Nara is without a doubt one of the most precious places in Japan and should definitely be on your to do list when travelling around the country. With some 1.200 (tame) deer roaming around its grounds and some of the most beautiful temples in Japan, Nara has everything for a day of temple hopping in the woods.
Nara: gem with a history
Long before Tokyo and even Kyoto became the country’s capitals, Nara was the imperial centre of Japan. Moving the centre of power to Kyoto turned out to be a blessing for tiny Nara: it got spared from violent demolition during the turbulent times that followed. This city literally breathes history. Follow the paths through the forests and you’ll get a taste of the magical atmosphere Nara is known for. You’ll run into curious deer everywhere in the park. They are considered to be ‘messengers of the gods’, but are most of all just happy (and a bit aggressive) when you hold a cookie in front of their noses. Our advice? Leave the cookies and headbutts to the other tourists.
How to get to Nara?
From Kyoto Station, the JR train brings you to Nara in just over 40 minutes. Be aware that there is a fast train and one that stops everywhere along the track. Once you’ve reached Nara, it’s a 30 minute walk to the National Park Nara-Koen or some 10 minutes by bus (which leaves in front of the station). You’re likely to get off with a bunch of other tourists, so you really can’t miss it. Luckily the park is really big, so you will not feel like it’s overcrowded (at least not during low season).
Nara can be done as a day trip since it’s rather compact. Some 4 to 5 hours should be enough to see the most important parts of it.
Nara’s showpiece is the Daibutsu or Great Buddha. This gigantic statue of Buddha is undoubtedly one of the most impressive sights in Japan. It’s located within the Todai-ji temple, at the northern side of Nara-Koen. Todai-ji is the biggest wooden temple in the world, even though today’s building is a third smaller than what it used to be. A must see when you’re in Nara.
Nigatsu-do & Sangatsu-do
Both of these are subtemples of big brother Todai-ji. Nigatsu-do is located on a hilly part and offers a nice view on the city, reminiscent of Kyoto’s Kiyomizu-dera. Sangatsu-do houses a small collection of statues from the Nara period and is situated just nearby.
One of the prettiest places in Nara is definitely the Kasuga Taisha Shrine, which is decorated with hundreds of lanterns. These are only lit twice a year, once during the Lantarn Festival at the beginning of February and once in mid-August. To give you an idea of what that’s like, you can enter a little dark room in the back of the domain where a smaller amount of lanterns are lit.
Don’t miss the nearby path that leads up to the temple. Here, stone lanterns are lined up along the edge of the forest, making for a very mystical atmosphere.
This 5 storey high pagoda can be seen when you’re walking from the city centre to Nara-koen. It’s the second highest pagoda in Japan and a pretty sight when you’re passing through to the park.
Combine Nara with Fushimi-Inari
You’ve definitely seen the pictures of the famous red Torii gates. This important Shinto shrine south of Kyoto is extremely photogenic. That being said, it comes as no surprise that Fushimi-Inari is very popular with tourists. You’ll have to bring up some patience if you want the perfect picture without any people in it, unless you’re willing to get up really early in the morning.
Thousands of gates will lead you all the way through the forest up to the holy mountain top dedicated to Inari, the god of rice. The hike should take you about 2 to 3hours, with a pretty view of Kyoto as a reward at the end. We’re using the word ‘should’ since we could only visit the first hundred meters because of the damage done by Typhoon Jebi. If you’re limited in time, you can turn around at any point. But the higher you go the less people you’ll meet and the more chance you’ll have to get that lucky shot!
How to get to Fushimi-Inari?
Fushimi-Inari is located some 2,5 kilometers south of Kyoto Station. Get on the train with destination Uji/Nara or take the subway. Since it’s the same train line that takes you to Nara, you can easily combine the two just like we did. When you’re coming from Nara, we suggest you take the fast train to Uji and transfer there to the slow train. It will save you some time and when you get to the Fushimi-Inari stop, the Shrine is situated right across the street. It’s as simple as that! (And free to visit!)