Visiting Nara: what are the best things to do?
Planning to travel to the Kansai region of Japan?
You cannot then miss Nara, this Japanese city of approximately 365,000 inhabitants, located less than an hour by transport from the two major cities Kyoto and Osaka. With its dozens of temples, shrines and museums, the city enjoys an exceptional historical and cultural heritage.
But Nara also owes its charm to the thousand free deer that roam its park and downtown. In short, the one that was the first fixed imperial capital of Japan (from 710 to 784) is a real compendium of Japanese history, nature and culture.
Another major asset, it is possible to explore the city mainly on foot. The ideal way to alternate between museums, temples and parks, without missing a beat and enjoying the dreamlike atmosphere of Nara… In short, the capital of the eponymous prefecture, considered the cradle of Japanese civilization, is not lacking in must-sees and this list of 10 things to do in Nara is proof of that!
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Travel back to the Edo period (1603 – 1868) in the picturesque district of Naramachi! As you delve into the narrow alleys of Nara’s old shopping district, you’ll have the opportunity to come across machiya ( old wooden Japanese houses), some of which open their doors to the public, such as the renovated machiya Koshi-no-Ie .
Today, Naramachi is home to almost a hundred shops (traditional or souvenir), restaurants, cafes and even museums, including the Naramachi mechanical toy museum or the Naramachi museum.
Do not hesitate to stop in front of the Gango-ji temple, located in the heart of the Naramachi district. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Gango-ji is one of the first temples in the country and is said to have been moved to Nara in 718.
Finally, do not miss the Imanishike Shoin residence which can be visited, and next to which is an old sake shop.
2. Nara Park ou Nara Kôen
It is inconceivable to visit Nara without going to this elegant and immense park of around 600 hectares founded in 1880.
Not only to discover the nuggets hidden there (the Tôdai-ji and Kasuga-taisha temples , Shinto shrines , the Nara National Museum, ponds, a traditional tea house…) but also to meet some of the 1200 Sika deer that live there!
Once considered messengers of the gods, therefore sacred animals, these sika deer are now designated national treasures.
3. Buddhist Temples
The Nara period is characterized by a very strong Chinese influence, both architecturally, politically and artistically, but also religiously. Buddhism was introduced to Japan from China as early as the 5th century, but developed considerably during the Nara period (8th century).
Wondering what to do in Nara? Be guided through some of Japan’s most important Buddhist temples.
Todai-Ji Temple (Great Eastern Temple)
This important temple from the middle of the 8th century owes its fame in particular to the Daibutsu-den, the largest wooden structure in the world, which houses an impressive bronze statue of a seated Buddha. Rebuilt several times since its foundation, Tôdai-ji is no less majestic!
Located on the outskirts of the park and near Kintetsu station, you cannot miss this superb temple listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You will appreciate, among other things, its multiple pavilions, its 5-storey pagoda which is reflected in the Sarusawa-ike pond on sunny days, and its museum of national treasures (Kokuhôkan), which houses statues as well as paintings or books.
4. Kasuga Taisha Shrine
After discovering the city’s Buddhist temples, you can continue to visit Nara, this time entering another UNESCO World Heritage site, the Kasuga Taisha Shinto shrine.
You only have to follow the stone lanterns in the middle of the forest to find your way to this shrine with many hanging lanterns.
5. Nara National Museum
There’s nothing like including a visit to a museum in your program of things to do in Nara to understand its history and admire the local crafts. And if only one had to be done, it would be the Nara National Museum, which is very well stocked and offers explanations in English.
This museum presents very beautiful permanent collections made up of Buddhist statues, theater masks, art objects and thousands of writings. It also hosts temporary exhibitions.
Please note: closed on Mondays.
6. Nishinokyo and its Surroundings
Head west now, away from the hustle and bustle of the center and east of the city. Toshodai-ji and Yakushi-ji are two Buddhist temples (8th century) located not far from Nishinokyo, a district much less frequented by tourists than the surroundings of Nara Park.
They both occupy an important place in the history of Buddhism in Japan and hold statutes and buildings that are among the country’s national treasures.
Saidai-ji (great western temple), a little further north, made a name for itself with its Ochamori ritual during which visitors are invited to share a tea in a huge bowl.
7. Heijo, the Former Imperial Palace
A little out of the way to the northwest of the city is the old Heijo Imperial Palace, which still bears the original name of Nara when it was the country’s capital (710-784). History buffs will enjoy observing the remains of this monument that bears witness to a bygone era.
8. Stay in a Ryokan
Soak up Japanese culture and spend the night in one of the many ryokans in the deer town.
After a busy day visiting Nara, nothing beats a hot bath (often collective) and a delicious meal in a traditional Japanese inn with a Zen atmosphere.
9. Isui-en Garden
Less famous and frequented than the deer park, the charming Japanese garden of Isui-en promises you magnificent views of Mount Wakakusa during your walk. You will find it by walking a few minutes from the Todai-ji temple.
10. Mount Wakakusa
Mount Wakakusa, culminating at 342 meters above sea level, overlooks the 1200 sika deer park in Nara. Its ascent will allow you to appreciate a breathtaking view of the city of Nara.
Bonus: during the Yamayaki festival, which is held every year on the last Saturday of January, the hill is set ablaze before lighting up with fireworks. Show guaranteed!
Where to Stay in Nara?
Ryokans, hotels, guesthouses, Airbnb … Accommodation in Nara is plentiful and satisfies all desires and budgets.
Moreover, if you opt for the hotel, remember to consult the offers on this hotel comparator which lists the best prices. You are free to choose between the old and picturesque district of Naramachi, the city center and its amenities, the calm of Nishinokyo or the big cities of Kyoto and Osaka.
To do this, do not hesitate to consult our article “Which neighborhood to stay in Nara?” to learn about the different options available to you.
Finally, be aware that by booking in advance, you are sure to sleep in accommodation at the best value for money.