Nara Day Trip: Top Things To Do in Japan’s Ancient Capital

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

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.

Nara
Deer in Nara Park
Nara
Some useful warnings! I have seen the deer do pretty much all of these!

Kofukuji Temple

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

Nara
Five-story pagoda at Kofukuji

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

Nara
Yoshikien Garden

Todaiji Temple

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.

Nara
Daibutsuden

Nandaimon Gate

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!

Nara
Nandaimon or Great Southern Gate

Nigatsu-do

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.

Admission: Free

Nara
Nigatsu-do and the cedar tree in front
Nara
The headstones and lanterns on a staircase by Nigatsu-do

Hokke-do

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.

Admission: ¥500

Nara
Hokke-do

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!

Nara
It took MANY takes to get this right!
Nara
Deer and Mt. Wakakusayama in the background

Kasuga Taisha

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.

Nara
Lanterns and a torii gate near Kasuga Taisha

The Trip

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.

Nara

19 thoughts on “Nara Day Trip: Top Things To Do in Japan’s Ancient Capital

  1. Stephanie (1AdventureTraveler) says:

    Wow, the deer are amazing in Nara Japan. Seeing your photos brought me back to a fun and historic place to visit. Great top things to do there and directions on where to go. Can’t believe the Messenger of the Gods (Nara Deer) headbutted a child. 🙂 Well, yes i can. The deer can be very aggressive so look out but not a place to miss. The deer selfie…priceless 🙂 Love your photos and thanks for sharing!

  2. Angie (FeetDoTravel) says:

    Oh deer, I can’t believe they knock people over, love the deer selfie though – brilliant! There really is a lot to see and do in Nara, I love temples and japanese gardens so this place would be a fantastic place for me to visit. The Kasuga Great Shrine is quintessentially Japanese so I would also enjoy photographing that, and what a fabulous walk to reach it through a winding forest path! Such a lovely post and thank you for all the information you have provided, pinned for the future #feetdotravel

    • Travel Lexx says:

      That selfie was hard work but it paid off in the end! Nara really did have a great range of things to go – temples, gardens and wildlife!

  3. Sam H Travels says:

    The deer are gorgeous !! And they are seemingly not as shy as I would have expected them to be ! Loved the photo of you and the deer lol. Also great shots of the buildings. Very informative post 🙂

  4. Lisa says:

    I can see why this is a popular destination, looks like a fun place to visit. The deer are lovely and obviously used to people. Visiting the temples & pagodas would be intriguing and I especially love gardens. Thanks for the added tips will pin this for a future visit.

  5. David says:

    Haha, love that opening. The gardens and the deer looks really serene. The temples, shrines and gates all look really spectacular but that shot of the staircase by Nigatsu-do is awesome. Looks like the new lens got put to good use. Another spot in Japan I’m now keen to see.

    • Travel Lexx says:

      Thanks David! The lens was a blessing and I only ended up using my usual one a handful of times! Definitely recommend a visit here!

  6. Jenn says:

    Squeal! Adorable… oh my how I love these sweet little deer. And, the grounds and buildings look amazing too! This seems like a great place to spend some time!

  7. Garth says:

    First off I’m really jealous you went to Nara, me and Phil wanted to, but our schedule didn’t allow it, so thanks for sharing what we missed!! So I’d read about the deer, but had no idea you could get that close! I love your selfie! how many did that take ?! You’re photos are awesome too! was that your new lens? In fact I loved all of your post, I felt like I was there. Japan is just too visually perfect, such beauty, history and taste. I really want to go back and explore more.

    • Travel Lexx says:

      Thanks Garth! I have quite a few selfies but I wanted one where the deer is looking into the camera and that was a great one. I really do love the new lens – fantastic for building and landscape shots! You definitely should go if you guys head over again!

    • Travel Lexx says:

      Thanks Vyjay – you’re right, there are a LOT of deer there! You get used to them pretty quickly though. Just keep your food out of sight!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *