Best Nara Attractions
Just a short train ride from Kyoto and Osaka lies the historical city of Nara. Due to its proximity to these popular travel destinations, Nara makes for a fantastic day trip. However, it is also known for its astounding cultural wonders and plentiful herds of friendly deer. To help you sort through the city’s astounding sights, I put together a list of the best Nara attractions.
Once called Heijo, Nara became the first permanent capital of Japan in 710. Due to its political and cultural importance, Nara became the perfect location for numerous temples and shrines. Although the capital eventually moved to another city, Nara retained its appeal and historical significance. So it should be no surprise that the charming city is worth a visit.
1. Todaiji Temple
Founded in 738, Todaiji Temple is a Buddhist temple complex that once served as the central administrative temple for the provincial temples and six schools of Buddhism in Japan. This changed when power shifted away from Nara, but Todaiji Temple still serves as the Japanese HQ of the Kegon school of Buddhism. Also, the temple is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Todaiji Temple has splendid wooden architecture, and for a long period time was the world’s largest wooden building. Over the years, the building has undergone reconstruction due to fires, earthquakes, and typhoons. But it remains faithful to its original style.
The main draw, of course, is the Great Buddha in the main hall. The bronze statue is 49 feet tall and weighs 550 tons. Believe me when I say that photos do not do the statue justice. The scale is much more impressive in person.
2. Nara Park
Nara Park is a large park in Central Nara that is famous for its friendly herds of deer. They are so used to people that they will just walk by you casually. If you want to feed them, you can purchase deer crackers at numerous locations. Some of them have even learned to bow before accepting the crackers.
Just show the deer some respect. For one, they are considered messengers of the gods. For another, they are still wild animals. If you tease them, they can get pushy. So just give them the food.
3. Horyuji Temple
Horyuji Temple earns its place on this list of Nara attractions for a number of reasons. Not only is it one of Japan’s oldest temples, it is also the site of the world’s oldest wooden structures. The central gate, main hall, and pagoda of the temple’s Western Precinct were built during the Asuka Period (538-710). Despite Japan’s frequent natural disasters, the structures have survived with only the occasional renovation.
Inside the temple you can marvel at numerous statues of Buddha, including some of the country’s oldest. The temple complex also holds a large art collection in the Gallery of Temple Treasures. This gallery was built in 1998 to showcase various relics and artworks that offer an even greater insight into Japan’s history of Buddhism.
4. Kasuga Taisha
In addition to Buddhist temples, Nara also has Shinto shrines. The most important of these is Kasuga Taisha, which is as old as the capital itself. The shrine is dedicated to five deities. One of these, Takemikazuchi, is a god of thunder and swords that is responsible for protecting the city of Nara.
Religious significance aside, Kasuga Taisha is also known for its numerous bronze and stone lanterns. There are hundreds of these lanterns, and they are all donated by the shrine’s worshippers. However, the lanterns are only lit twice a year during Lantern Festivals in February and August.
Outside of Kasuga Taisha you can wander through a forest with cool, shaded paths. Along these paths you’ll find numerous auxiliary shrines. One such shrine is Meoto Daikokusha, which holds married deities and is said to bring good luck in marriage and matchmaking.
5. Isuien Garden
Isuien means “garden founded on water,” and it gets its name from the Yoshikigawa River, which feeds into the Isuien Garden’s several ponds. Divided into a front and back garden, all sections of Isuien are tranquil and beautiful. The beauty comes from the careful design and maintenance of the greenery. But Mount Wakakusayama also helps as a wonderful backdrop for the gardens.
Unlike some of the other Nara attractions on this list, I found Isuien to be more calm and less crowded. So if you need a break from the other tourists, I would recommend a visit.
6. Yoshikien Garden
If you plan to visit Isuien Garden, you might as well go to Yoshikien. This garden is right next door on the other side of the river. It features three different types of garden: a pond garden, a moss garden, and a tea ceremony garden. Similar to its neighbor, Yoshikien lets you enjoy a quiet haven away from all the noise.
7. Toshodaiji Temple
Toshodaiji Temple was actually founded in 759 by a Chinese priest named Ganjin. Ganjin was invited by the Japanese emperor to train priests and improve Japanese Buddhism. His arrival to Japan was a critical step in the introduction of Buddhism to the country.
The architecture of the temple complex is quaint and charming like many of the other Nara attractions. There are also a few paths that pass through the temple grounds. At the end of one of them, in a peaceful area surrounded by greenery, is Ganjin’s grave. You can come pay your respects or just enjoy the calm atmosphere.
8. Mount Wakakusayama
Mount Wakakusayama is a small, grassy mountain behind Nara Park. Winter is the only time of year that you aren’t allowed to climb it. But it is especially beautiful during early April when the plentiful cherry trees start to bloom. Keep in mind that you need to pay a small entrance fee though.
The mountain offers great views of Nara. There is a plateau about halfway up, which only takes 15 minutes to get there. The peak of Wakakusayama is only another 20 or 30 minutes after that. So it’s a pretty manageable hike.
9. Wakakusa Yamayaki
Wakakusa Yamayaki is an annual festival held every year on the 4th Saturday of January at Mount Wakakusayama. During the festival, the mountain itself is set on fire.
No one is quite sure how the tradition started, but Wakakusa Yamayaki has been going on for centuries. Some say it had to do with boundary conflicts, and others say it had to do with scaring away wild boars. Either way, it’s a lively event with a fireworks display that precedes it.
Omizutori, or Shunie, is a series of events that take place at the start of March at Todaiji temple. The events make up a collection of Buddhist rituals meant for repentance and restoration. Omizutori actually refers to a specific event when healing water is drawn from a well at the base of the temple hall. But the name is commonly used to refer to the whole two-week ritual.
The most popular event of Shunie is Otaimatsu. Every night after sunset, massive torches are brought onto a balcony and held over the crowd of people. The ashes that rain down from these torches are supposed to bless the crowd with a safe year.
Attractions Outside of Nara
Given how close Nara is to the cities of Kyoto and Osaka, you should definitely put those cities on your itinerary. Kyoto’s cultural and historical sites rival even those of the best Nara attractions. And if you miss the busy, city atmosphere, head to Osaka to check out its vibrant nightlife.