ONE DAY IN NARA — 4 UNMISSABLE EXPERIENCES
My one day in Nara, Japan was an unforgettable one! Right from the start of my journey from Kyoto, I knew it was going to be special. The rain so gracefully showered intermittently throughout the day and the highlights of Nara’s iconic temples, stone lanterns, sacred deer, the street food, the people … the list goes on. Allow me to share some of these experiences with you. The city is home to eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites. While I could not visit all of them, this one day in Nara itinerary allows for the best to be experienced in this historic city.
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A BRIEF BACKGROUND TO NARA, JAPAN
Next to Kyoto, Nara is a city that is rich in cultural legacy of temples, shrines and gardens. It is easy to get to, with less than an hour train journey from either Osaka or Kyoto (see useful information below on how to get here). The city makes a nice destination for a day trip, for individuals, couples and families.
The are eight UNESCO World Heritage sites within Nara which can fill a day’s itinerary. The eight sites collectively form “Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara” — these are: Todaiji, Saidaiji, Kofukuji, Kasuga Shrine, Gangoji, Yakushiji, Toshodaiji, Heijo Palace and Kasugayama Primeval Forest.
I could not visit all the sites because it rained for most of the day on my visit. I spent a good 6 hours in Nara City, taking a stroll through the Park, feeding deer and visiting the most iconic temples within the Park which I would highly recommend. I would also recommend a walk around the City. You can use my list here and follow my walk-route or you could buy A Complete Guide to Nara: A Photographic Journey to plan a comprehensive visit to Nara City.
ONE DAY IN NARA — 4 UNESCO SITES TO SEE
My first visit was to Nara Park and from there, I visited the iconic temples and shrines in Nara. The iconic temples and shrines which I visited are all located within Nara Park, which makes this one day in Nara an easy itinerary to follow.
1 | Nara Park in Nara
Nara Park in Nara is a park which spans over 660 hectares and it is a “must see” for any visitor to this iconic and historical City. Practically everyone comes here because it is through this park that you access other historical and UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Nara Park is a public park, situated in Central Nara, at the foot of Mount Wakakusa. The Park was established in 1880 and is the oldest park in Japan.
1.1 | Nara Deer
Nara Park is home to nearly 1200 free-roaming deer and they are a symbol of the City. In Shinto, deer are considered to be messengers of gods and they have been designated as national treasures.
The deer of Nara are surprisingly tame and people-friendly. It was my first experience to be so close and personal to one.
However, they can get aggressive if they think that you are going to feed them, but really, they are nothing to worry about. Some deer will bow, as a gesture, asking to be fed. You can feed them with wafer-like deer crackers, shika senbei which are sold around the Park for about 100 Yen. It is nice to watch the carefree life of these sacred messengers who are no trouble at all.
WOULD YOU LIKE A GUIDED TOUR?
There is so much to Nara Park which you may wish to explore. Nara offers many opportunities for visitors to indulge in its historical and cultural heritage. Join a cultural heritage tour and learn all about this historic city from a knowledgeable guide so you could experience the best of Nara like a local. Here are some of our popular tours which you may like. Click on the link to learn more and for availability:
2 | Todaiji Temple (東大寺) in Nara is the #1 historical landmark to visit
Todaiji means “Great Eastern Temple” and is a landmark of Nara. It was one of the Seven Great Temples of Japan. Todaiji is situated in the northern part of Nara Park.
Todaiji Temple is one of Japan’s most historic of temples which was originally constructed in 752 AD, during the Nara period, by Emperor Shomu to bring peace to the country. It was the head temple of all Buddhist temples in Japan and played an influential role in government affairs at that time. However, it was destroyed by fire, twice, in 1180 and in 1567. The present structure was constructed during the Edo period under the direction of monk Kokei.
The entrance to Todaiji Temple is through a large wooden gate. The gate is guarded by two fierce looking Kon-go-Rikishi guardian statues. These statues represent the Nio Guardian Kings and are designated as national treasures.
2.1 | Todaiji Hall at Todaiji Temple
The highlight of my visit to Todaiji Temple was the Todaiji Hall or the Main Hall (kondo) also known as Daibutsuden (Great Buddha Hall 大仏殿). The Daibutsuden is the largest wooden building in the world and was reconstructed in 1692. Today it represents only two-thirds of the original temple hall’s size.
The Daibutsuden hall is home to 15m (50ft) high seated Buddha with two Bodhisattvas on each side. The sheer size of it when up close will take your breath away!
There are some Buddhist statues and models of old buildings inside the hall. What caught my attention and many around me was a pillar with a hole in its base. I saw children and a few adults going through one end and coming through the other. The hole is said to be the same size as the Daibutsu’s nostrils and that those who can go through this opening will receive enlightenment in their next life. It was interesting and fun to watch!
If you are visiting Nara, Todaiji Temple is a “must see”. There is not just the Daibutsuden Hall where the 50ft Buddha sits but also because of its vast, spacious grounds which are home to several other buildings. There are Todaiji Musuem, Nigatsudo Hall and the Hokkedo Hall – all worth a visit and good value for money.
2.2 | Travel tips and Useful information on Todaiji Temple, Nara
Opening times and Admission
Opened all year round
Opening times: 07:30 – 17:30 (Apr – Oct)
08:00 – 17:00 (Nov – Mar)
Opens from 09:30 to 16:00
** I did a combined ticket for Daibutsuden Hall and the Museum for 1000 Yen.
Todaiji’s grounds are spacious and is also home to several other buildings such as the Daibutsuden Hall, Todaiji Museum, Nigatsudo Hall.
Same opening hours as Daibutsuden
Same opening hours as Daibutsuden
3 | Kasuga Taisha (春日大社) Shrine, Nara
From Todaiji Temple, one can easily make your way to Kasuga Taisha (春日大社) shrine. It is still within Nara Park but across from Todaiji Temple. You need to cross the main road and walk through the park. (you can see it on the map, below on useful information).
Kasuga Taisha shrine is dedicated to the deity that protects the city. Legend has it that Takemikazuchi no Mikoto, travelled from Ibaraki, northern Japan on a white deer all the way to Mount Mikasa, a holy mountain, to reside on its summit for the prosperity and happiness of the nation. She is one of the four deities enshrined here since the shrine was built in 768 AD by the Fujiwara clan.
3.1 | The walk through the forest of Nara Park
The walk along the footpath in the atmospheric forest is serene and peaceful, lined with hundreds and hundreds of stone lanterns and many nestled in the woods. You can feel the quietness as you approach the impressive Shinto shrine. Cute little sacred deer peeking from behind these stone lanterns every so often where you will want to stop and take some pictures.
Near the entrance to Kasuga Shrine, there is a Museum dedicated to the most impressive and important swords, suits of armour and various other items dedicated to the deities since the 8th century.
3.2 | Lanterns at Kasuga Taisha
Kasuga Taisha is popular for its many stone lanterns that lines the path, and many more in the woods. Bronze lanterns hang along the wall of the buildings all throughout the shrine. The North cloister where the Fujinami-no-ya hall is situated, behind the main shrine is filled with hundreds of lanterns.
These lanterns are lit twice a year, in February and August during the Mantoro Festival. Imagine the beauty of the paths through the forest where the lanterns are hung and throughout the shrine when these 3000 flickering lanterns are lit up from sunset. The beautiful contrast of the shrine itself, the bright orange red, with white walls and the hinoki cypress bark roof as against the green of the ancient woods just paints a serene beauty.
I had never seen so many variations of lanterns in one place that were also well maintained.
Georgina suggests: Visit the Kasuga Taisha Shrine on 3rd February for their annual magical night by lantern night where 3,000 stone and brass lanterns are lit with candle light – just like how it was 1,000 years ago.
3.3 | Wisteria at Kasuga Taisha
Kasuga Taisha is surrounded by and is famous for about 200 of its wisteria trees which blooms from late April to early May. I visited Nara late April, and it was a perfect time to witness the beauty of these blooms.
You can find some of these around the shrine, but a large part of the Shinen Manyo Botanical Garden which is close-by to the Shrine is dedicated to these beautiful flowers. The Garden is also home to about 250 kinds of plants, described in Manyoshu. Manyoshu is a collection of Japan’s oldest poems which dates to the Nara period.
3.4 | Kasugayama Primeval Forest
From Kasuga Taisha, there are paths leading through the forest park to Mount Wakakusa. Behind the Kasuga Taisha shrine is the Kasugayama Primeval Forest, a sacred area which is closed to the public and remained untouched for over 1000 years. Both the Kasuga Taisha and the Kasugayama Primeval Forest are jointly designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
3.5 | Travel tips and Useful information on Kasuga Taisha Shrine
3.5.1 | Getting here to Kasuga Taisha Shrine:
If you are planning to walk, like I did, from Todaiji Temple to Kasuga Taisha Shrine, then you will probably do the following route:
If you walk from Kintetsu Nara Station (more on this below) it will take about 35 to 40 minutes and your route will probably look like this:
3.5.2 | Opening times and admission:
Opening times: Apr-Sept – 06:00 – 18:00
Oct-Mar – 06:30 – 17:00
Admission fee: Free [outer area]
500 Yen [inner area]
Kasuga Taisha Museum
Opening times: 10:00 – 17:00 [last admission: 16:30]
Admission fee: 500 Yen
Opening times: Mar – Nov – 09:00 – 17:00 [last admission: 16:30]
Dec – Feb – 09:00 – 16:30 [last admission: 16:00]
Admission fee: 500 Yen
4. Kofukuji (興福寺) Temple in Nara
From Kasuga Taisha, it was another pleasant walk through Nara Park, to the high street and to Kofukuji (興福寺) Temple in Nara which is the fourth on my list of unforgettable experiences. By now the rain had stopped and the freshness in the air was a welcome.
Kofukuji (興福寺) Temple is a Buddhist Temple. It was one of the Seven Powerful Great Temples, alongside Todaiji in Nara. It is now listed as one of the eight UNESCO World Heritage site in Nara. This five-storey pagoda stands at 50 metres and is the second largest wooden pagoda in Japan. Kofukuji is Japan’s second tallest, about 7 metres less than the five-storey pagoda at Toji Temple, Kyoto. It was first constructed in 730 AD and rebuilt in 1426.
The highlight of visiting Kofukuji, which is both a landmark and symbol of Nara, is its National Treasure Museum. The Museum is home to the temple’s great art collection and a must for lovers of Buddhist Art.
It was rather nice to walk around the temple grounds after the rain. Less crowd, no rush and gentle freshness to the air. It was quiet, peaceful and serene.
4.1 | Travel tips and Useful information on Kofukuji Temple
Opening times and admission
FREE to walk around the temple grounds
Entry to the museum – 700 Yen.
Opening hours: 09:00 – 17:00
5 | HOW TO REACH NARA, JAPAN
Nara is served by 2 lines – the JR line and the Kintetsu Line. Both stations are centrally located and offer easy access to buses. You can check narastation.com for more information
I used Kintetsu Nara Station as I travelled from Kyoto.
Above is a bird’s eye view of Nara Park and the location of the historic places I visited, Todaiji Temple, Kasuga Taisha Shrine and Kofukuji Temple.
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My conclusion on visiting Nara for 1 day
I thoroughly enjoyed my day in Nara despite the rain. Although it was crowded, Todaiji Temple was an exceptional experience with a little humour of seeing kids going through the “nostril”. Walking through the forest was relaxing. Visiting the Kasuga Taisha Shrine surrounded by stone lanterns and the beautiful wisteria was positively an indescribable experience which I would strongly encourage every visitor to Japan to have. Even better, if you can visit the Kasuga Taisha Shrine on February 3rd to see it illuminated with 3,000 lanterns in the night. You can imagine the awesomeness of this event.
Have a wonderful time discovering this ancient land !
BASICS FOR KYOTO, JAPAN
One day in Nara was first published at timelesstravelsteps.com