Nara was the capital of Japan between 710 to 794 AD. The ancient city is one of the major tourist highlights in Japan and is famous for its tame deer ranging freely in the city. Nara is located less than one hour from Kyoto and Osaka. Due to its past as the first permanent capital, it remains full of historic treasures, including some of Japan’s oldest and largest temples.
WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO VISIT NARA
If you are wondering when is the best month to visit Nara? The best months are during spring – March to May and autumn – October to November. Spring in Nara is believe to start with the celebration of the Shuni-e ceremony at Todai-ji Temple.
Winter in Nara falls from December to February while the rainy season is around June to July. Summer is around June to August, but it can be hot and humid.
1. Kofukuji Temple
Kofukuji (興福寺, Kōfukuji) used to be the family temple of the Fujiwara, the most powerful family clan during much of the Nara and Heian Periods. While entrance to Kofukuji’s temple grounds is free and possible around the clock, there are two areas that require paying an entrance fee: Kofukuji’s National Treasure Museum and the Eastern Golden Hall. The recently renovated National Treasure Museum exhibits part of the temple’s great art collection and is an absolute must-see for lovers of Buddhist art. Among the many outstanding exhibits is the three-faced, six-armed Ashura Statue, one of the most celebrated Buddhist statues in all of Japan.
2. Nara Park
The park is home to hundreds of freely roaming deer. Considered in Shinto to be messengers of the gods, Nara’s nearly 1200 deer have become a symbol of the city and have even been designated as a natural treasure. Nara’s deer are surprisingly tame, although they can be aggressive if they think you will feed them. Deer crackers are for sale around the park, and some deer have learned to bow to visitors to ask to be fed.
Nara Park is a five minute walk from Kintetsu Nara Station or about a 20 minute walk from JR Nara Station. Alternatively, the park can be reached by bus. There are multiple stops around the park.
Todaiji (東大寺, Tōdaiji, “Great Eastern Temple”) is one of Japan’s most famous and historically significant temples and a landmark of Nara. Todaiji’s grounds are spacious and cover most of northern Nara Park, including a number of smaller temple halls and sites of interest around the Daibutsuden Hall
Along the approach to Todaiji stands the Nandaimon Gate, a large wooden gate watched over by two fierce looking statues. Representing the Nio Guardian Kings, the statues are designated national treasures together with the gate itself. Temple visitors will also encounter some deer from the adjacent Nara Park, begging for shika senbei, special crackers for deer that are sold for around 150 yen.
4. Nara National Museum
The Nara National Museum (奈良国立博物館, Nara Kokuritsu Hakubutsukan), located in Nara Park, is an art museum which primarily displays Japanese Buddhist art. Both wings display the museum’s permanent collection, which includes Buddhist statues, paintings, scrolls and ceremonial objects mainly from Japan.
The new wing also houses temporary exhibitions, including an annual exhibition every autumn of treasures from Todaiji Temple. A ticket to the museum gives access to both wings, and English explanations are available throughout the museum.
5. Kasuga Taisha
Beyond the shrine’s offering hall, which can be visited free of charge, there is a paid inner area which provides a closer view of the shrine’s inner buildings. Furthest in is the main sanctuary, containing multiple shrine buildings that display the distinctive Kasuga style of shrine architecture, characterized by a sloping roof extending over the front of the building.
Kasuga Taisha is famous for its lanterns, which have been donated by worshipers. Hundreds of bronze lanterns can be found hanging from the buildings, while as many stone lanterns line its approaches. The lanterns are only lit twice a year during two Lantern Festivals, one in early February and one in mid August.
There are many smaller auxiliary shrines in the woods around Kasuga Taisha, twelve of which are located along a path past the main shrine complex and are dedicated to the twelve lucky gods. Among them are Wakamiya Shrine, an important cultural property known for its dance festival, and Meoto Daikokusha, which enshrines married deities and is said to be fortuitous to matchmaking and marriage
Located a short walk from the Kasuga Shrine main complex is the Kasuga Taisha Shinen Manyo Botanical Garden. This garden displays about 250 kinds of plants described in the Manyoshu, Japan’s oldest collection of poems which dates to the Nara Period. A large part of the garden is dedicated to wisteria flowers which usually bloom from late April to early May.
Kasuga Taisha is located in the east of Nara Park. It is about a 30 minute walk from Kintetsu Nara Station, or a 45 minute walk from JR Nara Station. Alternatively, it can be reached by bus from either station. Get off at the Kasuga Taisha Honden bus stop (210 yen, frequent departures).