While my last visit to Kyoto was entirely dedicated to exploring the city, this time around I wanted to venture out and explore as much of the surrounds and neighboring towns as possible. A short, 40-minute ride on a local train brought me to an idyllic town called Nara, which is rich in history and boasts with beautiful nature. As it was the first permanent capital in Japan, it is also considered to be a cradle of Japanese culture and arts with an extraordinary abundance of temples and Buddhist monasteries. I spent the entire day there and would love to share my list of best things to see and do in Nara in a day to hopefully inspire you to visit. My goal didn’t entail ticking off a checklist or cramming as much as possible in a day, but rather spending a pleasant relaxing time and taking in Nara’s gorgeous scenery.
Play With Bambi at Nara Park
Once I got off the train station I headed directly to the Nara Park, which is a sprawling territory with numerous shrines, hiking trails and, most importantly, deer. They roam completely free and usually pester the tourists for snacks. You can buy cookies for them, but beware, some can be very demanding and can even grab your coat or slightly bump their head into you asking for more food. They are all very tame and quite adorable to watch and pat, and I felt more connected to nature when I saw these beautiful animals so up close and personal. According to legend, a mighty god from Kashima Shrine came to Nara riding on a white deer in the 8th century. Since then deer have been respected and protected as divine messengers.
Right at the entrance of the Nara Park you’ll see a beautiful five-story pagoda (second tallest in Japan after To-ji in Kyoto) of a Kofuku-ji Shrine originally built in 730AD, and later rebuilt in 1426. Unfortunately, the main hall was under construction and thus closed during my visit.
After spending some quality time with my new adorable friends, I followed the path to the city’s biggest highlight (no worries, you’ll find plenty of deer there as well). No visit to Nara will be complete without touring Todaiji Temple which houses the world’s largest bronze Buddha statue. The present structure, completed in 752, is also the largest wooden building in the world and has been maintained in meticulous condition despite numerous damages due to fire, earthquakes and accidents.
Walk Through the Park
Once I completed my tour of the Todaiji Temple I decided to take a lengthy walk to my next destination and chose the route that took me through the backside of the park. I passed some lovely spots, and even though the fall colors were already fading, it was beautiful to marvel at the leftovers of the foliage, especially in a sunny day. Also, even although I was traveling alone, I never felt lonely as there was always a deer or two (or ten) present along the way.
Kasuga Taisha Shrine
My lengthy walk brought me to vermilion Kasuga Taisha Shrine which beautifully stands out against the lush forest in the back. The shrine is nestled inside a botanical garden and has beautiful groves of wisteria and camellia flowers in Spring/Summer. One of the most spectacular features of the shrine are up to 3000 lanterns, stone or bronze, that either align the walkway to the shrine or are suspended in the hallways inside the shrine. They have been donated from the worshipers since the Heian Period and are lit twice a year for the Lantern Festivals in early February and mid-August.
Sample local specialty Unagi (Eel)
Eel is one of the local delicacies in Nara and you’ll find many restaurants that serve it. On my way back from Kasuga Taisha to the train station I passed an intriguing building with beautiful garden. Naturally, my curiosity took over and when I peeped in I discovered it was a Japanese restaurant Kikusuiro. I enthusiastically inquired if they served dinner and was invited inside to a beautiful dining hall. While enjoying a view over the pond I sampled unagi set which included salt-based soup, pickles and delicious unagi over rice. It was a perfect way to end my visit to Nara.
If you have time, Nara is certainly worth a visit. Whether you travel alone, with your partner or kids it would make a great getaway destination. As a bonus, you will also enjoy an insanely beautiful scenery on a train ride there. I passed old villages and rolling hills of lush bamboo forests with colorful maple trees peeking out here and there. I don’t think I have seen anything that beautiful.
Have you been to Nara? What did you think? Do you have other recommendations of things to see and do?
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