Nara is home to Japan’s oldest and largest temples including eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The city became Japan’s first permanent capital in 710. The Nara Period lasted for nearly 75 years. The capital was then moved to Kyoto in 784 because of the growing influence of the Buddhist monasteries.
Nara is easy to access from Kyoto or Osaka, making it a great destination for a day trip. From Kyoto to Nara, it takes 45 minutes on the Nara Line Rapid train. From Osaka to Nara, it takes about an hour on the Yamatoji Line Rapid train.
The 10 Best Things to Do in Nara, Japan
1. Nara Park
Nara Park, or Nara Koen, is one of the oldest parks in Japan, founded in 1880. The area occupies nearly 1600 acres, has 1700 cherry trees, and is the location of the World Heritage Sites Todaiji, Kasuga Taisha, and Kofukuji.
The highlight of the park is the wild deer. They are a symbol of the city. Considered heavenly animals that protect the city, they are free to roam wherever they like. They are friendly but can get aggressive if you’re holding Shika Senbei – special deer crackers you can buy in the park. Some deer will even bow in order to receive the crackers.
2. Todai-ji Temple
Todai-ji Temple means Great Eastern Temple, and it is the most impressive site in Nara. It is one of the largest wooden structures in the world and home to the Daibutsu, the largest bronze Buddha in the world.
The temple was established in 728, and the main hall and Great Buddha were completed in 752. Interestingly, the Buddha used so much bronze that it exhausted the supply of bronze in the country. In total, it is 50 feet tall and weighs 550 tons.
The main hall has burnt down twice. The current structure was built in 1692 and is only two-thirds of its original size! For fun, there’s a hole in one of the pillars that is the same size as the Buddha’s nostril. According to folklore, if you can crawl through, then you will reach enlightenment.
3. Isuien Garden
Near Todai-ji is Isuien Garden. There is a front garden and back garden, with the front garden dating to the mid-17th century.
4. Kasuga Taisha
From Todai-ji, you can walk to Kasuga Taisha through the Kasuga-yama Primeval Forest, where hunting and logging has been prohibited since 841.
Kasuga Taisha was established in 768. According to Shinto custom, the shrine was rebuilt every 20 years in order to purify the site. It is believed that the shrine has been rebuilt more than 50 times before the practice was discontinued. The current structure dates to 1893.
The shrine is known for its hundreds of bronze lanterns and more than 2000 stone lanterns. The lanterns represent donations from residents and businesses. The lanterns are lit twice a year for the Mantoro lantern festival during Setsubun in early February and Obon in mid-August.
5. Kofuku-ji Temple
Kofuku-ji Temple was established in 710 and consisted of 150 buildings. The main attraction is the five-storied black pagoda, another symbol of Nara. At 50 meters, it is the second tallest wooden pagoda in Japan after Toji Temple in Kyoto. It was originally built in 730 and most recently rebuilt in 1426.
6. Gango-ji Temple
Gango-ji Temple was established in 718 and was one of the great temples in Nara. Now there are only a couple of buildings remaining.
7. Heijo Palace
Heijo Palace is the site of the old imperial palace. The area was one kilometer square and stood at the center of the city. There were government offices and the emperor’s residence. When the capital moved, the area was abandoned. Today, there are some current reconstructions but no original buildings.
8. Toshodai-ji Temple
Toshodai-ji Temple was founded in 759 by Ganjin, a Chinese Buddhist monk who was important to the introduction of Buddhism in Japan. There is a wooden statue of Ganjin on display in the complex, and his grave is located in a beautiful moss garden.
9. Yakushi-ji Temple
Yakushi-ji Temple was completed in 698 in Asuka and moved to the current location in 718. Many of the buildings are reconstructions because of fires. The East Pagoda is the only original structure and dates to 730.
10. Horyu-ji Temple
Horyu-ji Temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the oldest surviving wooden buildings in the world. It was founded in 607 and contains 48 ancient wooden structures.
Because of fires, the complex was rebuilt in 1603. However, the five-storied pagoda and the main hall are original structures.
The five-storied pagoda is 122 feet and is thought to be the oldest wooden building in the world. The wood dates back to 594 and the main hall dates to the early 600s.
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Becki and Shawn
Japan Travel Specialists
Hi, we’re Becki and Shawn! We love Japan and are truly passionate about Japan and Japan travel.
We’ve lived, worked, and traveled in Japan for 20+ years, so we know where to go, what to see, and how to get there. Join us in Japan for an adventure of a lifetime!