Not far from the bustling cities of Kyoto and Osaka lies the little town of Nara. Despite its small size, there are so many amazing things to do in Nara, Japan. Here’s everything you need to know about the lovely Nara prefecture.
How to Get to Nara
Pretty much everyone who gets to Nara gets there by train. You’ll want to route yourself to Shin-Omiya Station. From there, you can walk to the vast majority of Nara’s tourist attractions (although if you want to tackle all or most of the recommendations below, you may want to consider taking the local bus as well).
*Note: the immediate area around the Shin-Omiya Station in Nara is one of the most touristy areas I encountered during my time in Japan. Walk for about a minute, and you’ll quickly be out.
Transportation in Nara
As for transportation WITHIN the town of Nara, there are buses run by the Nara Kotsu Bus company. The regular buses used by locals are green or beige. The loop buses (that make a loop around the town of Nara, stopping by the main attractions) are yellow. The yellow buses are what you’re looking for. Bus #1 on the yellow line runs counterclockwise (which is written “anti-clockwise”), and Bus #2 on the yellow line runs clockwise.
The loop bus costs 210 yen per adult (about $2.10) and 110 yen per child (about $1.10) per ride. There is also a 1-Day Pass that costs 500 yen per adult (about $5) and 250 yen per child (about $2.50), which will give you unlimited rides within a limited zone. (This limited zone Day Pass will still get you to all of the recommendations below.)
Where to Stay in Nara
Honestly, spending a night at the Nara Hotel should be listed as another one of the things to do in Nara. Not only is this splendid hotel by far the best place to stay in Nara, it has also been the go-to accommodation for various celebrities, members of royal families, politicians, religious figures, and government officials. Some of these people include Charlie Chaplin, Hellen Keller, Albert Einstein, Prince Edward, Pope Paul VI, the 14thDalai Lama, Hu Jintao, and Emperor Hirohito. So if you want to stay where the likes of these famous figures stayed in Japan, Nara Hotel is the place for you!
Other than the slew of celebrities who have stayed at the hotel and its prime location, the Nara Hotel also offers access to the Former Daijoin Temple Garden, the Western-style St. Raphael Chapel, and the Hourai (for Shinto wedding ceremonies). It also boasts one Japanese restaurant, one French restaurant, a tea room, and a bar.
Room rates for the Nara Hotel start at 18,600 yen (about $173) per night, depending on the season and availability.
Other Hotels, Hostels, and Guest Houses
Besides the Nara Hotel, there are a number of hostels, guest houses, and alternative hotels. Just as a note, it seems that the closer you stay to the Shin-Omiya Station, the more expensive the accommodation becomes.
Things to Do in Nara
Feed the Deer in Nara Park
By far the most popular thing to do in Nara is feed the wild deer that just wander around the city. To feed these deer, you’ll find various vendors and stores selling senbei crackers made for the deer. A pack of about eight crackers only costs 150 yen (about $1.50). Do NOT feed the deer anything other than these senbei crackers, as that could harm their physical health. When you purchase the senbei crackers, try to keep them out of sight and move to an area with fewer deer. If the animals know that you have food, they will start following you and even lightly gnawing on your bags and pockets to find their tasty treats.
As if getting to feed wild deer wasn’t enough of a unique animal encounter, the deer found in Nara have actually learned to bow! If you bow, they will bow in response (although, it has to be pretty close to a proper Japanese bow for them to recognize your attempt). Be warned though: if they bow, they will expect a senbei cracker in return! (The older deer tend to be better at this – I guess they have more practice.)
Lastly, be smart when you interact with the deer. Know that deer with larger horns tend to be more aggressive. And don’t forget that these are WILD deer. Even though they may act tame, if you taunt them with food, that will likely change the animals’ behaviors.
Check Out the Owls at an Animal Shelter Zoo
First deer, now owls! If the deer aren’t entertaining enough for you, there is an animal shelter zoo located not far from the Kofukuji Temple. You’ll be able to pet owls while sipping on a nice cold drink. There is a 1000-yen ($10) entrance fee per person to enter this animal shelter zoo.
Visit Nakatanido to Watch the Fastest Mochi Maker in Japan
Stare in Awe at the Five-Story Pagoda at Kofukuji Temple
Five story pagodas are a big deal in Japan. As you probably know, Japan has a lot of earthquakes. The pagodas in Japan are built in a way that they will be able to survive earthquakes. They are built with one single tall pillar in the middle that is not firmly nailed into anything. That gives it the freedom it needs to resist breaking during an earthquake. Because of this style of building, pagodas cannot get taller than five stories. And, if we’re being honest, five-stories is already cutting it rather close. In other words, five-story pagodas, including the one at Kofukuji Temple, are a real feat.
*Pro Tip: after exploring the pagoda, don’t forget about the rest of Kofukuji Temple!
Spend Some Time at the Todaiji Temple
Todaiji Temple has quite a lot of history. Built in 752, this UNESCO World Heritage Site held the record of the world’s largest wooden building for over a millennium. It also houses one of the largest bronze statues of Buddha, which stands over 15 meters tall.
There is a 500-yen (about $5) entrance fee per person to visit Todaiji Temple.
Visit the Kasugataisha Shrine
Kasugataisha Shrine, built in 768, is the shrine of the Fujiwara family. This particular shrine was built around the same time that Nara began to thrive as a capital city. As a matter of fact, it was dedicated to the deity responsible for the protection of the city! The nearby area also has the Kasuga Taisha Shinen Manyo Botanical Garden, the Kasuga Taisha Museum, and the Kasuga Primeval Forest, which could make for a great nature-based adventure!
*Note: Kasugataisha Shrine is the farthest attraction from the train station. If you do plan on going to Kasugataisha Shrine, it would be wise to invest in a ticket or a day pass for the loop buses.
Spend an Hour at the Nara National Museum
If you love historic or religious art, the Nara National Museum is one of the best things to do in Nara! Opened in 1889, the Nara National Museum displays primarily Japanese Buddhist artwork. Admission to the museum is 520 yen (about $5.20) per person.
Looking for other Japan city guides? Check out our guides to Hakodate and Osaka!
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