Less than an hour by train from both Kyoto and Osaka you’ll find the awe-inspiring historic city of Nara. Which is easily reachable using your Japan Rail Pass. As a result a Nara day trip is a great idea from either city.
Nara Day Trip
A Guest Post by TeamThomasTravels
Home to eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Nara was the capital city of Japan in the 8th century. Is it just me, or does it feel like every city in Japan has had a turn at being the capital?
We traveled from Kyoto, taking the rapid JR train which dropped us about a 20-minute walk from Nara-Koen. More information later on getting to Nara. The tourist information center is right outside the station. Here you can get a map and more information about the historic attractions in the city.
Exploring Nara-Koen during a Nara Day Trip
As you head to Nara-Koen, the first major sight you will pass is Kofuku-ji. Once an enormous temple complex of over 150 buildings, the handful that remain are stunning echoes of Nara 1800 years ago.
Its five-story pagoda, the symbol of Nara, is the second tallest in Japan (after Toji in Kyoto). The grounds of Kofuku-ji are free to walk around, but the three major buildings, the Central Golden Hall, Eastern Golden Hall (which holds a large wooden statue of the Healing Buddha) and National Treasure Museum, have small entry fees.
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Okumura Commemorative Museum
Walk through Nara-Koen past the Nara National Museum and you will find the Okumura Commemorative Museum. Pop in to see a display about developments in architectural earthquake technology. You can also take a free green tea up to the open roof terrace for views over hills and temple roofs.
Read More: Amazing Things to do in Nara
Nara Day Trip: Todai-ji Temple
Next up, our favorite Historic Monument, the jaw-dropping Todai-ji with its 15m Daibutsu (Great Buddha). Before entering the temple is Nandai-mon (southern gate), where two colossal wooden statues stand guard, and have since the 13th century. Once you’ve walked through the gate and past the ticket counters (entry to the Daibutsu Hall is 300 yen), you will see the main Hondo hall. This literally stopped us in our tracks.
It is VAST, one of the largest wooden buildings in the world. Amazingly, this 1709 rebuild is only two-thirds of the size of the original building. The mind boggles.
The magnificent Great Buddha of Todai-ji is one of the largest bronze Buddha images in the world. Its ears alone are over 8ft long! If you walk around the statue, on the back right corner is a wooden column with a hole through it. That hole is the same size as one of the Great Buddha’s nostrils. Legend has it, if you can squeeze through the hole you will attain enlightenment.
Be sure to climb the stairs up to the two sub-temples of Todai-ji, Nigatsu-do. You will be rewarded with a lovely veranda with views over the city and of Sangatsu-do, the oldest building in the complex.
Now walk through the park to Kasuga Taisha, a gorgeous grand Shinto shrine with long avenues of mossy stone lanterns. The buildings are painted in a wonderful bright vermillion color. You saw this color if you went to Fushimi Inari in Kyoto.
Kasugayama Primeval Forest contains 175 kinds of trees, over 1000 species of insects and 60 species of bird. It’s important for the local ecosystem that logging and hunting are forbidden, and have been for 1200 years! This is a really magical otherworldly place to walk around, with sub-shrines scattered amongst ancient woodland.
You can’t go on a Nara day trip without running into the city’s most famous residents, the sacred Nara deer. The sika deer are revered as messengers of the Shinto gods. The deer are protected national treasures. They’re allowed to roam freely throughout the park and surrounding streets.
These cute critters are extremely confident and will happily approach you for a treat. For about 200 yen you can buy a stack of shika senbei from carts around the park. The crackers are designed just for the Nara deer. Therefore, please don’t feed them anything else. It can be detrimental to their health
If you bow respectfully to the deer, many of them have learned to bow back in the hopes of receiving a tasty reward! Approach a solo deer so you don’t get overwhelmed by a group.
Don’t tease the deer. If they bow, give them the cracker. While the deer seem tame and friendly, remember that they are still wild animals. They won’t appreciate being pet or cuddled for selfies. The deer snatch carrier bags in search of food, so keep these out of sight while feeding the deer.
More Things to do during your Nara Day Trips
Walking route listed above will take up much of your day, but if you have some time left, here are some other things you can see and do in Nara:
Yoshiki-en and Isuien gardens
Close to Kofuku-ji, these are two beautiful traditional Japanese gardens. Yoshiki-en is small and immaculate with a moss garden and tea house, and free to enter if you show your foreign passport. Isuien garden is larger, divided in two, and features ponds, flowering trees, several teahouses and views across the hills and Nandai-mon of Todai-ji. It costs 900 Yen to enter.
Eat Kakinoha sushi during your Nara Day Trip
Nara’s sushi is unique to the region. The rice and raw fish are wrapped in a persimmon leaf instead of seaweed. Making it easy to use for a picnic in Nara Koen! Don’t eat the leaves…
Wander Naramachi District
The old merchant neighborhood of Nara has many beautiful traditional buildings. In other words, walking the narrow lanes is like stepping back in time. Just watch out for the rickshaws!
Watch the yomogi mochi pounders at Nakatanidou
Head to the top of Sanjo Dori Street, Nakatanidou. The staff hammers glutinous rice into a sticky green paste, and is turned into soft mochi cakes filled with sweet bean paste. Crowds gather to see the loud, fast-paced process.
Nara National Museum
The perfect wet weather plan, this museum is full of world-class Buddhist art. To cost of entry is 520 Yen.
Nara claims to be the birthplace of sake. You should probably try some! Harushika Sake Imanishi Seibei Store and Brewery in Naramachi, established in 1884, sells some of Nara’s most famous sake and offers tastings for about 500 Yen.
Buy some deer merch during your Nara Day Trip
Nara’s souvenir shops are packed with deer keepsakes. Hats, socks, tea towels, soft toys, you name it, they probably have it with antlers on.
How to get to Nara
Take the JR Rapid Express train from Kyoto station on the Nara line, (the local train which stops at Fushimi Inari is much slower). You will arrive into JR Nara station in about 40 minutes.
If you don’t have a JR Pass, Kintetsu-Nara station is actually closer to the main sights. In addition, the Kintetsu Limited Express train on the Kintetsu line from Kyoto is cheaper and faster than a train to JR Nara. It will arrive into Nara in around 34 minutes.
Taking the JR Yamatoji Rapid Service from Osaka station will get you into JR Nara station in 50 minutes.
If you don’t have a JR Pass, you can catch the Kintetsu Rapid Express train from Osaka Namba Station, which will get you to Kintetsu Nara Station in about 39 minutes.