The messenger of the Gods paused, looked up and proceeded to headbutt a small child who fell to the ground in shock, tears running down her face. It definitely wasn’t the type of behaviour I expected from a divine being! Except, of course this wasn’t a case of extreme child abuse – Nara’s so-called messengers of the Gods are…deer!
The deer are an integral part of Nara’s rich history. The city served as the first permanent capital of Japan from 710 to 784 and legend goes that a God named Takemikazuchi arrived on a white deer to become protector of the area. Since then, deer have been considered sacred in Nara – until 1637, killing one was punishable by death! Nowadays, they are protected as national treasures and enjoy the attention of thousands of visitors every year.
Today, Nara is a popular day trip destination from both Osaka and Kyoto and there are plenty of things to do.
Nara Park is the main draw here, partly because most of the city’s sights are located within its boundaries. It’s very walkable and it’s possible to see everything in the park in a day. The park is home to around 1200 deer who roam around and hang out near shops and food stalls. Many of them are pretty tame and spend their day eating grass, napping or, in some cases, attacking young kids who wouldn’t share their morning snack. They are super cute and visitors can buy special crackers to give to the deer, at their own peril. The park is also a great place to wander around and spot shrines, gardens and traditional Japanese teahouses.
Kofukuji (The Temple that Generates Blessings) was moved to Nara in 710 when it became the capital of Japan and served as the family temple of the powerful Fujiwara family. The symbolic five-story pagoda is the second-tallest in Japan and the National Treasure Museum has a great collection of Buddhist Art. While reconstruction work is ongoing in the complex, there is still plenty to check out around the grounds.
Admission: Grounds – free, National Treasure Museum – ¥600, Eastern Golden Hall – ¥300 or a combo ticket for ¥800
Yoshikien and Isuien Gardens
Fans of Japanese gardens will not be disappointed in Nara. Yoshikien Garden has a beautiful pond garden with a lookout pagoda, a moss garden with immaculately kept paths and a tea ceremony garden. The entry is free for foreign visitors. The adjacent Isuien Garden is said to be like nirvana for those interested in landscaping and gardening – we ran out of time so didn’t go in, but you can spy some of its intricate features from Yoshikien if the ¥900 yen entrance fee puts you off.
Admission: Yoshikien: Free for foreign visitors, Isuien: ¥900
Todaiji is one of Nara’s main draws and is one of Japan’s most impressive and famous temples. It was built in the mid 8th century and has remained an important centre for Buddhism to this day. The temple’s influence was so great that the government had to move the capital from Nara to distance its affairs from the sanctuary. It’s famous for its main hall, the Daibutsuden, which houses a huge 15 metre tall bronze Buddha. The hall itself was until a few years ago the largest wooden building in the world! This was one of my favourite temples in Japan!
Admission: ¥500 or ¥800 if you want to visit the museum containing art and treasures from the temple.
Just south of Todaiji is a massive wooden gate which serves as the main entrance to the temple. The Great South Gate was finished in 1203 and has impressively survived to this day. It is the largest temple entrance gate in Japan and is also popular with the deer who take naps in its shade. This area tends to get really busy as it’s where most of the coach groups arrive. As a result, loads of deer hang out here, hoping for some handouts. Feed them at your peril!
Hidden away from Todaiji’s crowds on the slopes of Mt. Wakakusa, Nigatsu-do is still part of the temple’s complex. Climbing the stairs on either side of the hall will lead you to the open entrance and the walkway at the top has great views of Nara Park and beyond. The hall is famous for an annual ceremony of Omizutori (“drawing water”) which started as far back as the 8th century and continues to this day! There is a big cedar tree growing on the green slope under the hall and I loved the headstones and lanterns lining the staircase to the side.
Just a little further on from Nigatsu-do is Hokke-do (Lotus Hall), which is said to be the oldest surviving structure of the Todai-ji complex. The temple was constructed in 733 and some recently research found that some of the wood from the cypress trees used during the building process date back to 729 and 731! Even more impressive is the main image hall (known as the shodo) which houses 10 impressive statues with the centrepiece, Fukukenjaku Kannon flanked by guardian deities and generals in intimidating poses. One of the statues, the Shukongo-jin, is hidden behind a wall and is only revealed to the public once a year on December 16th. I am glad we paid the entrance fee (¥500) as the hall was really impressive. Bear in mind, photography is not allowed inside.
Take a break from sightseeing on the slopes of Mt. Wakakusayama
After exiting Hokke-do, bear left and head down a paved path to the green foothills of Mt. Wakakusayama where there are public toilets and many shops and cafes. Many tourist coaches park here so the area is pretty busy but it’s your best for grabbing food and taking a break in Nara Park. You can even head up the steep slope and enjoy a picnic on the grass. This is also where a lot of the deer hang out – it’s their best bet to get some leftover food so this is a great spot for that deer selfie!
The Kasuga Great Shrine stands on the eastern edge of Nara Park and is one of the top sights in Nara. It dates back to 768 but has been rebuilt dozens of times over the centuries and doesn’t look as old as many similar shrines, but is nevertheless impressive. The shrine and the area around it have many lanterns lining its walls and paths – these are lit during special lantern festivals twice a year. The are four altars in the complex, each one enshrining a deity according to legend. The shrine was really busy when we visited due to a national holiday and there was a lot of ongoing reconstruction work, but it’s definitely worth following the winding forested path for.
Admission: Free to wander around the outer area, ¥500 for the inner section.
What: Nara is the former capital of Japan and today is a popular daytrip destination
Where: Nara is the capital city of Nara prefecture in the Kansai region. It forms a sort of geographical triangle with Osaka to the west and Kyoto to the North.
Where to eat: Nara Park has a number of cafes and shops – especially at its eastern edge. However, the city itself has plenty of convenience stores and restaurants so it’s possible to bring snacks in (just don’t eat in front of deer). After you are done with sightseeing, check out the busy pedestrian Konishi Sakura Don which has loads of shops and restaurants. It’s right by the Kintetsu Nara Station.
Getting There: Trains connect Nara with both Osaka and Kyoto in about 45 minutes. The cost is around ¥700-800 for a one-way trip, however the Japan Rail Pass covers this entire trip. JR Nara station is about a 20 minute walk from Nara Park where most of the attractions above are located. There are buses that can get you to the park (from ¥500 for a day pass). For detailed travel info, check here.