How to Spend a Day in Nara: Temples, Sacred Deer & A Giant Buddha

17 Aug 2023

Nara was once the capital of Japan. Its first permanent capital, in fact. According to Shintō taboos up until the 7th century, the capital had to move every time an emperor passed away. This practice disappeared under the influence of Buddhism, and after a couple of rounds of trial and error in other locations, the imperial seat was established in Nara. In this guide we'll tell you what to see in Nara if you've got just one day.

The Nara Period (AD 710-784) is of huge importance because it was the birth of Japanese culture as we know it. Influenced deeply by Chinese civilisation, the Japanese developed their alphabet, government, arts and architecture. They even adopted Buddhism.

We're arriving in Nara on a train straight from our adventures in the Sacred Mount Koya (Koyasan). Half of the fun has been getting here, as we descended the mountain and passed through picturesque traditional country homes.

Most people do Nara as a day trip from Osaka or Kyoto (both under an hour train ride away) – which is absolutely doable. We're going to spend the night here and take it slow, and then tell you all about it.

Kōfuku-ji and the five-story pagoda

We start with a walk to Kōfuku-ji, a Buddhist temple established in 669 by the powerful Fujiwara family. The temple played a significant role in Japanese history and culture, serving as a centre of religious practice, political influence and artistic development.

One of the most notable features of Kōfuku-ji is its five-story pagoda, which stands at ~50 meters (164 feet). This pagoda is an iconic symbol of the temple and Nara itself. It was completed in the early 8th century, making it one of the oldest wooden structures in Japan. The pagoda's architectural design showcases Chinese and Korean influences, reflecting the cultural exchanges of that time.

Kōfuku-ji is also part of the Nara Tokae Festival, an annual event that lights up the city's streets and temples with thousands of lanterns during the summer evenings. The temple's pagodas and structures are adorned with lanterns, creating a magical and ethereal atmosphere.

A rather interesting fact I've recently learned about Kofuku-ji is that it featured in the classic 1954 film "Seven Samurai," directed by Akira Kurosawa. A must-watch.

Strolling in the calm Yoshikien gardens

We then make our way through the petite Yoshikien gardens, named after the small river that runs beside them. Visitors often skip Yoshikien, either in favour of the famous Isuien Gardens next-door, or because they simply don't know about them.

The entrance fee is waived for foreign visitors upon completing a very short questionnaire at the entrance. The man in the booth has as many wrinkles as the sky has stars; his fingers tremble as he passes us a pen and paper. I feel like he's been guarding these gardens all of his life. I crane my neck sideways to see inside: there's no one in there. Did he go grey waiting for visitors? "We're here now! Sorry we took so long," my heart whispers.

Japanese gardens are aesthetically simple. They are meant to inspire reflection and meditation. Yoshikien consists of a pond garden, a moss garden and a camellia garden for tea ceremonies.

Isuien gardens: a peaceful oasis

We move on to nearby Isuien garden. These are one of the top sights in Nara and have been designated an Important Cultural Property of Japan. After paying a small fee (which also includes entrance to the Neiraku Art Museum), we stroll in.

Isuien Gardens provide a different perspective to Yoshikien Gardens. Whilst at Yoshikien we could see three different varieties of gardens, here we can see two different techniques: one from the Edo period (front garden) and one from the Meiji period (back garden).

A tranquil spot here is the Sanshutei Tea House, where you can sit and relax sipping on a cup of tea. They also serve the popular Mugitoro (a wheat dish of rice and a sticky food made from grating a yam).

Whilst roaming freely, we spot a volunteer guide (of which there are many in Japan). We join the free talk, it's super insightful. We learn about the architecture and the features of a tea room and the gardens and the reasons behind them. Our attention is diverted and entirely absorbed by her badge.

Messengers of the Gods

Having left the gardens, we enter Nara Park and head towards Nandaimon Gate.

The area of the ancient park (one of the oldest in Japan) is 1,240 acres, and it's full of wandering sika deer. These are considered messengers of the gods in the Shinto religion, and protected by law.

Several stalls and shops in the park sell deer biscuits (called ‘shika senbei’). These are made of wheat flour and rice bran and are safe for visitors to feed the deer. In fact, part of the profits from the sale of biscuits goes towards protecting these animals. Human food however, is not safe for deer, so if you’re planning to grab a bite in Nara Park make sure to dispose of your rubbish properly or take it home with you.

As cute as the deer are, they are wild (or semi-wild) and so, they’re capable of finding their own food, which is largely grass. Deers here have been known to become hostile and bite tourists who are not cautious in interacting with them, so please do treat them with respect.

Ancient temples, giant Buddhas

We make it to the Tōdai-ji (Eastern Great Temple). This is an imposing Buddhist temple set on a wide road, with the park as a backdrop. It's the home to the Daibutsuden (Great Buddha Hall), where we find the World's largest bronze statue of Buddha.

There are countless people in here but the imposing statue stands tall and makes everything go still. We slowly walk around it, unable to take our eyes off of it. Once inside the hall, we slow down and start observing other visitors interact with the hall and buy O-Mikuji (a piece of paper with a random fortune).

We take a back route through the Great Bell to get to Nigatsu-do and Sangatus-do halls. The views from here are spectacular.

Kasuga Taisha

We walk through beautiful paths, countless little shrines and dozens of deer. Walking through this area of the park is decidedly quieter. We even spot a few Japanese people quietly offer their prayers, clapping their hands twice before bowing deeply.

We arrive at the Kasuga Taisha shrine, a massive structure in the traditional blood-orange colour that denotes it's Shinto.

This is Nara's most famous shrine. It was established when Nara became capital and it's dedicated to the deity that protects the city.

Kasuga Taisha is famous for its hundreds of bronze lanterns -  donated by worshipers - and which are lit twice a year during Lantern Festivals in early February and mid-August.

In this state of awe is that we walk towards the complex in front of the shrine: the Shinen Manyo Botanical Garden. This garden has more than 250 plants that were described in Japan's oldest collection of poems dating to the Nara Period.

Maguro Koya: Nara's best hidden secret

I've had the privilege of visiting and eating at some of the best restaurants, thanks to the industry I was working in and all those business lunches. But with a hand on my heart I can say that the top 10 foods I've had in my life have been at unassuming little local restaurants, often run by a tag team of husband and wife. Nothing tastes better than fresh food sourced locally, prepared by someone who's been making the same thing over and over all of their lives.

I found Maguro Koya on Tripadvisor when it only had a handful of reviews there and another handful on Google Maps. I was looking for recommendations made by locals, in Japanese language.

We arrive at the place but miss it twice. The shop front is dingy and has no sign whatsoever. Inside, it looks a bit run down but the sweet, sweet, husband and wife have already seen us come in and we're too embarrassed to back out. The once-white walls are covered in grease and smoky marks. It does not look appealing.

Still, we order. We order everything Maguro-related, because this is a fresh tuna restaurant. A piece that is normally extremely expensive in Japan and in the rest of the world is Otoro, which is the fatty belly part of the tuna. There are different grades of fat and quality. It takes an expert eye (and touch) to identify a superior cut at the market.

Well it turns out this man has it. The food that comes out is out-of-this-world. The fried Tuna, the Sashimi, the croquettes.... I will come back to Nara just to come back to this place. Unfortunately this is no longer a hidden gem. To date they're rated 4.6 by more than 700 people on Google - so you'll have to fight for a table.

This meal ends a perfect day in Nara. Our feet hurt, our bellies are full and we have huge grins on our faces. We're walking to our guesthouse - tomorrow we have more places to discover!

When to Visit Nara

Most guides will recommend Spring. And of course Spring will have Cherry Blossoms, but it's also an incredibly busy season. A better time to visit, in our opinion, is Autumn. October and November are still warmish months with crisp sunny days, less rainfall than Summer and to top it all, stunning golden foliage. And it will be quieter. We wholeheartedly recommend you visit during Autumn.

How to get to Nara

From Osaka Station take the Yamatoji Rapid Service to JR Nara station (50 min, about 800 yen). From JR Namba Station, take the local train of the Yamatoji Line to Kyuhoji Station and transfer to the Rapid Service (51 min, about 650 yen).

From Kyoto JR Station take the JR Nara Line (45 mins by express, about 690 yen). From Kintetsu Kyoto Station take the Kintetsu Nara Line (35 min, about 1,110 yen).

Where to stay in Nara

We highly recommend Guesthouse Nara Backpackers. The 100-year old traditional house is centrally located and beautifully kept. It's got a central Japanese garden with a cherry blossom and a traditional kotatsu table in the common area, to keep your tootsies warm in winter. You'll be welcomed with charisma and warmth. Don't forget to support them and book directly with them.

Where to eat in Nara

Other than the excellent Maguro Koya, we recommend you wake up early and seek out Nakatanidou. These sweetmakers are famous for their fast pounding of mochi dough. You can visit them any time of day, really, but expect a looooong queue to try one of their delicious yomogi mochi sweets.

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