyoto. There are two main train services that link Osaka and Kyoto to Nara. One is the Japan Railways (JR) train and the other is the Kintetsu train. I personally opted JR since I’ve already bought the JR pass and my hotel is just beside the JR station which is super convenient. However, if you only plan for a day trip and want to visit all the attractions right away, pick Kintetsu railway as the station is located closer to Nara Park (approximately 10 minutes walk). While it takes 20 minutes to walk to Nara Park from the JR Nara Station.
Getting around Nara – Nara can easily be explored on foot. However, you might need to take bus, taxi or train for some of the sights. If you want a more challenging and local way, rent a bicycle like me. ** But I’ve to warn you there are many slops and uphill for certain attractions, so your energy will definitely be drained by the end of the day!
If you happen to stay in Nara for a day or two, I would highly recommend Super Hotel Lohas JR Nara Eki. As it is situated beside the JR station which is extremely convenient especially for those who are traveling with family and many baggages.
My stay at this hotel is absolutely pleasant. I loved how they make sure you have a great sleep by giving you the chance to choose your own pillow. Regardless you like it soft, or hard, you’re bound to find the perfect pillow here! Besides, this hotel also owns natural hot spring so you can definitely indulge yourself after a whole day of exploration in the city. Not to forget, their buffet breakfast is simple but delicious!
P.S There is a seven-eleven on the first floor of building! You can easily grab snacks or meals there.
Without further ado, let’s jump into places you have to visit when you’re in Nara!
1. Tōdai-ji Temple & Nigatsu-do
Tōdai-ji is one of Japan’s most famous and historically significant temples and a landmark of Nara. In fact, its officially listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The main hall of Todaiji, is the largest wooden building in the world. Daibutsuden also houses the largest Buddha in all of Japan at 15 meters in height. Aside from the magnificent architecture and buddha statue, the surrounded landscape including lake and garden is absolutely picturesque.
After seeing Todaiji Temple, make sure you check out one of its most important halls, Nigatsu-do. Tucked somewhat far away from the main tourism area, the beautiful Nigatsu-do rises quietly and majestically. Built into the mountainside, this building is definitely a great place to get a breathtaking view of Nara cityscape!
2. Kōfuku-ji Temple
Kofuku-ji is a very important temple in Nara. It was transferred from Kyoto in 710, and used to be a family temple of the Fujiwara family, the most powerful family at that period. There are two famous pagodas in this temple, three stories and five stories. The five stories pagoda is the second tallest in Japan. Continuing through the complex you’ll see the northern and southern octagonal halls, the Central Golden Hall, and a series of less eye-catching but still beautiful secondary structures.
3. Nara Park
Nara park is home to numbers of freely roaming wild deer. Considered in Shinto to be messengers of the gods, Nara’s nearly 1200 deer have become a symbol of the city and have even been designated as a natural treasure. Nara’s deer are surprisingly tame, but you have to be careful when you have any food as they might think you will feed them and become a littl aggressive. There were some small stalls where you can purchase deer crackers. As soon as you had the crackers in hand, the deer would come close to you and nudge your clothes and arms. Some of the deer even learned to bow to visitors to ask to be fed.
4. Isuien Garden
Isuien garden is the most picturesque garden in Nara. Isuien means “garden founded on water”, and this garden’s name is derived from the fact that its ponds are fed by the small adjacent Yoshikigawa River. It’s a spacious stroll garden with a pond and plenty of blooming flowers and trees. This garden looks even more breathtaking during the Spring and Autumn. However, due to we visited during the late Spring all we spot are these greenery.
Kasuga-taisha which was established at the same time as the city itself, is Nara’s most celebrated shrine which also famous for its lanterns – and the deer, of course. Even the shrine’s chōzuya is carved in the shape of a deer.
6. Naramachi walk
In Naramachi you will experience the atmosphere of old times created by old “machiya” (historic merchant townhouses) and small alleys full of interesting sights. You can spot many cute shops that sell clothing, souvenirs, and food.
After wondering around the streets, we came across this mochi shop, known as Nakatani-dou, 中谷堂. We were attracted by the crowd and the high-speed mochi-pounding performance without knowing its popularity! However, I’m glad we did try it!
The result of all that pounding action is soft, chewy yomogi mochi dusted with kinako powder. Kinako is roasted soybean flour and it has a slightly nutty taste that goes well with the natural flavour of yomogi. Since the mochi is made fresh, it was still warm when it handed to me. When you bite into it the sweet red bean paste oozes out!
Edogawa Naramachi is Nara most well-known eel restaurant. Despite the long queue for almost an hour, we decided to give it a try as we do not want end up regretting in the future. I must admit, I’ve never really been a big fan of eel, but after eating it here I have truly changed my mind! It is extremely delicious and worth the price. P.S if you’re on budget, make sure you consider before entering as it can be quite pricey.
When you’re in Japan, of course you need to get your hands on one of their famous dessert, Taiyaki. Taiyaki is a fish-shaped cake and it is usually filled with red bean paste that made from sweetened azuki beans!
Nara was simply amazing and I’m glad that we visited here, a place which is so rich in culture, history and also nature! So, make sure you do visit Nara if you’re in Japan!
You’ll never know until you go!