Header image courtesy of Nicole Shi
As the capital of Japan during the Nara period (710–794), Nara (奈良市) has a rich collection of historical Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, landmarks, gardens, and national monuments and it is home to several UNESCO World Heritage sites, including the Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara. Nara is only less than an hour by train from both Kyoto and Osaka, making it the ideal destination for a day trip to take a break from the big cities if you are travelling in southern Japan. Here are the best things to see and do to make the most of your day in Nara.
Another highlight of Nara is the sika deer. According to local folklore, Takemikazuchi (建御雷), the Japanese god of thunder, was riding on a white deer when he came to protect the newly-built capital and the deer of Nara have since been considered as sacred animals and are allowed to roam freely around the entire city! These gentle creatures are mostly tame and friendly and you can buy deer crackers to feed them, but beware, they can be quite aggressive when it comes to food!
Nara also plays host to several annual traditional festivals, including Yamayaki (若草山焼き), in which the grass on Mount Wakakusa will be set ablaze, and Omizutori (お水取り), a celebration of the return of spring held at Todai-ji for the past 1,200 years.
Established in 669 by Kagami-no-Okimi, the wife of Fujiwara no Kamatari, Kofuku-ji (興福寺) was once part of the Seven Great Temples and had been twice dismantled to be moved to its present location. It is also the Fujiwara clan family temple, which houses several national treasures and important cultural properties, including the statues of The Ten Great Disciples and Thousand-armed Kannon, East Golden Hall, and South Octagonal Hall. The Fujiwara clan is a powerful noble family whose influence extended from the Heian period (平安時代) to present-day Japan. Upon your arrival at the JR Nara or Kintetsu Nara station, you can take the main road to reach Kofuku-ji.
Kofuku-ji, 48 Noboriojicho, Nara | (+81) 07 4222 7755
After walking past the five-storied pagoda and Inchinotori Gate, you will find yourself on the main grounds of Nara Park (奈良公園). Located at the foot of Mount Wakakusa, the park is the prime habitat of over 1,000 deer that are designated natural treasures. Whether you like it or not, these goo-goo-eyed deer will definitely and shamelessly “search” and “ask” you for food, but some of them have actually learned to do it more politely by bowing. Accompanied by a herd of deer, you can semi-leisurely stroll to your next destination.
Nara Park | (+81) 07 4222 0375
Also built by the Fujiwara clan, Kasuga-taisha (春日大社) is considered to be one of the most sacred sites in Japan with four main deities enshrined, which makes it very uncommon—a typical Japanese shrine usually only worships one to two gods. Characterised by the structure’s contrasting colours and distinctive lanterns, the shrine is also well-known for its scenic setting next to the Shinen Manyo Botanical Garden, where visitors can see wisteria in full bloom during the months of April and May.
Kasuga-taisha, 160 Kasugano, Nara | (+81) 07 4222 7788
As you head further east, you will reach Mount Wakakusa (若草山). Consisting of three hills and covering 33 hectares of grass-covered land, the mountain is open to the public from March to December every year and has an observation deck that offers an excellent view of the ancient city. On the top of the third hill is Uguisuzuka Kofun, a keyhole-shaped tomb that was built around the fifth century.
In addition, Mount Wakakusa is the site for the famous Yamayaki, which literally means “mountain burning.” On the fourth Saturday night of every January, the dead grass of the mountain is set on fire by the representatives from both Todai-ji and Kofuku-ji, two of the Seven Great Temples of Nara, followed by a show of fireworks.
The next stop is Todai-ji (東大寺). Aside from being the former largest wooden building in the world, Todai-ji is also home to the 16-metre-tall Daibutsu (大仏, Great Buddha). The temple belongs to the Kegon sect of Buddhism and was the head of all provincial temples in Japan, thus making Todai-ji a place with both religious and political importance. The temple mainly consists of the Daibutsuden (Great Buddha Hall), Nandaimon (Great South Gate), Shoro (Bell Tower), and several other structures. It is worth noting that the Daibutsuden had been twice destroyed by fire and the current building was rebuilt in 1709.
Todai-ji, 406-1 Zoushi, Nara | (+81) 07 4222 5511
Right next to Todai-ji is Isui-en (依水園), a garden that throws visitors back to old Japan with a range of traditional styles and varying landscapes. Located on the Yoshikigawa River, the garden consists of two ponds and is divided into a front and back garden. While the front garden was built during the Edo period (江戸時代), the rear one was not constructed until the Meiji period (明治). That being said, both gardens follow the tradition of shakkei (借景), which means “borrowed scenery,” and gives you a view of both Mount Wakakusa and Todai-ji in the background. The garden also has a museum that houses a collection of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean pottery.
Isui-en, 74 Suimon, Nara
Our final stop for this trip is Nara National Museum. Also located inside Nara Park, the museum was founded in 1889 with the main building, a designated Important Cultural Property, designed in the Meiji Western-style. The West Wing was later added in the 1970s, and the two wings are joined by an underground passage. Nara National Museum mainly exhibits Japanese Buddhist art, which includes sculptures, paintings, scrolls, and ceremonial articles, and hosts an annual autumn exhibition that showcases treasures from Todai-ji.
Nara National Museum, 50 Noborioji, Nara | (+81) 50 5542 8600