What to Do in Nara

Nara Attractions

Nara, once known as Heijo-kyo, was the first capital of Japan (710-794). It is home to three of Japan’s World Heritage Sites and many impressive shrines, temples and ruins. Nara is blessed as it somehow escaped the widespread destruction wreaked by American bombers during WWII plus it has managed to preserve its historic charm very well. Tourists are getting to hear more of Nara during 2010 because of the city’s year-long 1,300 anniversary celebrations.

If you don’t have much time to spare, Nara Park (the same park where hundreds of Sika deer roam), is definitely a must. Nara’s sights include Todaiji Temple, Kofuku-ji Temple, Kasuga Taisha Shrine, Heijo Palace, Nara National Museum, the Neiraku Museum and the Isuien Garden Complex.

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Nara Park

Nara Park, covering an area of over 500 hectares, is the biggest municipal park in Japan and lies in the heart of the city. Locals love to come to the park, especially to the hanami spot to view the cherry blossom in spring. Look for the friendly deer that run freely inside the park, expecting people to feed them sembei (deer crackers). These deer have long been the symbol of Nara and according to Shinto belief they are regarded as the messengers of the gods so no one dares harm them. Visitors will find many interesting historical landmarks in and around the park such as Kofuku-ji Temple, Todai-ji Temple, Kasuga Temple and the Nara National Museum.

  • Opening Hours: All year round
  • Location: Central Nara
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Todai-ji Temple

Founded by Emperor Shomu (724-749) this Buddhist Temple is probably the most famous attraction in Nara and is well known for its magnificent bronze Nara Daibutsu statue (or the Great Buddha of Nara). Like many historical places in Japan, the statue and its huge wooden hall and building have suffered damaged several times and have subsequently been restored. The current Daibutsu is one of the largest bronze statues in the world and was rebuilt by the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1692. Todai-ji Temple is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

  • Opening Hours: Daily 08:00 – 17:00
  • Location: In the north part of Nara Park
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Kofuku-ji Temple

A beautiful vintage five-story pagoda that you’ll always see in tourist brochures and publicity for Nara City is the one at Kofuku-ji Temple. This pagoda, actually one of the city’s symbols and widely known throughout the country, was last rebuilt in 1426. Founded in 669 by the Fujiwara family, then the second-most powerful family in Japan after the imperial family, Kofuku-ji Temple was first located in Kyoto and was moved once before settling at the current location in Nara Park. At that time there were 175 buildings inside the temple; sadly only a few survived, including the three- and five-storey pagodas. Visit the Kokuhokan or the temple’s Treasure House for many antique statues, some dating back to the 8th and 12th-centuries. Kofuku-ji was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998.

  • Opening Hours: Daily 09:00 – 17:00
  • Location: Near the popular Sarusawa Pond in Nara Park
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Kasuga Shrine (Kasuga Taisha Shrine)

A visit to the Kasuga Shrine, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Japan’s oldest Shinto shrines, is a must-do when in Nara. You will notice many lanterns (toro) lining the path leading up to the main building. There are many more of them inside the shrine with about 2,000 stone lanterns and 1,000 hanging bronze ones. In the old days, these lanterns were lit nightly but this is not the case anymore. To see them all lit one must visit the Kasuga Shrine on three special nights in the year: February 3rd and again on August 14th and 15th.

Kasuga Shrine is the tutelary shrine of the powerful Fujiwara clan which enjoyed strong connections with the imperial family. It was founded in 768 with the current building last rebuilt in 1863. For an extra fee, tourists can admire many vintage items such as swords and traditional costumes inside the ‘treasure house’ (or homotsuden).

  • Opening Hours:
    Kasuga Shrine: open daily from 09:00 – 16:30 (16:00 in winter)
    The Treasure House: open daily from 09:00 - 17:00. Closed 4 times a year for exhibition changes.
  • Location: In the east of Nara Park, about a 20-minute walk from the Todai-ji Temple
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Kasuga Taisha Botanical Garden (or Rokuen)

Also located nearby Kasuga Shrine is a botanical garden (rokuen) featuring hundreds of native plants. Expect to see beautiful trees and plants such as Japanese figs, Japanese blue oaks, hydrangea, rabbit-ear iris, dianthus superbus, Chinese bellflowers, willows, Japanese cedars, Japanese plums and cluster maryllis. Many locals come in late April and May to see the wisteria in full bloom.

  • Opening Hours: Daily 09:00 - 17:00 (until 16:30 from December to February and also closed Mondays in the same period.)
  • Location: Near to the Kasuga Shrine in Nara Park

Nara National Museum (Nara Kokuritsu Hakubutsukan)

First established in 1895, the Nara National Museum exhibits on a permanent basis many priceless Japanese Buddhist artworks, scrolls, paintings as well as archaeological items from various historical eras. But to most people the highlight of all this is the Shosoin Treasure House. Shosoin is unique because it houses over 9,000 pieces – the world’s largest collection of 8th century ‘Silk Road’ exhibits. The collection includes musical instruments from Tang China, lapis lazuli stones from Turkey, cut-glass bowls from Persia, cups made from rhinoceros horn from India and many items from Japan’s own imperial collections. The annual Shosoin exhibition with selected items on display usually runs for a few weeks from October to November. Also, the museum holds quite a few extraordinary exhibitions throughout the year such as 2010’s ‘Imperial Envoys to Tang China: Early Japanese Encounters with Continental Culture’.

  • Opening Hours: 09:30 to 17:00, closed on Mondays.
  • Location: To the east of Kofukuji Temple and west of the Todaiji compound in Nara Park
  • Tel: +81 (0)74 222 7771
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Yakushi-ji Temple

A temple dedicated to the ‘Buddha of medicine’, Yakushi-ji Temple was built in 680 and later relocated to its current site after Nara was named the capital. The temple is also known for its splendid collection of Buddhist artworks including Buddhist bronze sculptures and a beautiful painting from the 8th century of Kichijo-ten, or Sri-mahadevi the Buddhist goddess of peace, happiness, and beauty. Visitors will find an impressive number of buildings inside Yakushi-ji such as the original 8th century east pagoda and reconstructed west pagoda as well as the kodo (lecture hall) which was rebuilt in 1852 and the kondo (main hall) constructed in 1976.

  • Opening Hours: Daily from 08:30 -17:00 The Kichijo-ten image is on display from January 1-15 and October 8 to November 10 only
  • Location: 457 Nishinokyo-cho, Nara
  • Subway: Nearest station are JR / Kintetsu Nara station and Kintetsu Nishi-no-kyo station
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Kehaya-za Sumo Museum

Located in nearby Katsuragi City, the two-floor museum is devoted to the world of sumo wrestling. It was opened in 1990 and displays about 12,000 interesting items, all related to sumo such as several kesho-mawashi (an ornate, embroidered silk belt worn by the wrestlers), geta (Japanese wooden sandals), historical documents of sumo, old photos and paintings. The first floor presents a life-size sumo ring but don’t expect a real match here.

  • Opening Hours: 08:30 – 17:00, closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays
  • Location: Katsuragi City, Nara
  • Tel: +81 (0)74 548 4611
  • How to get there: A 5-minute walk from Kintetsu Taimadera Station.
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Isuien Japanese Garden

The beautiful Isuien garden is a good escape from Nara’s major tourist attractions. It consists of two parts; the mid 17th century front garden and a rear garden which was built later in 1899. The two gardens are connected by an attractive walkway. Here, you’ll find a few small tea houses as well as a very interesting museum featuring vintage pottery, ceramics, and arts and crafts from Korea and China.

  • Opening Hours: 09:30 – 16:30, closed on Tuesdays
  • Location: Along the Yoshiki River just southwest of the great Todaiji Temple
  • How to get there: A 15-minute walk from Kintetsu Nara Station.
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Heijo Palace

In 2010 this huge complex was the focus of a big celebration – the 1,300th anniversary of the foundation of Heijo-kyo (as Nara was then called.) Heijo was the emperor’s residence for less than a century before it was completely abandoned when the capital was moved to Kyoto. The Japanese Government has undertaken archaeological research that has cost about $US 100 million.

One of the highlights of the Heijo Palace’s grounds is the life-sized replica diplomatic ship that carried Japanese nobles to China in the 8th century. The palace itself serves as a museum with a good range of exhibits on display including the residential quarters of the emperor, bureaucratic offices, the Daigoku-Den hall for national ceremonies, traditional gates, Japanese gardens and courtyard. Visitors can also try on vintage costumes while there. Heijo Palace is one of Nara’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

  • Opening Hours: 09:00 – 16:30, closed on Mondays
  • How to get there: A 20-minute walk from Yamato-Saidaiji Station.
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Outside Nara City

There are many attractions outside Nara City too, such as the beautiful rice terraces in Asuka Village and the cherry blossom on Yoshino Mountain if you happen to be there in April.

Rice Terraces in Asuka

Asuka Village, to the south of Nara, was an ancient capital before the Nara Period and has many historical sites including ruins, imperial tombs, temples, shrines and carved stones. Asuka is also surrounded by beautiful countryside with colourful rice fields, many on terraced slopes. The traditional village is perfect for a day walking or cycling around it. It is popular as a getaway spot for those who want a break from the crowded touristic landmarks.

  • Opening Hours: All year round.
  • Location: Asuka Village, south of Nara
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Horyu-ji Temple (also known as Ikaruga-dera Temple)

Horyu-ji Temple, founded by Prince Regent Shotoku (574-622), is considered Japan’s oldest Buddhist Temple and the buildings making up the site are the world's oldest existing wooden structures. Horyu-ji features an original wooden kondo (main hall) that is more than 1,300 years old, a five-story pagoda and many valuable Buddha images and sculptures.

The Horyu-ji and

  • Opening Hours: Daily from 08:00 – 16:30
  • Location: In Ikaruga-cho, about 12 km northwest of Nara
  • How to get there: About a 15-minute train ride from from JR Nara station.
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Yoshino Mountain

Yoshino Mountain is about 90 minutes away by train from Nara, and becomes lively every spring as it is a popular site for hamami (cherry blossom) viewing. More than 10,000 cherry trees cover the slopes of Yoshino Mountain. Due to the altitude, the trees blossom longer here, unlike at lower locations where the blossom is viewable for an average of only about two weeks.

  • Opening Hours: All year, but those who want to see the cherry blossom at its best should try the month of April
  • Location: Yoshino City is about 90 minutes by train from Nara
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