[Definitive Edition] 30 Things to Do in Nara, A Former Capital Packed with World Heritage Sites
Nara is an area that was the capital of Japan over 1,200 years ago. It has many ancient temples and shrines, including some that are designated as World Heritage Sites, and is known as one of Japan's leading tourist destinations. This time, we introduce 30 select things to see and do in the ancient capital of Nara.
[Where is Nara?]
Nara is a prefecture in the Kinki Area, south of Kyoto and east of Osaka. Nara City is about 50 minutes on the Kintetsu Limited Express from Kyoto Station, and about 50 minutes from Osaka Station on the Osaka Loop Line. From Tokyo, the best way to get there is by taking the shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto Station and changing to the Kintetsu Limited Express.
The Nara Area is the northern part of the prefecture centered around Nara Station. It has a large number of ancient shrines and temples, including numerous World Heritage Sites. Many of the historical buildings are illuminated at night.
Visit Kasuga Taisha
This is the head shrine of 3,000 Kasuga shrines across the country, and is one of eight Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara that together make up a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is an ancient Shinto shrine that was established in the year 768, and has numerous vivid vermilion buildings within its vast grounds. The four buildings of the Main Sanctuary, a national treasure of Japan, is particularly famous. They are of kasuga-zukuri architectural style, which represents the era in which the shrine was established, with distinguishing features such as curved roofs. The Treasure House with 3,000 pieces of art, including 352 national treasures, and the Man'yo Botanical Garden, which houses 200 wisteria trees of 20 varieties, are also not to be missed.
Take a Picture of the Great Buddha of Todai-ji
Official Name: Kinkomyo Shitenno Gokoku no Tera
The World Heritage Site, Todai-ji, is an ancient temple that was established in the late 8th century. It has been the head temple in the nationally-run Kokubun-ji system, and is one of the seven great temples of Nara. The central building is the Great Buddha Hall, which is the largest wooden structure in the world. Housed in it is the national treasure, Vairocana Buddha, which is a massive Buddha statue measuring approximately 15m in height, and known widely as the Great Buddha of Nara. Photography is allowed inside the building, so it is a wonderful spot to take a snapshot (tripods are not allowed) of your visit.
Entrance fee: 600 JPY/adult (junior high school age and up), 300 JPY/elementary school age
The Five-storied Pagoda at Kohfukuji is a must see
Kohfukuji, an ancient temple established in 710, is one of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara that together constitute a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is one of the seven great temples of Nara. Its temple buildings are spread around Nara Park, which is a great place to admire the buildings while walking around. Its five-storied pagoda, a 50.1m tall structure, originally built in 730, is considered to be a symbol of Nara. The current pagoda was rebuilt in 1426 but retains much of the characteristics of the original structure, and is a designated national treasure. The best place to take a photo here is from the other side of Sarusawa Pond.
Give Rice Crackers to the Deer in Nara Park
In Japan, deer have long been considered to be messengers of Shinto deities, based on the legend that the deity for Kasuga-Taisha came riding on a white deer. Deer still have an inseparable existence from Nara today. There are approximately 1,000 wild deer in Nara Park that are designated as natural treasures. Feeding them the Shika Senbei rice crackers made specifically for them is a fun way to see them up close. Shika Senbei can be purchased at stalls, tea shops and souvenir shops in the park.
Visit the Heijo Tempyosai Festival
The site of Heijo Palace, which is one of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara that constitute a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is where the palace of the emperor was during the Nara Period. Today, there are reconstructions of some of the features of the palace, such as Suzakumon Gate and First Daigokuden (imperial audience hall). Heijo Tempyosai is a festival that is held three times a year at Heijo Palace. In the spring, it is a glamorous event with a parade of people wearing costumes from the Nara Period; in the summer, countless candles are lit; and in the fall, there are stage performances such as Iwami Kagura.
See the Annual late-winter Mt. Wakakusa Yamayaki
Mt. Wakakusa Yamayaki is a major late-winter event of Nara. Every year, on the 4th Saturday of January, Mt. Wakakusa in the east of the city is set alight. The sight of the entire mountain covered in bright red flames is stunning. There are fireworks on the same day, adding to the glamour of the skies over the ancient capital. Some popular spots to see the event are in front of Nara Kasugano International Forum, in Kasugano Park and Tobuhino in Nara Park. If you want to see it up close, you may want to go to the foot of Mt. Wakakusa.
Naramachi is an area centered around the former grounds of Gangoji, one of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara that make up a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has a retro townscape that reminds one of Japan of the past, with beautifully latticed machiya-style houses, Migawari-saru talisman that are hung on the eaves, and narrow, maze-like alleys. There are cafes and shops in renovated old buildings, so it is a lovely area to stroll around in. Naramachi Koshi-no-ie, which recreates a historical machiya townhouse, is a great place to visit to see how people lived.
Shop in Higashimuki Shopping Mall and Nara Moichiidono Shopping Street
These are two shopping areas to the west of Nara Park, on the north and south of Sanjo-dori. You can sample some of the local gourmet food here, such as the Butter Potato at the long-established kamaboko (fish cakes) store called Uoman, and the Yomogi Mochi from Nakatani-dou, famous for their high-speed mochi pounding technique. There are also shops selling Nara specialties such as Narazuke pickles and Kakinoha-zushi, which is sushi wrapped in persimmon leaves. The tenugui hand cloth store, Akemitori, is a great place to buy souvenirs. The hand towels there are made using a 1,300-year-old dyeing technique called "chusen", and have delicate and beautiful designs.
Enjoy the Specialty, Kakinoha-zushi
Kakinoha-zushi is a Nara specialty. Toppings such as thinly-sliced salted mackerel and salmon are placed on bite-size sushi rice, wrapped in persimmon leaf, and pressed down. Persimmon leaves, which have antibacterial and anti-oxidization components, were used to help keep the fish fresh before the time of refrigerators. In Nara Prefecture, there are many shops specializing in kakinoha-zushi offering a wide selection made with various seasonal ingredients.
Try the Mahoroba Daibutsu Purin
Mahoroba Daibutsu Purin has become a new standard of Nara souvenirs. There is a wide variety of this “purin” egg custard, such as the simple Mahoroba Daibutsu Purin (large) Custard (864 JPY (incl. tax)), which is popular for its traditional flavor, and the Mahoroba Daibutsu Purin (large) Yamato-cha (864 JPY (incl. tax)), made with green tea from Nara and sweet bean paste. They come in cute jars with drawings of the Daibutsu (Great Buddha) and deer that represent Nara and are perfect as souvenirs. The main store, Purin no Mori Cafe, is about eight minutes by bus from Kintetsu Nara Station. The cute, fairytale-style building that is the color of egg custard is supremely instagrammable.
Learn About Tenpyo Era Culture at Toshodai-ji Temple
Toshodai-ji Temple is the head temple of the Risshu school of Buddhism, one of the six schools of Nara Buddhism. It is a temple that was built in 759 by Ganjin, a high priest from Tang China, as a place for Buddhist training. With a variety of national treasures and important cultural properties, including the Kondo (Main Hall) that was built during the Nara Period (710 - 794), it is a place that is irresistible to history lovers. At this temple, you can experience the glamorous culture that was influenced by Tang China through such items as the sculpture of Buddha carved in the Tenpyo sculpture style representative of Tenpyo Era culture (an aristocratic culture that flourished in 8th century Nara. "Tenpyo" is the name of the imperial era of the time.)
Entrance fee: 600 JPY/adult and college age, 400 JPY/junior high and high school age, 200 JPY/elementary school age
See the Three-storied Pagodas at Yakushiji Temple
Yakushi-ji is a temple with a history going back 1,300 years that is registered as a World Heritage Site. Walk through the south gate and you will see two three-storied pagodas, the East Pagoda and the West Pagoda, with layers of roofs of varying sizes. Almost all of the buildings on the grounds were destroyed due to repeated natural and human disasters, and the East Pagoda is the only building surviving from the Nara Era. The West Pagoda was built 140cm taller than the East Pagoda taking weathering into consideration and with the plan that it would shrink to the height of the East Pagoda in 200 years.
Entrance fee: 800 JPY/adult, 500 JPY junior high and high school age, 200 JPY/elementary school age
*Entrance fees will change when the Genjo-sanzoin Garan is open
See Ancient Roof Tiles at Gango-ji Temple
Gango-ji is a temple that was established by moving Japan's first authentic temple, Asuka-dera, to the ancient capital of Heijo-kyo in present day Nara and is designated as a World Heritage Site. The roof tiles at Gango-ji are especially worth paying attention to. The tiles are assembled in an unusual style called Gyokibuki, where rounded and flat tiles, which are usually not mixed, are laid together almost on top of each other. It is also notable that tiles from approximately 1,400 years ago remain undamaged in the southeast corner of the Zen Room at the southwest corner of Gokuraku Hall.
Entrance fee: 500 JPY/adult, 300 JPY/junior high and high school age, 100 JPY/elementary school age
*600 JPY/adult during the fall special exhibit period
Encounter Buddhist Art at Nara National Museum
Nara National Museum is Japan's second oldest national museum and is located in a corner of Nara Park, famous for its deer. A variety of Buddhist artifacts, including sculptures and drawings of Buddha, Buddhist sutras, and picture scrolls and relics from temple ruins, are exhibited here. At this museum, you can experience the appeal of Buddhism in four galleries: Nara Buddhist Sculpture Hall, with almost 100 sculptures of Buddha including national treasures and important culture properties; Ritual Bronzes Gallery with ancient Chinese bronze ware; and the East and West Wings where the annual exhibition of Shoso-in Treasures are held.
Admission: 520 JPY/General Admission, 260 JPY/College Students
See the Omizutori at Todaiji's Nigatsu-do
Official Name: Kinko Myoshi Tenno Gogoku no Tera
Todai-ji is a famous temple in Nara Park with a Giant Buddha that is approximately 15m tall. At Nigatsu-do in Todai-ji, there is a traditional event called Shunie, which has been held regularly for more than 1,250 years. Shunie is a ceremony in which Todai-ji priests repent the sins of the people to pray for peace and harmony of the land and is today held for two weeks starting from March 1 every year. Large pine torches are lit every night and the temple is full of tourists late into the night on March 12, when a ceremony called Omizutori, in which water to be offered to Bodhisattva is drawn from the well, is held.
Learn About the History of Nara at Nara Palace Site Historical Park
Nara Palace Site Historical Park is a large national park that is 1.3km east to west and 1.0km north to south and is a component of the UNESCO World Heritage Site Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara. It is where the ancient capital of Heijo-kyo was built approximately 1,300 years ago and excavations and research are still being conducted to uncover important relics related to the capital. There are many significant sites that tell of the history of Nara, such as Daiichiji Daigokuden-in, which was the center of the capital where important ceremonies were held, and Suzaku-mon Hiroba Square, which was a popular place for public events and celebrations.
Appreciate the Garden at Scenic Isuien
Isuien Garden is designated by the Japanese government as a place of scenic beauty and is a Japanese garden that has a quiet and calm feel despite being in the middle of Nara City. The appeal of Isuien is that two gardens that were designed during two culturally different periods (the Edo Period (1603 - 1868) and Meiji Period (1868 - 1912)) can be enjoyed in one place. The Front Garden, which adopts garden design from the Edo Period, is a closed space surrounded by large plants, while the Back Garden, designed in the Meiji style, incorporates the surrounding scenery into the garden, giving it a more open feel.
Admission: 900 JPY/adult, 810 JPY/university student, 500 JPY/high school and middle school student, 300 JPY/elementary school student
This is the area in the center of Nara. Kashihara is the birthplace of Japan, where the first emperor, Jimmu, was enthroned, and later died. Asuka is an area that flourished during the first half of the 7th century. Both were central to ancient Japan.
Pay your Respects at Kashihara Jingu, a Shrine with a Mystical Energy
Kashihara Jingu is a shrine that was built in 1890 on the site of the palace of Kashihara, where Emperor Jimmu is said to have been enthroned. Its vast 500,000 sq.m. grounds has a sacred and solemn atmosphere. The main shrine building, which embodies the beauty of traditional Japanese architecture, the gravel path, and the greenery of the deep forest in the background are in great harmony with each other. It is a famous spiritual spot that is said to improve one's luck and success in life. It is also a place where you can enjoy nature, with the lotus in Fukada Pond, cherry blossoms and rhododendron in the spring, and beautiful foliage in the fall.
Go to Murouji Temple to See the Rhododendron
Official Name: Murouzan Shicchi-in
This is a temple that has been worshiped by women for centuries. It has a five-story pagoda, a Kondo hall, a standing statue of Gautama Buddha, and a standing statue of Kannon with 11 faces, all of which are national treasures, as well as numerous other important cultural properties. It is also famous for the approximately 3,000 rhododendron bushes along the path that bloom all at once from mid-April to early May, adding lovely colors to the temple grounds.
Entrance fee: 600 JPY/adult, 400 JPY/child
Visit Asukadera Temple, the Center of Japan Past
Official Name: Torigatayama Ango-in
Built in the year 596, this is Japan's first full-scale temple. It was once a major temple with towers and three Kondo (main temple structure) buildings, but most of it was lost to fires over its long history. Today, it stands quietly in the countryside and retains vestiges of ancient Japan. The bronze sitting statue of Gautama Buddha, which is its principal object of worship, was made during the Asuka Period (592 - 710), and is famous as Japan's oldest statue of Buddha.
Entrance fee: 350 JPY/adult and college age, 250 JPY/junior high and high school age, 200 JPY/elementary school age
Enjoy the Specialty Miwa Somen
Somen, which are fine white noodles that the Japanese typically enjoy during the hot summer, were created in Japan's oldest Shinto shrine, Omiwa Shrine in Miwa, about 1,200 years ago. It spread gradually across the country as people visiting Miwa became fascinated by it, and it is now one of Japan's representative dishes. Miwa Somen, which is made with carefully selected ingredients that take advantage of Miwa's nature, is characterized by a smooth texture and body. There are many Miwa Somen shops within 15 minutes of Miwa Station.
This is the area at the foot of Mt. Ikoma and Mt. Shigi in northwestern Nara. In the northern part, there are the famous temples of Horyuji and Hokkiji, which are World Heritage Sites. The Katsuragi and Gose area in the south also has many ancient temples and shrines and is a popular hiking spot.
Go See Horyuji, the World's Oldest Wooden Structure
Horyuji is an old temple that was built in 607, and is one of the seven great temples of Nara. It is among Japan's most famous spots, and contains many national treasures. It is, unsurprisingly, registered as a World Heritage Site. The temple grounds can generally be divided into the western precinct with the Kondo (main hall) and Goju-no-To (five storied pagoda) and the eastern precinct centered around the octagonal Yumedono (Hall of Visions). The structures in the western precinct were completed around the 8th century and are known as the world's oldest group of wooden structures.
Entrance fee: 1,500 JPY/adult (junior high school age and older), 750 JPY/elementary school age
See Japan's Oldest Three-story Pagoda at Hokiji Temple
Hokiji Temple is a famous temple that is included in the World Heritage list as part of “The Buddhist monuments in the Horyuji Area”. Its highlight is the 24m tall Sanju-no-To (three-story pagoda) that was built in 706. It is a historic building that has undergone extensive renovations since it was first built, and is known as the oldest and largest remaining three-story pagoda in Japan. The temple also has numerous statues of Buddha that can be seen through glass panes. The temple is surrounded by cosmos fields that provide a colorful backdrop to the three-story pagoda in the fall.
Entrance fee: 300 JPY/general, 200 JPY/elementary school age
See the Azalia in the Spring and Frost-covered Trees in the Highlands of Kastsuragi
The highlands near the top of the 959m-high Mt. Kastsuragi can be accessed by hiking or easily on a ropeway. It has a 360-degree panoramic view of the Nara basin and is popular for its fantastic seasonal views. In the spring, the entire area is covered in a blanket of rhododendron, and in the winter, the world is painted a silvery white by the frost-covered trees. The fresh verdure of the summer and the Japanese pampas grass of the fall are also lovely to see.
Ropeway fare: 1,500 JPY/round trip
The Yoshino area covers all of southern Nara Prefecture. It is rich in nature, as represented by Yoshino River, and, being the center of Shugendo (sect of Japanese mountain asceticism), also has many traditional structures.
See the Cherry Blossoms of Mt. Yoshino
The World Heritage Site, Mt. Yoshino, is a sacred land that has been the object of worship for over 1,300 years. It has long been protected and today has more than 30,000 cherry trees that blossom beautifully in the spring. There are roughly four areas famous for the cherry blossoms: The Shimo-senbon at the foot of the mountain, the Naka-senbon in the middle of the mountain, the Kami-senbon with great views, and the Oku-senbon deep in the mountain. Each offer unique angles from which to enjoy the cherry blossoms. The flowers bloom from early April, starting with the Shimo-senbon, and gradually moving up the mountain.
Visit Kinpusen-ji Temple
Official Name: Kokujikusan Kinpusen-ji
This is a famous temple that is iconic to Mt. Yoshino. It is the head temple of Shugendo, and is registered as a World Heritage Site. Its highlight is the main hall, Zao-do, which is a national treasure. It is a huge, square, wooden structure, each side measuring 36m, and with a height of 34m. Its massive size is second only to the Great Buddha Hall of Todai-ji. The hall is dedicated to three Zao-gongen statues that are normally kept out of sight of the public. The statues are made available to the public for a limited period each year, so be sure to see them if the timing is right.
Zao-do entrance fee: 500 JPY/adult and college age, 400 JPY/junior high and high school age, 300 JPY/elementary school age
*Additional fee when the Buddha statues are on display
Cross the Suspension Bridge in Tanize
Totsukawa at the southern tip of Nara Prefecture is a village surrounded by rich nature. The village is famous for the Tanize-no-Tsurikawa suspension bridge over Totsu River. It is a 297m-long bridge, making it the longest functional suspension bridge in Japan. It is suspended 54m above ground, so walking on it is like walking through air. The bridge sways with every step so it can be quite a thrilling walk. The bridge also affords a fantastic view with the clear Totsu River below, and the beautiful surrounding mountains.
Enjoy Canoeing and Kayaking on Yoshino River
Yoshino River, which runs through the center of Nara Prefecture, is a beautiful river that has long been sung about in waka poems. It is home to ayu sweetfish, eel, and a variety of other fish, thanks to its extremely clean water. There is also a wide range of activities that can be enjoyed on the river, among which kayaking is highly recommended. There is a number of kayaking points, including rapid and calm waters, so it's suitable for people of all levels. You could also try canoeing, rafting, and canyoning.
Enjoy the Onsen Hot Springs in Dorogawa Onsen
Dorogawa Onsen is a rural onsen hot spring village located at an altitude of 820m, and has long been a place for hikers to relax and rejuvenate. The village today retains a retro atmosphere, with more than 20 traditional ryokan and minshuku (types of traditional Japanese inns). It is particularly atmospheric in the evenings when the paper lanterns are lit. The onsen hot spring water has a mildly alkaline simple thermal quality. It is said to relieve nerve and muscle pain, and that the skin feels smooth after bathing. The spring water of Dorogawa is also famous as high-quality drinking water, and there are local specialties, such as Meisui Tofu, which make use of it.
Enjoy Stunning Views in Mitarai Valley
Mitarai Valley, which is popular for its mystic beauty, is a scenic area with a clear, emerald green river flowing through huge boulders. There is a walking path along the river so that you can enjoy a refreshing walk surrounded by nature. The dynamic waterfall that looks down on a suspension bridge is stunning. The 7.4km hiking trail that goes from Tenkawa Kawai bus stop to Dorogawa Onsen is a gentle trail that is appropriate for beginners. The beauty of this valley, which changes its appearance with the season, is said to be the best of the whole Kinki Region.
If you are planning to visit the Kinki Region, be sure to go to Nara to experience a little of ancient Japan.
*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.
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