Nara is one of the most popular day trips in Japan, but unfortunately the history and temples are not actually well written about. It’s known for its deer park, where deer roam freely and aren’t afraid of humans. After doing some research and finding out about all the different temples Nara has, I decided to make it a day trip from Kyoto. So what did I think?
Well, I thought it was amazing!
A little bit about Nara: Kyoto is known as being the ancient capital of Japan since it served that position for over a thousand years. However, Nara served as the capital before Kyoto did, in the 700s. At the time, Japan had close ties with China and Nara was built in a grid-like system after the Chinese capital. Unbelievably, much of the great architecture of that time survives today, which makes Nara a great destination for history lovers. A lot of sites are clustered in the deer park area but there’s also a lot to see elsewhere.
The Seven Great Temples of Nara: Nara has what’s called the “Seven Great Temples,” which all date to the 700s. Todai-ji is probably the most popular of the temples, and the most popular in Nara overall. It has a very large gilt Buddha inside and also a small museum of sorts, so it’s a place you should put high up on your list. Kofuku-ji is an easy visit since it’s centrally located, and it’s also a nice set of structures. Yakushi-ji looks absolutely gorgeous in photos but I didn’t get to see it in person since it wasn’t near the deer park so I didn’t have time to stop by. The lesser-visited temples are Saidai-ji, Horyu-ji, Gango-ji, and Daian-ji. My goal was to see all 7 but even with a full day, they’re so spread out so one can’t really see them all. If you want to read a bit more on the temples, you can visit this Tale of Genji page.
If you want to stay near the deer park, Kasuga Taisha is another easy visit. It’s also a pretty surreal place, with all the nature and deer nearby. It’s absolutely gorgeous.
Nara also boasts a number of museums. For your art fix, you can visit the Nara Prefectural Art Museum and the Nara National Museum.
There’s also the Manyou Botanical Gardens, which I enjoyed but would not recommend if you’re short on time.
If you have more time to go to other areas, the Heijo Palace Remains aren’t too far. It’s a recreation of an ancient palace. You can also see one of the famous “keyhole” (Kofun) tombs here, formally called the Mausoleum of Emperor Suinin. There are a few of them throughout the greater Kyoto area so make sure you mark down the right one!
Before I went, the deer park didn’t seem super exciting. However, it was a highlight of my entire trip! There are several types of deer in the park and, as someone from America, it was really cool to actually get up close to and pet deer. We see them all the time but at home, they’re terrified of people. Here, I actually got to pet and interact with a bunch of different deer. It was a surprisingly surreal experience. Also, the nature was very beautiful and a great escape from the hustle and bustle of Kyoto.
Nara also has a decent amount of more modern development so it’s a lot more than just a tourist destination. You can also get a bite to eat at one of the several local restaurants or do some shopping. You don’t even need to look for it; the patch of city between the train station and the ancient capital area has it all! If your time is limited in Japan, then a day trip to Nara may be enough to see the highlights. I definitely recommend a full day at least to properly see the temples, spend time with the deer, see a museum, and get some good food. If you’re not rushed, Nara may be a place to extend your trip and spend two or three days, and you can see a little bit more of what Nara has to offer.
I spent half a day in Nara because I didn’t think I’d like it that much, but I was so wrong. There was so much history there, deer everywhere, and the nature was so relaxing and beautiful. It’s actually a place that emulates what foreigners think about when they think of Japan. I would definitely recommend visiting for at least a full day and highly recommend a visit to anything visiting the area.
Have you ever been to Nara? What did you think?
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Posted on Tuesday, March 5, 2019 in Destinations
Tags: asia, japan, nara