1,300 years ago, Japan’s capital was Nara. The entirety of Nara Prefecture is blessed with an abundance of nature and charming, famous places, but of all of them, Nara Park in the city of Nara is a sightseeing destination where all the most iconic symbols of Nara are gathered, including historical cultural heritage sites. This is your complete guide to the highlights and events of Nara Park.
About Nara Park
The magnificent Nara Park spans approximately 660 hectares. The grounds are shaped in a way as though it was embracing the majestic nature within, and it includes many cultural sites such as the Nara National Museum and famous Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples that are rich with cultural heritage such as Todaiji Temple and Kasuga Taisha Shrine. Don't forget the deer numbering around 1,200! For around 1,300 years, this has been a place for people for sightseeing and to practice their faith. In 1880 it was opened as a public park in and since then it has become known as an iconic Japanese park.
Here are some of the best ways to get to Nara from the nearby Kyoto and Osaka. It is popular to take any train to JR or Kintetsu Nara Station, which are the closest stations to the park. You will arrive at Nara Park after a 20-minute walk from JR Nara Station or a 5-minute walk from Kintetsu Nara Station.
From Kyoto Station you can take the Miyakoji rapid train on the JR Nara Line to JR Nara Station (takes approximately 44 minutes), or you can take the Kintetsu Kyoto Line from Kyoto Station via Yamato Saidaiji Station (transfer to the Kintetsu Nara Line) to Kintetsu Nara Station (takes approximately 35 minutes by limited express or 50 minutes by express).
From Osaka Station you can take the Yamatoji rapid train to JR Nara Station (takes approximately 50 minutes), or you can take the Kintetsu Line from Osaka Namba Station via Yamato-Saidaiji Station to Kintetsu Nara Station (takes approximately 40 minutes by express).
The Deer of Nara Park
There is deer everywhere at Nara Park. They are wild animals listed as a national protected species and have been lovingly protected for a long time. If you're wondering why so many deer are living here, it’s because according to local legend they are protected by the deity enshrined in Kasuga Taisha, also located in the park. Nowadays they are adored as the iconic mascots of Nara.
Things to Be Aware Of
When you first see these adorable deer, you’ll most likely want to feed them. However, only the special deer crackers or “shika senbei” that you can buy inside the park (200 JPY (incl. tax) for a packet of 10) should be fed to the deer. As they are made purely from rice bran and wheat flour, they are a safe treat for the deer. If you tease the deer with these treats they may react poorly, becoming angry and possibly even attacking you. Please just feed it to them directly to avoid any issues. Also, be aware that any conduct such as hitting the deer, chasing them from behind, or leaving trash behind which the deer may eat is strictly prohibited.
Highlights and Getting Around Nara Park
Nara Park is huge. The main sightseeing area is divided into three sections with the World Heritage sites at the center. The first is the Todaiji Temple area, the second is the Kasuga Taisha area and the third is the Kofukuji Temple area. You can get to each area on foot. This however, takes a chunk of time. For example, it takes 20 minutes to walk between Todaiji and Kasuga Taisha. Each area consists of many attractions, so to thoroughly see the whole thing would take around 2 - 3 hours in each area. It is recommended to get an understanding of each area’s special features and carefully choose the places you want to visit beforehand for an effective sightseeing trip.
Highlights of Todaiji Temple and Its Surroundings
Located in the north-east end of Nara Park is the Todaiji area. The famous temple, Todaiji, holds many national treasures in addition to the giant Great Buddha statue, such as one of the the largest temple gates in Japan, the Nandai-mon, and the precious building, Nigatsu-do. The park grounds are incredibly vast, so here are just some points about the major highlights. This section will also introduce another recommended spot, Shosoin.
The original ancient temple, Todaiji, was founded in the 8th century, when the emperor at the time, Emperor Shomu, prayed and had it built. The most famous thing here is the Great Buddha statue that has become an icon representing Nara, which is a 15 meter tall figure enshrined inside one of the largest wooden buildings in the world, the Daibutsu-den (Great Buddha Hall).
After seeing this statue with its imposing air, try the “hashira kuguri” (crawling through the hole in the pillar), which is a popular activity at Daibutsu-den. It is said that when you pass through the hole in one of the pillars in the building, which is apparently the same size as the Great Buddha’s nostril, you will gain the benefit of good health.
Aside from that, inside the park, there are also treasured national buildings such as the Nigatsu-do which is the stage for the Buddhist service “Omizutori (Shunie)” that welcomes spring to the Kansai region, so this is a spot that has plenty of highlights.
Example entry fee (Daibutsu-den & Todaiji Museum combined ticket): adult (middle school students and older) 1,000 JPY, children 400 JPY
The Great Buddha Statue Enshrined in Daibutsu-den
Shosoin is located to the north-west of Daibutsu-den and is a warehouse that stored valuable antiques and treasures connected to the Imperial family. For over 1260 years the building has been protecting around 9,000 treasured items, such as keepsakes of the Emperor Shomu who founded Todaiji, and Buddhist ritual implements used in annual events at Todaiji. The building itself was constructed in the architectural style called “azekura-zukuri” and was appointed as a national treasure in 1997. Visiting inside the building or to see the treasures is not permitted, however part of the treasures are opened to the public at the Shosoin exhibit held at the Nara National Museum each autumn. Observing it from the outside is free.
Highlights of Kasuga Taisha and Its Surroundings
On the eastern edge of Nara Park lies the foot of Mikasayama. The area around the world heritage site, Kasuga Taisha, is packed with spots that are abundant in nature, such as the botanical garden, the ancient forest, and Mount Wakakusa.
Kasuga Taisha Grand Shrine
This ancient shrine was constructed in the year 768 to protect Nara and to pray for the prosperity of its citizens. At the time it was the capital of Japan and was called “Heijo-kyo”. The grounds are overflowing with a variety of attractions. For example, the brilliant vermilion main hall has an impressive structure in that it is actually four main shrines built in a row from east to west. Furthermore, the Kokuho-den which houses and displays around 3,000 valuable items, including 352 national treasures and 971 important cultural properties of Japan. The Ichi no Torii gate, which is also an important cultural property of Japan, is also not to be missed.
Main shrine special visit ceremony fee: 500 JPY
National Treasure Museum entry fee: regular 500 JPY, university/high school student 300 JPY, middle/elementary school student 200 JPY
This is a wide-open lawn in the heart of the park. Known as a place to rest, many sightseers come and go here as it is also a spot where many events are held. Benches and resting places are scattered throughout so you can pass the time as you like. Relax comfortably while viewing the scene of Mount Wakakusa from afar, or have fun taking memorable photos with the deer. In each season the natural scenery is deeply satisfying, whether it’s viewing the spring cherry blossoms, summer crape myrtles, or the autumn leaves changing color.
Kasuga Taisha Shrine Garden Manyo Botanical Garden
The botanical garden is located on the west side of the area where the Kasuga Taisha main hall is. This garden is where approximately 300 varieties of ancient Japanese flowering plants and trees mentioned in the Manyoshu* are raised. The size of the grounds is approximately 3 hectares. It is divided into 4 large areas including the Manyo Garden, where there is a large lake and old giant trees, and the Wisteria Garden, which is closely linked to the crest of the Kasuga Taisha shrine, the wisteria blossom. In each season you can enjoy the view while learning about the plants mentioned in the Manyoshu.
*Japan’s oldest anthology of poems collected between the latter half of the 7th century and the latter half of the 8th century.
Entry fee: adults 500 JPY, children 250 JPY
You will find a hexagonal hall in the distance after you pass through the Asajigahara Forest from Kasuga Taisha. By day it is known as a resting place on the waterfront, and by night it is magically lit-up. It was first constructed in 1916 but due to the weathering of time it was restored in 1966, and rebuilt again in 1994. A multitude of plants bloom in the area: cherry blossoms in spring, crape myrtle in summer, and in autumn the leaves changing color are reflected on the surface of the water. For many sightseers, this has gained popularity as the ideal spot for a photo. The winter scenery is also beautiful in the early hours of the morning when the lake is frozen over, and the surrounding mountains a covered in a blanket of snow.
While visiting Nara Park, the first thing that will catch your eye is the small grassy mountain (342m) called Mount Wakakusa. At the top of the mountain, is the historical site constructed in the 5th century, Uguisu-zuka Kofun (an ancient burial mound). You can also enjoy the stunning sight of Todaiji and the surrounding area. It is also known for a famous event which is held each year in January called “Yamayaki” (mountain burning), which will be explained in more detail later in this article!
Mountain climbing fee: adults 150 JPY, elementary school students 80 JPY
Mt. Kasuga Primeval Forest
For over 1,000 years, Kasugayama has been protected by Kasuga Taisha as sacred grounds, with hunting and logging being prohibited here. This is an evergreen broadleaf primeval forest mainly consisting of oak and castanopsis trees that is appointed as a national special natural monument. As this scenery is deeply connected with the Japanese people’s traditional perspectives and original beliefs towards nature, it is on the world heritage list, not as an element of natural heritage, but as an element of cultural heritage. Circling the perimeter of the primeval forest is a 9.4km-long walking track, so why not breathe in the air of the dense forest while taking a stroll among the giant trees?
Highlights of Kofukuji Temple and Its Surroundings
Kofukuji Temple was the family temple of the most powerful clan in Nara, which was known as Yamato from the 8th to 15th century. When you see the massive historical buildings that stand inside the temple grounds, you will understand the immense power this region used to boast of. It is highly recommended to visit the Nara National Museum nearby to learn more about the path that Nara’s history took.
More than 1,300 years since its founding, this temple has kept a close connection with the city of Nara. In its heyday, the scope of this temple was huge, having up to 175 buildings, and even today you can see many of these historical buildings. For example, must-sees include the 50m tall five-storied pagoda, the overwhelmingly large building known as the Tokondo where many national treasures and important cultural properties are enshrined, and the Chukondo hall, which has only been temporarily rebuilt constantly after seven fire incidents, and yet in 2018 it was finally completely reconstructed after 300 years. Including the famous statue of Ashura, many cultural assets are collected and displayed here in the Kokuho-kan (national treasure building), so it’s definitely worth the trip.
Example entry fee:
National Treasure Museum & Tokondo Joint Ticket: adults/university students 900 JPY, high school/middle school students 700 JPY, elementary school students 350 JPY
Chukondo: adults/university students 500 JPY, high school/middle school students 300 JPY, elementary school students 100 JPY
Tokondo and the Five-Storied Pagoda
Nara National Museum
In a corner of Nara Park located adjacent to Kofukuji Temple, Todaiji Temple and Kasuga Taisha is the Nara National Museum. Four exhibition buildings are attached to the central historical building constructed in 1894. Many masterpieces of Buddhist art such as Buddha statues and ancient Chinese bronzeware are on display here. This is where the annual special Shosoin Exhibition is held.
Entry fee (art display only - fee for other exhibits such as special exhibits vary): regular 520 JPY, university student 260 JPY
Seasonal Events Not to Be Missed
Many events are held in Nara Park throughout the four seasons. Here are some of the famous events that people look forward to every year from spring to winter.
Spring Nigatsu-do Shunie & Cherry Blossom Viewing
Shunie, also commonly known as Omizutori or Otaimatsu, is an event held at Nigatsu-do in Todaiji Temple. This is a tradition that has continued without a break for 1260 years and is a Buddhist memorial service in which people pray for world peace, domestic tranquility, and happiness. Every night for two weeks from March 1 each year, people called “douji” carry large, 7m-long taimatsu (torches) and dance while showering sparks over the heads of on-lookers. This is a well-known event which heralds the coming of spring.
There are also around 1,700 cherry trees of different varieties growing in Nara Park so in a typical year from the last 10 days of March to the last 10 days of April you can see them blooming in succession all over the park. This is also known as a place to enjoy flower viewing.
2020 expected dates: March 1 (Sunday) - March 14 (Saturday) 2020 *no entry fee
Summer Nara Tokae
When people think about what reminds them of a summer evening in Nara, they think of Nara Tokae. Every night during the event 20,000 lanterns are lit at eight different locations within Nara Park, romantically illuminating the evening. Even if you’re on your own it’s still great to go around to the different locations and check out the lanterns. In a typical year there a are also food and drink stalls, so it’s highly recommended to enjoy a light meal here too.
2020 expected dates: August 5 - August 14
Fee to participate in lantern lighting (1 lantern per person): 500 JPY
Reception location: Ukigumo-enchi meeting place or IRAKA meeting place
In Nara Park in autumn, you can enjoy the contrast of the historical shrines and temples and the adorable deer with the enchanting colors of the changing leaves. Everywhere inside the park you will be charmed by the beautiful sight of the gingko and maple trees’ leaves turning crimson one-by-one. The autumn leaves look especially beautiful reflected on the surface of the Yoshiki River. This is a clear stream that traverses the park, and is especially picturesque between the front of the Kasugano International Forum IRAKA building and Todaiji Sando. The best time to see this in an average year is from early-November to early December.
Winter Mt. Wakakusa Yamayaki
This is a famous traditional event held every year on the fourth Saturday of January. Large fireworks are set off brilliantly coloring the perfectly clear winter evening sky. Signaled by this splendid cue, the controlled burning of the entire mountainside of Mt. Wakakusa begins. This is a festival to appease the spirits that dwell in the kofun atop the mountain, which is said to have started as a memorial service for the dead. For the most enchanting experience it is suggested to watch from the base of the mountain or a place close to the base of the mountain such as Ukigumo-enchi.
2020 expected dates: January 25, 2020 (Saturday)
There are many ways to have fun in Nara Park. Everyone should make their way here at least once in their life!
*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.
- #Beautiful Natural Scenery
- #Botanical Gardens | Parks
- #Fall Colors
- #Get Close to Animals
- #Hanami | Cherry Blossom Viewing
- #Kasuga-taisha Shrine
- #Museums | Galleries
- #Must-See Places in Japan
- #Nara Park
- #Temples and Shrines
- #Todaiji Temple
- #Visit Nara
- #Visit the Kansai region
- #What to Do While You're in Japan
- #World Heritage Sites
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