Translated by Sandy Lau
Nara Travel Guide – 17 Things To Do, Access, Where To Stay, And More
Nara, the city that was Japan's capital 1,300 years ago, is full of exciting sites, such as World Heritage-designated shrines and temples, a giant Buddha, and an Edo period townscape. It's excellent for a day trip from Kyoto or Osaka! Learn 17 things to do, how to get there, and where to stay.
Written by MATCHA
Nara - Explore Japan's Ancient Capital
Nara is a prefecture adjacent to Osaka and Kyoto. Nara City was the capital of Japan around the eighth century and has played an important role in developing the country religiously and culturally. This prefecture is home to historical shrines and temples, and several Daibutsu, or large Buddha statues. One of these prominent spots is Horyuji Temple, Japan’s most ancient wooden structure.
Nara is convenient for sightseeing on a day trip from Kyoto or Osaka, so be sure to stop by if you’ll be visiting the Kansai region. Use this article to learn tips for traveling in Nara, including recommended spots and activities, festivals, access, and more.
Table of Contents:
17 Things to Do in Nara
We’ll introduce seventeen places you’ll want to visit and things you’ll want to experience in Nara.
1. Gaze at Kasuga Taisha Shrine’s Beautiful Main Building
Kasuga Taisha Shrine, renowned for its red gates and main building, is a shrine with around 1,300 years of history. It is also a registered UNESCO World Heritage Site. Shikinen Zotai, the reconstruction of the main sanctuary every 20 years, is also a practice unique to Kasuga Taisha Shrine.
The shrine grounds are lined with over 3,000 hanging lanterns. The Mantoro, an event when all the hanging lanterns are lit, is held every year in February and August.
2. Feed the Deer at Nara Park
Nearly 1,400 deer inhabit Nara Park located next to Kasuga Taisha Shrine. The deer are considered messengers of the gods at Kasuga Taisha Shrine and have been treated with great care in this region.
The Deer Call, calling together the deer with a horn, and Antler Cutting, held in the autumn, are events popular with tourists. Deer rice crackers are sold at the shops in the park and can be given to the deer as fodder.
3. Watch the Burning of Mt. Wakakusa
Picture courtesy of Nara Visitors Bureau
The Burning of Mt. Wakakusa, or Wakakusa Yamayaki, held annually on the fourth Saturday of January, is a festival that heralds early spring in Nara. Through this event, which consists of burning the entirety of Mt. Wakakusa, near Kasuga Taisha Shrine and Nara Park, participants lay to rest and console the spirits of their ancestors. They also pray for the protection of Nara against disaster and world peace.
4. See the Wondrous Sight of Nara Tokae
Picture courtesy of Nara Visitors Bureau
Nara Tokae is a lantern festival where the entire Nara Park is lit with candles for ten days every year at the beginning of August. It is a traditional summer event in Nara. Nara’s scenery, standing out among the flames of the candles, is wondrous and mystical.
5. Pray to the Nara Daimonji Okuribi
Picture courtesy of Nara Visitors Bureau
“Daimonji” is an annual summer event where large characters are written with fire on top of a mountain to send off the spirits of the deceased to the afterlife.
Kyoto is famous for this event, but it is also held in Nara on August 15, the anniversary of the end of World War II in Japan, in memorial of those who perished and to pray for world peace.
Memorial services are held in an area called Tobihino in Nara Park. A fire in the shape of the Chinese character for “big” is burned into Mt. Takamadoyama starting at 20:00.
6. Feel the Power of the Todaiji Temple Daibutsu
Todaiji Temple was erected in the eighth century and is registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Visit the Great Buddha Hall and take a look at the fifteen-meter-tall Daibutsu statue. You also shouldn’t overlook the two Nio guardian statues at the Great South Gate. They are the largest of their kind in the country.
With the temple grounds, you’ll also find other halls such as the Hokke-do, which houses wonderful sculptures, and Nigatsu-do, where the Omizutori (explained in detail below), an event that summons spring in Nara, is held. From the area of the Nigatsu-do, you’ll also have an unobstructed view of the Nara cityscape.
7. Pray for Sound Health with the Omizutori
The Omizutori is a traditional Todaiji Temple event that announces the coming of spring in Nara. The event has been held for over 1,260 years at Todaiji Temple and takes place around March every year.
During this period, many people visit to see the handrails of Nigatsu-do illuminated by the torch flames. It is said that you won’t fall ill after being showered by the sparks of the torches.
8. Admire Valuable Cultural Properties at Horyuji Temple
Horyuji Temple, also registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was constructed in the seventh century. Believed to be a Buddhist facility that retains the appearance of an ancient temple, the structure contains numerous cultural properties including Buddhist statues dating back to the eighth century, and Buddhist crafts.
9. Visit Yakushiji and Toshodaiji Temple
Yakushiji Temple, constructed in the seventh century, then moved to its current location in the eighth century, is a temple comprised of eight buildings including the main hall, grand lecture hall, and pagodas to the east and west. The vermillion main hall especially draws the eye.
Walk north for about ten minutes from Yakushiji Temple and you’ll find Toshodaiji Temple. Toshodaiji Temple was established as a place of Buddhist practice by Jianzhen (Ganjin in Japanese), a Chinese monk, to train and study. The main hall and east pagoda (destroyed by lightning) were constructed after Jianzhen passed away and is said to have become its current state by the end of the eighth century.
Both Yakushiji Temple and Toshodaiji Temple are registered as World Heritage Sites, so don’t miss out on visiting them.
10. Feel the Glory of the Ancient Capital at Heijo Palace
This is the former site of Heijo Palace in Heijokyo, established as the capital of Japan in 710. It is registered as a World Heritage Site. The important Imperial Council Hall structure, the large Suzakumon gate, and the garden have been restored to its original state.
Earthenware excavated in the region and dioramas that recreate ancient Heijokyo is on display in the museum attached to the site.
11. See Maitreya’s Soothing Smile at Chuguji Temple
In Chuguji Temple, neighboring Horyuji Temple, is a wooden statue of Maitreya, a Buddhist statue. It is also known as the “Eastern Poet” as its seated pose, with its right foot resting on its left knee as if deep in thought, resembles “The Thinker” by Rodin.
The slight smile is famous as a representative example of an archaic smile. Wouldn’t you like to see Maitreya’s gentle expression?
12. Admire the Cherry Blossoms on Mt. Yoshino
Mt. Yoshino is a very famous destination for cherry blossoms in Nara. Around 30,000 cherry blossom trees in 200 different varieties bloom on this mountain, and you can enjoy the cherry blossoms for a relatively long period due to their different blooming periods, which range from late March to around mid-April. The fall scenery that can be seen from riding the ropeway is also picturesque.
13. View Ancient Architecture Techniques at Ishibutai Tumulus
Ishibutai Tumulus is believed to be the tomb where Soga no Umako, a powerful figure during the seventh century, is buried. The tomb was made by piling over 30 megaliths on top of each other. The total weight is approximately 2,300 tons. Through this archaeological site, you can understand the outstanding advancement in public works and transportation techniques at the time.
14. See the Old Townscape of Naramachi
Naramachi is an area near Gangoji Temple, a World Heritage Site. This spot is known for its old townscape from the Edo period. The area is home to trendy cafés, adorable general stores, and workshops for glass accessories and traditional crafts, making it perfect for a stroll.
15. Eat Kakinoha Sushi
Kakinoha Sushi is a Nara specialty made with vinegar sushi rice with garnished with salted fish, which is then wrapped with persimmon leaves, which contain antibacterial properties. This food was created as a type of preserved food in Nara, as it was difficult to procure seafood due being landlocked by mountains, and nowadays can be purchased in the food section at department stores and souvenir shops.
16. Shopping at JR Nara Station
If you want to purchase gifts and souvenirs, head to VIERRA Nara, a shopping complex located under the elevated JR Nara Station. In addition to its restaurants and supermarkets, the mall has stores that carry souvenirs, like Nara Miyakoji and Nara Meihinkan, making it ideal for finding something special.
17. Souvenirs at Time’s Place Nara at Kintetsu Nara Station
Inside Time’s Place inside Kintetsu Nara Station is GOTO-CHI a store carrying a wide range of Nara souvenirs ranging from general goods to sweets. There are also Kakinoha sushi and wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets) shops, so you’ll definitely find something you’re interested in.
Kintetsu Nara Station
Address: Nara, Nara, Nakasuji Google Map
Best Places to Stay for Nara Sightseeing
Nara can be visited on a day trip from Osaka or Kyoto, but we also recommend staying in the area if you want to visit several spots in Nara.
Great Hotels Near the Station
Super Hotel Lohas JR Nara Station, which is directly connected to JR Nara Station, is about 10,000 yen for a night's stay. It has a bright interior and is convenient for sightseeing. Hotel Nikko Nara, also directly connected to the station, can sometimes be stayed at for around 12,000 yen and up, depending on the plan, despite it being a four-star hotel.
Super Hotel Lohas JR Nara Station
Address: Nara, Nara, Sanjohonmachi 1-2 Google Map
Official Website: https://www.superhoteljapan.com/en/s-hotels/lohasnara/
Hotel Nikko Nara
Address: Nara, Nara, Sanjohonmachi 8-1 Google Map
Official Website: https://www.okura-nikko.com/japan/nara/hotel-nikko-nara/
We suggest guesthouse if you want to lodge in Nara for a reasonable price. You can stay for about 5,000 yen to 10,000 yen per night at guesthouses such as Nara Guesthouse 3F, located near Kintetsu Nara Station, and Guesthouse Naramachi, which was renovated from an old private home in Naramachi.
If you want to celebrate a special occasion or travel in luxury in Nara, there are four-star hotel options to satisfy your needs. Some of these include Nara Hotel, a well-established hotel about a ten-minute walk from Kasuga Taisha Shrine, and Noborioji Hotel, a three-minute walk from Kintetsu Nara Station.
You can spend the best time feeling the history in their interior designs with scrupulous service.
How to Get to Nara from Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto
Access from Tokyo
Travel to Kyoto by the Nozomi Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo Station. It will take roughly two hours and fifteen minutes with unreserved seating for 13,080 yen. Transfer to the JR Miyakoji Rapid train bound for Nara at Kyoto Station to travel to Nara Station. This will take about 45 minutes and will cost 710 yen.
The total travel time is three hours and 20 minutes, costing 13,790 yen for the Shinkansen and train.
Express buses and night buses also operate from either Tokyo Station or Shinjuku Station to JR and Kintetsu Nara Station. It will take nine hours at the longest, with the fare fluctuating depending on the date and day of the week. Prices generally range from 4,000 yen to 9,500 yen for a one-way ticket.
Access from Osaka and Kyoto
From Shin-Osaka Station, first, travel to Osaka Station on the JR Kyoto Line. Transfer to the JR Yamatoji Rapid Service train in Osaka, then get off at Nara Station. It takes roughly one hour and costs 920 yen.
From Kyoto, you will arrive at Nara Station as the last stop by taking the JR Miyakoji Rapid train bound for Nara. The ride is 45 minutes long and will cost 710 yen.
Travel Throughout the Kansai Region with the Kansai Area Pass
If you want to sightsee around the Kansai region in areas like Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, and Kobe, make use of the convenient Kansai Area Pass. At 2,200 yen (half price for children), it's a great value. Pass holders have unlimited rides on the JR Line in the Kansai region for one day.
Transportation in Nara
The Gurutto Bus in Nara City is useful for sightseeing. Ride this bus when visiting famous spots such as Kasuga Taisha Shrine, Todaiji Temple, and Mt. Wakakusa. It is 100 yen per ride.
Have an Unforgettable Nara Trip!
Nara, which once thrived as Japan’s capital, is full of places where you can encounter Japanese history, with registered World Heritage Sites and ancient structures. There are many more shrines, temples, and museums that have collected historical documents aside from what we introduced in this article. When you visit Osaka or Kyoto, wouldn’t you like to travel further to Nara and go on a trip to come into contact with Japan’s history?