Nara is an excellent day trip destination from neighboring towns such as Kyoto and Osaka. When you see our list of the best activities in Nara, you can remain for a few days and explore this heritage city that was once Japan’s capital.
Nara is not a tiny city, but its narrow alleys, wide open green spaces, an abundance of heritage sites, and the occasional deer that nudges you aside if you obstruct the path make it a pleasant change after the clamor and activity of the main cities.
Top 10 things to do in central Nara:
Todaiji and the Great Buddha
Todai-ji is one of Japan’s most important historical temples. When it was built in 752, it was the head temple of all the local temples in Japan. And held immense power through political and spiritual unity during the Nara Period.
The main hall is one of the largest wooden buildings in the world and houses a 15-meter bronze seated Buddha representing Vairocana with Boddhisatva statues positioned on either side. It seems bigger in person than it generally appears in photos. Because the ceiling beams and everything else in the great hall are also on a massive scale.
There are a few unique things to see and do while you are visiting the temple. In addition to the usual activities like writing your wish or blessing on the decorative ema votive tablet. Lighting incense, getting your fortune told, or adding a stamp to your temple book (called goshuin). This is the only place I know where you can take a shortcut to enlightenment in the next life. By crawling through Buddha’s nostril. Or receiving healing by reaching out to an 18th-century wooden carving of an Arhat (one of Buddha’s disciples).
Nandaimon, the great south gate to Todaiji
Japanese Buddhist temples face south, so the Nandaimon, or the Great Southern Gate, is the main entrance to Todai-ji. The huge wooden structure is over 25 meters high, the tallest temple gate in Japan, and dates back to the 12th century. Even a big crowd is dwarfed by the scale.
At the top of this article is a photo of the Chu-mon, or middle gate to Todai-ji. It doesn’t have the size or historical importance of Nandai-mon but is also quite dramatic. As you enter or leave, you can explore the shopping street beyond that offers some delicious snack food and look back at the view of Todai-ji across the lake.
Isuien (Isui-En) is a Japanese-style garden located between Kōfuku-ji and Todai-ji, about a 10-minute walk from each. It is open between 9.30 am and 4.30 pm with an entry fee of Y1200.
Key features of the gardens are the ponds fed by the Yoshikigawa river and the borrowed scenery of the Todai-ji Nandaimon Gate and Mount Wakakusayama beyond that. The gardens comprise a smaller front garden that dates back to the 17th century and a rear garden that was added later by a wealthy merchant.
The back garden features several tea houses and a small museum. With a collection of the family’s curated artworks from China and Korea. Like all Japanese gardens, Isuien is designed to be enjoyed in all seasons. But it is especially pretty when autumn leaves are in full color around the ponds.
Walking up Sanjo-dori from the JR station towards Nara Park, you will come to the Sarusawa-Ike Pond. The pond has a long history, having been dug in 749 within the grounds of Kōfuku-Ji temple. It’s not large, but you can stroll around it beneath the fluttering willow trees and sakura bloom in the spring season.
A Starbucks Coffee here enjoys this view of the multi-tiered pagoda above the lake. They have a strong local following in Japan, with many of their stores trying to blend into the traditional landscape. Even if you don’t normally seek out Starbucks, this one might be worth a stop.
This one takes in the borrowed scenery of one of the most important temples in Nara, but if you are a Starbucks fan, you might also want to check out some of these not too far away in Kyoto city, and Uji is also quite different.
This large temple complex is often one of the first stops on a trip to the city. But if you are pushed for time or arriving a bit later in the day. You may leave it until you return to the station, as the temple grounds don’t have closing hours.
Kōfuku-Ji was one of the 4 great temples of the Nara Period. And one of 7 great temples in Nara during the Heian Period when Japan was ruled from Kyoto. The temple was founded in 669 in Kyoto. It was dismantled and moved to this site in Nara in 710 when it was the newly formed capital of Japan. At its most influential, Kōfuku Ji comprised over 150 buildings. And while few of those remain today, the prestige of the temple is still evident.
The 5-storied pagoda is particularly beautiful, but over the next few months, you may find it covered or partially covered as it is renovated. When it’s not under renovation, there are a few days a year open to the public to see inside. A lot of its charm comes from the patina of natural wood. It was last restored in 1426, so protecting it for the next 500+ years will be quite an undertaking without losing that incredible character.
Another distinctive building that remains in this temple complex is the Octagonal Hall. This one is also occasionally opened to the public to see the treasures during the year. We were lucky enough to be in the city when this one was open and will usually pay the small entry fee when we come across these special openings.
The latest addition to the temple complex was completed and consecrated in 2018. And is a re-creation in scale and architectural style of the earlier Central Golden Hall built between 710 and 714. The hall burned to the ground 7 times over the years. Most recently, in the early 1700s, it’s a bit surreal walking through the complex now with this impressive building complete again. And looking like it’s always been there but knowing it didn’t exist on our first couple of visits to Nara.
This shrine’s impressive history dates back to the Nara Period and is best known today for its lanterns. Many rooms and walkways throughout the shrine grounds are decorated with bronze lanterns. Then along the approach to the shrine, as you wind your way through the park, it is lined with stone lanterns of all sizes and shapes, most of which have been donated to the temple, and many are very old.
Kasuga shrine is open from 6 am until 6 pm. With a special night opening with lanterns lit inside the shrine gates and throughout the park during festivals like Mantoro and Setsubun. There is a darkened room with lanterns during the rest of the year. But seeing the whole place lit up with the crowds and festival atmosphere is worth planning your Trip if you have the chance.
Another special time to visit this shrine is in early May. When all the wisteria trees bloom with their weeping purple flowers celebrated as a shrine symbol.
Naramachi, or Nara town, is the old merchant district in Nara. You will still see the old traditional wooden houses and warehouses in the narrow lanes. Many have been restored into storefronts. There are a few museums, including Naramachi Karakuri Omochakan (the toy museum). Nara Kogeikan (an arts and crafts museum) and Naramachi Shiryokan display many quirky artifacts representing the town’s history.
The temple of Gangoji is in the Naramachi area, along with the Harushika Sake Brewery and the Imanishike Shoin Residence. That was historically the home of a senior official from Kōfuku-ji temple. But now it is a lovely space to enjoy green tea and traditional sweets inside or in the garden.
Nara National Museum
Many temples in the area have treasure houses with impressive collections. Still, the Nara National Museum is a large-scale museum spread across multiple halls and galleries with an extensive permanent collection and frequent visiting exhibitions. It began in 1889 as the Imperial Museum of Nara before opening to the public in 1895. Today it has an important role in restoring and preserving Buddhist art and archives in a way that makes them accessible to the public.
The museum is open from 9.30 am until 5 pm, and entry is Y700, with some limited-time exhibits having additional entry fees. There are a few special opening days each year, such as during Setsubun in February, when entry to the main halls is free.
In addition to being the name of the city and the prefecture, the Nara period refers to an era in Japanese history. It was between 710 AD and 794 AD when Empress Genmai established the capital here, at the time called Heijo-Kyo.
Zuto is a pyramid reminiscent of those found in the Mayan empire. And was built back in the Nara period predating many of the more famous landmarks in the city. While not massive in size. It’s a lesser-known artifact of the city, and the age and history make it worth including if you have the time.
Mount Wakakusa (Wakakusayama)
Mount Wakakusa or Wakakusayama, Yama means a mountain in Japanese, is a large grassed hillside in Nara city. It is positioned behind Todai-ji and Kasuga Shrine and stands 350 meters tall on the left-hand side. When looking at it from the city and temples, you will find a walking path.
It takes about 15 minutes to reach the plateau and another 25 minutes to reach the peak. You can stay within the plateau if you want the expansive views out over the city below. The hillside is mostly grass, so you have an unobstructed view from here. Continuing on up the peak is optional for bragging rights.
Many cherry trees are planted around the slope’s edge, adding to the picturesque view in early April. The mountain is also the site of several festival events throughout the year.
How to get to Nara
There are two train stations close to the temples and attractions of Nara, the Nara Station, operated by JR (Japan Rail), and the Kintetsu-Nara station. Both companies offer an excellent and reliable train service, the Kintetsu station is a little closer to the attractions, but both are conveniently located. Choosing which is best for you will depend more on where you start from, whether you have a JR pass or other train pass to use for this Trip, and whether you prioritize price or time.
Best way to get to Nara from Kyoto
Both the Japan Rail and Kintetsu options depart and return to Kyoto Station.
With Kintetsu, you have the option of the limited express train, which costs Y1160 and takes 34 minutes, or the standard train, which costs Y640, but you will need to transfer to a station along the way. It will take 50 minutes to an hour to use this option. The trains are frequent, and the transfer is at smaller stations, so it’s easy. With Japan Rail, you will take the Nara line. Make sure you get the Rapid. It costs Y720 and takes 45 minutes direct. You can use your JR Pass for this if you have one.
Best way to get to Nara from Osaka
Being an Osaka-based company, the options from the city to Kintetsu-Nara are very good. If you are staying in the Namba area, which is usually our preference, the rapid express is a direct train that costs Y570 and takes 37 minutes to get to Nara. If you want to use JR because you have a JR pass or it’s more convenient, it will take 48 minutes with a transfer at Kyuhoji station.