A Visitor’s Guide to Nara, Japan
Traveling Back to the Future in Japan
Nara is a beautiful city in Japan that offers sacred sites, beautiful nature, traditional Japanese culture and overall peace. Nara is also home to friendly, free-roaming deer and the largest Buddha in Japan!
Discover everything there is to see and do in Nara.
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Known as Japan’s first permanent capital, Nara was established as the influence behind the country’s most powerful Buddhist monasteries. Nara is situated east of both Kyoto and Osaka and is located less than one hour from both cities, so it is fairly easy to get to by rail, car or private coach. (If you are traveling by rail to Nara, then you would get off at JR Nara Station. JR West runs this rail, which is on the Kansai Main Line (Yamatoji Line) that goes to Horyuji Station, Oji, Tennoji, JR Namba and Osaka Station.
Below is a list of everything you could see and do during your time in Nara:
If you are anything like myself and are one with the animals (seriously), then Nara Park is the perfect place for you. It is in this nature-filled sanctuary where you will find deer freely roaming around everywhere! (Deer are my kind of animal! If you don’t understand why, it is because my last name is Deer. A fun fact is that my last name is not supposed to be Deer though. When my great grandfather came over from Italy to Ellis Island in New York, officials were unable to pronounce his Italian last name. Because the last name DeVardio (I am not sure if that is how it was actually spelled) was too difficult to pronounce, the officials changed his last name to Deer. I can’t say I’m upset over that because I do LOVE the last name Deer!)
One thing to note before you go to Nara is that it is perfectly okay to go up and pet the deer. I know that here in the United States, you need to watch when you’re around deer because a lot of them tend to carry rabies or ticks that could get you very sick. Luckily in Japan, you do not need to worry about that! Most of the deer are tame, but they tend to get aggressive when you feed them or if you are eating a snack.
In Shinto, deer are sacred animals as they are considered messengers of the gods. Over the years, Nara’s deer have become a symbol of the city and are designated as a natural treasure in Japan.
During your time in Nara, you could purchase deer crackers and feed these wonderful animals. Some deer will aggressively jump at you for the crackers and others have learned to politely bow to visitors who feed them. (Isn’t that so cute?)
As you stroll through Nara Park, there are numerous moss-covered stone lanterns. You could spot many deer hiding between them. There are also beautiful forests that offer nature’s best!
In addition, there are areas within Nara Park where you could purchase a Japanese fortune called Omikuji. You have to look for them as they can be easily missed. These fortunes won’t just tell you the good; it will also let you know when you have bad luck going on. (I like it when fortunes keep it real and don’t just tell you the “highlight reel”.)
Known as Nara’s most celebrated shrine, Kasuga Taisha was established at the same time as the capital and is dedicated to the deity responsible for the protection of the city.
Just like many other shrines in Japan, Kasuga Taisha has been rebuilt periodically every 20 years since it was established. It is now a beautiful orange-red color and shines brightly in Nara. In addition, Kasuga Taisha is famous for its lanterns, which have been donated by many worshipers. As you take a stroll around the temple, you can find hundreds of beautiful bronze and stone lanterns. If you are looking to see the lanterns lit, you will need to visit Nara for the Lantern Festivals in either February or mid August.
During your time at Kasuga Taisha, be on the lookout for a beautiful miko, also known as a “shrine maiden”. A miko will be wearing a red hakama (trousers or skirt) along with a white blouse with her long hair tied back.
As you walk from Kasuga Taisha through Nara Park, you will finally spot a big wooden building. During a series of events during the month of March, Nigatsudo Hall is the location where a collection of Buddhist rituals, called Omizutori, will take place. A fun fact is that Nigatsudo means “second month hall”, which refers to the second month of the lunar calendar, when Omizutori is traditionally held.
Even though there are several events held during Omizutori, Otaimatsu is the most famous and spectacular. After sunset on every night through mid-March, giant torches shine bright on Nigatsudo’s balcony and held over the crowd. It is said that the burning embers are to bestow the onlookers with a safe year.
Known as one of Japan’s oldest temples, Yakushiji Temple is situated between two beautiful pagodas. Emperor Tenmu constructed it during the late 7th century in hopes to recover his sick wife.
Decades back, the main hall to the temple was destroyed in a fire. It was later rebuilt in the 1970s and is now considered a Japanese Buddhist art. The East Pagoda is the temple’s only structure that survived the fire.
Also known as the Great Eastern Temple, Tōdaiji is one of Japan’s most famous and historically significant temples and a landmark of Nara. The Temple’s main hall, called the Daibutsuden (Big Buddha Hall), is the world’s largest wooden building that houses Japan’s largest bronze Buddha. (The second largest Buddha is located in Kamakura.)
When you walk through Nandaimon Gate, you will notice two statues that represent Nio Guardian Kings, which are the statues that are designated as national treasures and protectors of the Temple.
After walking through the gate, I was absolutely amazed by how grand Tōdaiji Temple was! It was definitely the most enchanting temple I have seen during my time in Japan. I was also impressed with the Buddhas in this temple. In addition to the main Buddha, there are two other Buddhas next to it. They all have the same hand gestures that mean, “Fear not”.
In addition to Tōdaiji Temple and the Buddha, I was even impressed by how beautiful the grounds and nearby gardens were. Since I was in Nara at the end of August, I could definitely start to see some fall foliage coming in. There were even some deer hanging around as well.
Isuien is divided into a front and rear garden with a number of teahouses scattered throughout. Located next to the garden is a museum that displays a personal collection of pottery, seals, mirrors and other artifacts from ancient China and Korea. There is also a souvenir shop where you could buy clothing, trinkets, jewelry and so much more.
What was once the family temple of Fujiwara, the most powerful clan during much of the Nara and Heian Periods, Kōfukuji consists of a couple buildings of great historic value, including a five story pagoda and a three story pagoda. The five-story pagoda is Japan’s second tallest behind the one in Kyoto.
Located only a two minute drive from Nara Park is where you could find Kōfukuji Temple. It is located right before you get into Nara’s downtown, making it the perfect place to go before you have lunch.
Nara is the capital of Nara Prefecture so besides visiting the significant temples, feeding the deer and savoring the peace and nature, there is also a downtown area for you to grab some delicious food, shop and do so much more.
When we finally made our way downtown, it was lunchtime so we had a plethora of different food options to choose from. Located in Higashimuki Shopping Street, you could find ramen shops, Chinese and Korean restaurants, hot pot cafés as well as a burger joint and a McDonald’s. You could also venture outside of the shopping street and find more restaurants and cafés. Of course I had to get my ramen fix!
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I hope you all enjoyed reading about everything to see and do in Nara. If you have any questions about my time in Nara or my trip to Japan in general, please feel free to email me at email@example.com, contact me via social media or leave a comment below.
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