In Japan, there are many historical places to visit and unfortunately, if you are short on time during your trip, you can’t visit them all. However, there is one place unlike any other in the world that is a place you cannot afford to skip out on while on your trip. The place I am referring to is Nara Park!
Todaiji Temple (東大寺, Tōdaiji, “Great Eastern Temple”) and Nara Park (奈良公園 Nara Kōen) is located in Nara prefecture a stone throw away from Kyoto and Osaka. Nara is known for its somewhat friendly and polite deer that graze throughout the temple grounds of the historical and renowned Todaiji Temple, known as one of the seven great temples in Japan, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Despite being such a hotspot for tourism as of late, this is definitely a place you don’t want to miss, as it is a tourist hotspot for a very good reason, packed full of historical goodness and sites to see that will make your day.
How Can You Get To Nara Park?
Nara Prefecture is geographically in a very great spot, nestled between the buttcheeks of both Osaka and Kyoto prefecture. No matter where you are staying, whether it be in Kyoto or Osaka City, Nara is only 40-60 minutes away by local train.
Spending your trip in Osaka can be very awesome, but you’d definitely run out of things to do, and instead turn toward alternatives like Kyoto or Nara to check out. At least that was my situation when visiting there! If you are looking to get to Nara from Osaka, follow my simple guide below. From Osaka Station, you will want to look for the ‘JR Osaka Loop Line’ on platform 2. This ride will take roughly 16 minutes and cost 180 yen. From there, you will want to take the train all the way to ‘Tsuruhashi station’ or stop O-04, and transfer to the ‘Kintetsu Namba-Nara Line Express’, and get off at ‘Kintetsu-Nara station’ or stop A-28. This ride will take 33 minutes and cost 500 yen.
I get it, you went to Kyoto and the overwhelming crowds of tourists are just too much. Maybe your day got soured by the overcrowded buses, or an infuriated local chased you out of their shop. Not like any of those actually happened or maybe they did, but if for whatever reason you need a break from busy Kyoto, Nara is the perfect place for that. If you are looking to get to Nara from Kyoto, follow my simple guide below. Unlike from Osaka, getting to Nara is pretty simple with no line switching! From Kyoto Station, get on the Kintetsu Kyoto Line Express to Kintetsu-Nara. This ride will take 46 minutes and cost 640 yen. If you are taking this line, be sure to avoid the train carts that have reserved seating. This will cost you an additional 520 yen if you chose to ride this.
What Can You Do At Nara Station?
Kintetsu-Nara Station is a pretty great station with a lot of restaurants to keep in mind for lunch and dinner before leaving Nara Park. If your stomach isn’t agreeing with Japanese food during your trip, you’ll at least have the choice of good ol’ American McDonalds to save you.
Here are a few restaurants I recommend visiting when at the station:
1. Udon Kamaki
A traditional restaurant with beautifully crafted udon and local sake. This restaurant is the definition of modern and traditional dining mixing together to form a very authentic Japanese dining experience without any frills. This restaurant has been visited by many famous Japanese personalities, so expect it to be busy during peak times as locales and tourists will flock there. You can visit their website here to see their online menu!
2. LBK Craft
Vegan friendly with awesome staff crossed between an American sports bar and a Japanese Izakaya. This place is definitely a place to visit while traveling with friends who are looking to drink and have some fun before retiring for the night. When eating there, I definitely recommend getting the three-set sample of Nara crafted beers to try out, all for very affordable prices. You can visit their website here to see their hours and book a reservation if needed.
Something a little different than the average restaurant in Japan. If you are familiar with American Japanese dishes, this place will definitely seem familiar with a hibachi-like setup.If you are curious about Okonomiyaki, which is a pancake stuffed with egg, meat, cabbage, and more, I definitely recommend hitting this place up as this is what they are known for!
4. Ajitei Yamazakiya
If you are looking for a true Nara experience, try out this restaurant where you can dine on some traditional dishes unique to just Nara in a very clean and ultra-traditional Japanese environment. Oddly, this restaurant is split into two parts. In front of the restaurant entrance, you’ll see a counter outside that sells all kinds of snacks and gift sets. You’ll want to walk past that counter to the restaurant entrance in the back. You can visit their website here to browse their menu or to get an idea of what they serve! This site is in Japanese, so translations to English might not be accurate.
As someone who loves Ramen, I cannot skip out on one of the top-rated Ramen restaurants at the station. Although it’s a chain, that is no excuse to skip out on their masterfully crafted chicken-based bowls, all in good portions for the price too. If you haven’t eaten anything all day, and are absolutely starving, I recommend getting the massive ‘Buddha Bowl’ if you can stomach it. Another thing I must mention is the friendly staff, who are trained and used to the large influx of tourists and foreigners who come to the restaurant! Visit their website here to browse their various locations across Nara prefecture and menus.
After spending time at the Station, you will want to head out toward the north exit. If you see Lawson, you’ll know you are in the right place. Take a right and begin your trek upward toward the great and infamous Nara Park.
Below you can follow my itinerary guide for all the places I recommend you hit up so that you can cover everything Nara Park has to offer within a decent amount of time.
Places To Vist Around Nara Park
So, you’ve spent a little time at Kintetsu-Nara Station, whether you stopped and got some breakfast, lunch, or just looked around. But now it’s time to actually go to Nara Park.
If you are leaving the station after 1:00 PM, I recommend skipping everything on the way and go straight to the park. You’ll have until sunset til Todaiji Temple and park closes, which is roughly 4-5 hours to explore everything, and isn’t enough time in my opinion.
From the station, it’s going to take you roughly 14 minutes to get to the park. But don’t worry. If you have the time, there are plenty of things to see and go to while making your way there.
Kofuku-ji Temple & Pagoda
Your first stop while walking to the Park should definitely be Kofuku-ji. If you are a huge fan of traditional Japanese architecture, then this isn’t a stop you’d want to miss as this temple hosts one of Nara’s five-story pagodas. Pagodas are very iconic to Japan, so whenever I have the chance to go to one, I do it! What makes this pagoda special, however, is the deer that roam around it. You can easily snap a picture of deer laying around on the temple grounds with the pagoda in the background, making for a very nice picture that ties in what Nara is all about.
National Treasure Museum
Hours & Admission: Admission: 600 yen/per person Hours: 9:00 A.M – 5:00 P.M (Open Monday-Sunday)
While visiting Kofuju-ji, I also recommend visiting the National Treasure Museum nearby. If you are someone who appreciates history, this place houses national treasures dating back over a thousand years ago. The temple and museum have their own website here with an English translation.
Nara National Museum
Hours & Admission: Admission: 520 yen/per person Hours: 9:30 A.M – 5:00 P.M (Closed on Mondays)
Directly behind Kofuji is a collection of buildings that include the Nara National Museum, the West Wing, and the Buddhist Art Library. For a while, I thought this place was closed, as what appears to be the front entrance is completely gated off. I’ve come to Nara many times, but it wasn’t until recently I discovered the entrance to be on the other side, so be sure you’re aware of that! Right next to the Museum is the west wing where you can view the extended collection of the Museum.
This museum hosts a huge collection of pieces from ancient Nara, dating back when Nara was the imperial capital of Japan and a full explanation of Buddhism and its connection to the area. If you are unfamiliar with Japan’s history, I highly recommend visiting here for a strong crash course to get familiarized so that you can better understand Todaiji and Nara itself. You can visit their English friendly site here for more details.
Buddhist Art Library
Hours & Admission: Admission: Free Hours: Wednesday & Friday, 9:30 A.M – 4:30 P.M
If the National Museum isn’t enough for you, then you can go down to the Buddhist Art Library right behind the West Wing building. The hours are a bit iffy with this place, but even if the building is closed, you can get some awesome pictures of this beautiful building. Especially during the spring when the cherry blossoms are in bloom. The library has over 100,000 pieces of content available to browse through, ranging from full books, journals, reports, and artwork. When entering the library, you will have to sign in at the reception desk, so keep that in mind!
What Can You Do At Nara And Todaiji Temple?
If you went to Kofuku-ji and the museums, then you are all lored up with knowledge so that you can understand Nara Park to the fullest extent, getting the most out of your visit there! Sometimes I wonder if that was the plan all along by the city planners.
If you skipped my suggestions above because of time restraints, don’t feel bad because Todaiji Temple has plenty of informational tidbits to follow that’ll give you a general idea about the area.
Below are my top recommendations while visiting the park based on my own experience, taking the most convenient route through a park that is considerably huge and somewhat confusing if you don’t know where you are going.
Surrounding Todaiji Temple, and making up for the majority of this wonderful destination, Nara Park is where you’ll spend most of your time while visiting here. Right down the road from the station, and to the left, you’ll see a vast and open field of verdant green grass with large rolling hills in the background. This Park is truly something out of a book. Throughout the park, you’ll see no shortage of deer wandering around and bothering tourists for food.
If you want to feed the deer, there are carts and kiosks all throughout the park that sell biscuits specifically made for the deer and their diets. Don’t try to feed them anything else, even if you have leftover snacks in your bag from somewhere else. You can purchase a stack of 10 biscuits for 200 yen. If you have food or biscuits on you, you’ll more than likely be directly approached by deer. Don’t feel overwhelmed as these deer are generally nice. You can touch and pet them, but if you try to run away or make any sudden movements, you might end up spooking them, resulting in you or others getting hurt!
Here’s another bit from my experience to add. Don’t try to tease the deer with the biscuits. After being at the park for a while, you’ll notice that some deer tend to be more aggressive and straightforward with what they want. They’ll either follow you forever or start chewing on your clothes! I had this happen, and instead of giving them the food they wanted, I started to tease them. This of course didn’t end well. Within minutes I found myself getting rammed in the side, which hurt quite a lot!
Nandaimon Gate of Tōdaiji
A behemoth of a structure, Nandaimon Gate is something that will take your breath away as you make the approach to Todaiji Temple. You’ll find deer all laying all over the base of the gate as if some entity is drawing them to it, making for an awesome photoshoot.
The gate itself appears old and ancient, and it very much is. A lot of the paint is flaking off and I’m not too sure why they don’t opt to give it a repaint, but nonetheless, it gives the building quite the old aesthetic. When walking through the gate, be sure to step over the frame as it’s tradition to do so when walking through any temple or shrine. Within the gate on both sides, you’ll see two large statues of the Nio guardians, meant to ward off evil from the temple.
Todaiji Temple will probably be one of the largest temples you will visit during your trip to Japan. Actually, it is the largest temple in Japan! I’ve been to hundreds of temples and shrines during my stay in Japan, and Todaiji Temple always stands out in my mind when thinking of temples.
There is plenty to do and see at the temple, so be sure to set aside time just for here. Right outside the temple, you’ll see the Octagonal Lantern or Sculpture Lantern that is considered a national treasure of Japan. A picture of this with the temple itself in the background is always a great picture to keep! To the right of the temple hall entrance is the wooden sculpture of Binzuru-sonja, a disciple of Buddha, sitting on a large wooden chair.
The belief behind this sculpture is that if you have discomfort in your body and you rub the corresponding spot on the statue, that discomfort will go away. Unfortunately for us travelers, we all have discomfort in our backs from walking all day, and Binzuru’s back is unreachable, so you’ll just have to settle for his legs. Once inside the Daibutsuden (Big Buddha Hall), you’ll be overwhelmed by the immense size of the hall and the massive bronze Buddha statue. Flanking both sides of the sitting Buddha, are standing statues of two Bodhisattvas.
All throughout the temple, you’ll find detailed miniature models of the temple grounds depicting the temple as it was in the past. While you are busy marveling at everything there is to see, you’ll notice a peculiar attraction around a pillar as kids and sometimes adults will try to fit themselves through a hole. The belief behind this pillar is that if you manage to fit through it, you’ll be enlightened or have better luck in the next life.
Perhaps one of the greatest, but smallest gems in Nara. If you’re looking for an awesome view of the temple grounds, but don’t want to climb all the way up Mount Wakakusa, then Nigatsu-do Shrine is the place you’d want to go! Every time I go to Nara, I always go here for the awesome view. On clear days you’ll be able to see the entirety of Nara City and Todaiji Temple.
If the sun is setting, you’ll want to quickly make your way up to the shrine so that you can see the beautiful sunset over the mountains, which will leave you with an everlasting impression of your trip there. Sometimes the small shrine will get packed with people watching the sunset, so it’s a good idea to get there early before everyone else does. To get there, follow the stone path to the right of Todaiji Temple.
If you pass through a large Torii Gate and begin ascending stairs through a wooded area, you are on the right path! Along the path, there will be plenty of old buildings to visit, as well as deer to harass you. When visiting, do keep in mind that this building is a religious shrine and that you should show some manners when there. Mind the tone of your voice, don’t litter, and definitely don’t vandalize or do anything to damage the structure.
Walk To Todaiji Tegaimon
After visiting Nigatsu-Do, and you have no plans to visit the extra places suggested below, it’s time to leave! Only if you’re ready, of course. Probably one of the best ways to leave Nara Park is by walking to Todaiji Tegaimon. You could just walk back to Todaiji Temple, but you’ve already been there and seen that. Time to take in something new while you still can!
The path to Todaiji Tegaimon is to the left of Nigatsu-Do. In fact, there are stairs leading directly down to the path from the shrine, as if the builders intended for people to go that way. As you walk down this path, you’ll be teleported back in time, seeing some very old structures, walls, and canals on both sides of the path. If you are truly a Japan junky and love traditional Japanese architecture, you’ll appreciate this nice walk. Eventually, you’ll end up finding yourself in someone’s backyard.
Actually, no it’s Tegaimon Gate. Weirdly enough, the nice old Japanese architecture will begin to warp into something more modern and you’ll be flanked by wire fencing that leads into people’s backyards. But alas, before you is the beautiful Tegaimon gate leading out to the busy streets of the modern world. Take a left down the road and you’ll find yourself back where you started this whole journey!
Extra Places To Visit
Alright, so maybe you visited Nara a little too early and you’ve hit all the places I recommended above before it got late. You have plenty of time, and you don’t want to leave yet. Fortunately for you, there are a couple of places you could visit that I didn’t entirely cover. Below, add these additional destinations to your itinerary!
Visit All The Shrines
Along the base of Mt. Wakakusa, there is a string of noteworthy shrines to visit. All of them unique in their own way and great for taking pictures. Most tourists don’t know about these shrines, so if you are absolutely sick of the crowds and want to get away from all of that, I highly recommend taking this route.
From Nigatsu-Do, you’ll want to go back down to the stone path from where you came from and take a left. Don’t go back down the stairs toward Todaiji Temple, otherwise, you’ll be going the wrong way! As you walk down this path, you should be able to spot all of the little shrines ranging from medium-sized buildings to very small boxes. Some notable shrines are Tamukeyama Hachiman-gu Shrine, Mizuya Shrine, and Kasuga-taisha. As you go to these shrines, you’ll come across a string of shops and even a few hotels including Kotonoyado Musashino, a very traditional ryokan.
Climb Mt. Wakakusa
If you find yourself all the way down at Kasuga-Taisha, then you might as well climb Mt. Wakakusa. From Le Case restaurant, there is a hiking trail that you can utilize to get to the top of the mountain. Note that it will take about an hour to hike. I don’t recommend hiking the mountain if it is raining, which may be the case depending on the time of year. If it is raining, it can get pretty messy and you’ll very easily ruin a pair of shoes.
I recommend packing a pair of hiking boots if you plan on traveling during Japan’s typhoon season. Once you get to the top of the mountain, you’ll be able to see a breathtaking view of not only Todaiji Temple, but the entirety of Nara! You’ll even be able to see the pagodas that you visited earlier in the distance. Honestly, if you have the time to get up here before sunset, I highly recommend it over going to Nigatsu-do.
Recommended Hotels Near Nara
1. Nara Hotel
The king of historical hotels in Japan. Nara Hotel offers a glimpse into the past, featuring original architecture and furniture dating back to the early 1900s. If you aren’t a fan of dated hotels, then this isn’t the place for you as the hotel tries to keep its originality. The hotel is equipped with a huge dining hall that features a restaurant and bar, with a great view of Nara’s Pagoda tucked between the treeline.
From Nara Hotel, it’s only 15 minutes walking to Nara Park and Kintetsu-Nara Station.
Wanting a complete traditional Japanese experience is expected, so I always recommend Sarusawaike Yoshidaya. This ryokan is stocked with very comfortable futons to sleep on, as you will be sleeping on a tatami floor in the true ryokan way. All the amenities and rooms here are very modern and clean. If you plan on eating where you are staying, you can have food ordered directly to your room where it will be prepared and laid out for you by the staff.
From Yoshidaya, it’s 14 minutes walking to Nara Park and only 8 minutes walking to Kintetsu-Nara Station.
Yet another traditional ryokan located on the eastern edge of Nara Park, Kotonoyado is what you’d imagine a traditional Japanese inn to look like as the building looks like a traditional Japanese house tucked between well-manicured trees with a path and gate leading up to it. This ryokan offers specialties like a tea ceremony, flower arrangements, kaiseki dinners, and an onsen all included in the hotel price. They even have kimonos and yukatas available for you to wear during your stay in Nara!
From Kotonoyado, it’s 10 minutes walking to Nara Park and 23 minutes walking to Kintetsu-Nara Station.
If you’re looking to just relax and spend a couple of days in the heart of Nara City, Onyado is the place for you. You’ll get the whole resort package here with access to an outdoor pool, sauna, onsen, and a change of clothes to wear while you enjoy all the amenities this place has to offer. If you plan on staying around Onyado, there is a restaurant that serves up great Japanese dishes and is open past 9:00 P.M if you need to grab something quick to eat before retiring for the night. Do note that this place is considered an onsen. Tattoos in Japan are still taboo so they won’t let you enter the pools. Keep this in mind before booking otherwise you might have anything but a relaxing time here.
From Onyado, it’s only a minute away from JR Nara Station, 10 minutes to Kintetsu-Nara Station, and 28 minutes to Nara Park walking.
Sick of the traditional experiences? I completely understand. Centurion Hotel is your remedy in Nara. This hotel is new, clean, super modern, spacious with large rooms, and huge comfortable beds compared to Japanese standards for a very great price. Actually, the hotel’s motto is ‘Home Away From Home’, so they go above and beyond to make your stay feel like something you’re used to in the Western world. Each room comes stocked with amenities like shampoo, skincare products, razors, toothbrushes, toothpaste, and soft bathrobes. Centurion Hotel also offers a great buffet breakfast with both Western and Japanese food options.
From Centurion Hotel, it’s only 7 minutes away from Kintetsu-Nara Station, and 24 minutes to Nara Park.
6. Kasuga Hotel
Want a hotel right next to Kintetsu-Nara Station? Then Kasuga Hotel is where you’ll want to stay. Kasuga Hotel offers huge rooms in the traditional Japanese style with both ryokan and Western-style rooms. When I mean Western, I’m talking about having actual beds instead of futons. As well as the various options, you’ll also have access to a large indoors and outdoors onsen with showers. If you need a bed, be sure to do some research on the rooms and ask if it’s possible to get a room with an actual bed. Each room is different, and even though the room I got was spacious, you could very easily get the opposite.
From Kasuga Hotel, it’s only a minute walking to Kintetsu-Nara Station as the hotel is right beside the station, and 13 minutes walking to Nara Park.
Wrapping Up Your Day
Well, there you have it. My complete list of recommendations and guidelines to Nara Park. Wrapping up your day here all depends on you and your plans. Personally, I recommend seeing the sunset from Nigatsu-Do or Mt. Wakakusa before trying a new restaurant at Kintetsu-Nara Station for dinner. I try to visit at least once a year, following the guide I’ve written and I am never disappointed. I swear!