Discover Nara, western Japan's lesser-known cultural heartland, teeming with unique attractions. Escape the well-trodden paths of Osaka and Kyoto, and let this guide illuminate Nara's enchanting fusion of history and charm.
Our curated list of 20 fun things to do in Nara will help jumpstart your bucket list and make your holiday memorable.
Main image: PIXTA
Why visit Nara?
As Japan’s first permanent capital, Nara has a rich history that dates back over 1,300 years. The cities most well-known sights are distinctly centered on its impressive temples, shrines, and natural scenery a local cuisine has a refinement gained through a millennia of tradition. Not far from Kyoto or Osaka, Nara is a must-visit for a trip to western Japan’s Kansai region.
If you’re planning your first visit, we have good news: most of Nara’s best sights are conveniently clustered on the city’s east side, making it easy to see them all in a day. Here are 20 of the top things to see and do on your first trip to this exquisite city.
Getting to Nara is Easy
As one of Japan’s most well-known and beloved tourist destinations, Nara is easy to reach.
- From Kyoto: Take a JR Miyakoji Rapid Service train from JR Kyoto Station and you’ll be in Nara in 45 minutes.
- From Osaka (JR Osaka Station): The trip to Nara is about 50 minutes on the JR Yamatoji Rapid.
- From Tokyo, it’s still only about a 3-hour trip, of which 2 hours and 10 minutes are via the Nozomi Shinkansen (bullet train) from JR Tokyo Station to JR Kyoto Station. As above, transfer to a JR Miyakoji Rapid Service train in Kyoto to be in Nara 45 minutes later.
- JR Kansai WIDE Area Pass: Best for visitors who will spend the majority of their time in Midwestern Japan.
- JR WEST All Area Pass: Recommended for visitors who will be exploring Midwestern and Western Japan.
- Kansai Thru Pass: Recommended for budget travel on non-JR lines between Kobe, Osaka, Kyoto, and Nara.
What to see and do in Nara
Temples and shrines
See one of the world’s largest Buddha statues at Todai-ji Temple
A registered UNESCO World Heritage site, Todai-ji Temple stands out a Nara’s top tourist attraction. Todai-ji is home to the world’s largest bronze statue of Buddha, which is an impressive 14.98 meters (49 feet, 2 inches) tall.
While the temple was founded in 738, the current main hall was constructed in 1709 and is one of the world’s largest wooden buildings. Todai-ji long held a position of authority within the Japanese Buddhist faith, and rich in cultural influence and recognition.
The main hall and Buddha aren’t the only sights withing the temple complex, and the other halls and statues will complete your Todai-ji experience.
Since Todai-ji ranks so highly on Nara’s “must see” list, it can be quite crowded with visitors. If you want to avoid the crowds, a private early-bird tour is an excellent option. Over the course of 4 hours, an English-speaking guide will take you to Nara’s best traditional tourist spots before they get too busy.
Find illumination at Kasuga-taisha Shrine
Another of Nara’s UNESCO World Heritage sites, Kasuga-taisha Shrine has a history dating back over 1,250 years and is easily recognizable by its vibrantly-colored gates and pillars.
Kasuga-taisha rests upon Mt. Mikasa and is the primary shrine of Japan’s over 3,000 Kasuga-jinja shrines. The nearby Kasuga Primeval Forest gives the shrine a tangible feeling of connectedness to its natural surroundings.
Japan’s shrines are known for their ceremonial significance and Kasuga-taisha is no exception, hosting numerous festivals throughout the year, the most impressive of which is the annual Setsubun Mantoro. Held each February, 3,000 lanterns illuminate the shrine in an otherworldly glow as participants welcome spring, make wishes for the new year, and ward off bad luck.
Compare architectural styles at Kofuku-ji Temple
As you head east from JR Nara Station, Kofuku-ji Temple is the first of Nara’s spectacular temples you’ll come to and it’s a worthy introduction to the wonders of Japan’s ancient capital.
Kofuku-ji was established over 1,300 years ago and has stood the test of time as the main temple of Hosso Buddhism. Among its main structures, the Kofuku-ji complex has 2 round halls, 2 pagodas, and 2 golden halls, affording visitors an excellent opportunity to compare multiple examples of each type of architecture.
Join the 7 Great Temples of Ancient Nara Day Tour
To conveniently get the full experience of Nara’s long history, a day tour will ensure that you see the city’s most important locations in one informative and enlightening tour.
Parks and Gardens in Nara
Feed the deer at Nara Park
While Nara’s ancient temples and shrines are, for many, the most impressive aspect of a Nara tour, Nara Park is the centerpiece of Nara tourism in more ways than one.
Established as a park in 1880, and covering a vast area of over 500 hectares, Nara Park is conveniently situated between Toda-ji Temple, Kofuku-ji Temple, and Kasuga-taisha Shrine. What’s more, the park is home to Nara’s most recognizable residents – more than 1,000 sika deer.
Nara Park is a must-see for any Nara trip, and provides a family-friendly stop on your tour. While they are still considered wild animals, the deer are generally accustomed to being around humans and feeding them is a popular activity for park visitors, especially children.
In spring, cherry blossoms add an additional scenic flare to the park’s already striking beauty. For an even more memorable experience, rent a kimono at one of the shops nearby and enjoy snapping photos in traditional Japanese attire.
Relax at Isuien Garden
Located between Todai-ji Temple and Kofuku-ji Temple, Isuien Garden is a peaceful, scenic oasis all year round.
Covering 13,500 square meters (145,000 square feet), Isui-en is made up of two gardens – the Inner Garden, designed during the Edo period, and the Outer Garden, designed during the Meiji period.
Offering seclusion and silence in the midst of the surrounding city, the garden is home to beautiful traditional landscaping and a wide variety of flowers which create a picturesque view from any of the garden’s four teahouses. After a tranquil stroll through Isuien Garden, the Sanshutei Tea House is perfect for taking a rest and enjoying Japanese tea.
Be inspired by Yoshikien Garden
Another of Nara’s inspiring gardens, Yoshiki-en Garden is adjacent to Isuien Garden and is divided into three sections dedicated to the pond, moss garden, and teahouse, respectively. Formerly the site of a private residence, Yoshikien Garden is at its best in spring and fall.
Museums in Nara
Immerse yourself in Buddhist art at Nara National Museum
The Nara National Museum, one of Japan's pre-eminent national art museums, houses the country’s most extensive collection of Buddhist art and artifacts. The collection ranges from sculptures and paintings to intricate calligraphy and more. It’s a great place to see and learn more about Japan’s Buddhist heritage and the artistry of temple artifacts.
The museum also hosts lectures on weekends, but please note registration is required and all presentations are in Japanese only.
Be delighted by artistic goldfish at Nara Kingyo Museum
The deer of Nara Park will always be the city’s main animal attraction, but for a change of pace that the whole family is sure to enjoy, the Nara Kingyo Museum is truly unique. Combining aquariums filled with over 3,000 goldfish and eye-catching artistic displays, the museum is a celebration of creativity and the delightful fish that are a key part of Japanese culture.
Enjoy shopping and a relaxing time at M!Nara
Get an artistic glimpse in to the heart of Nara at the Irie Taikichi Memorial Museum of Photography Nara City
Opened three months after his passing in 1992, the Irie Taikichi Memorial Museum of Photography Nara City opened to share the works of the native Nara photographer. His subjects have very Nara-centric theme, focusing on local culture and events, and Buddhist statues. Irie’s photos are an intriguing insight into the heart of Nara and can be appreciated by viewers of any background.
600-1, Takabatakecho, Nara-shi, Nara, 630-8301
Kyobate Station （JR Sakurai Line）
26 minutes on foot
- Phone Number 0742-22-9811
- Address 600-1, Takabatakecho, Nara-shi, Nara, 630-8301
Explore the streets of Naramachi
Perhaps one of the most enjoyable aspects of traveling in Japan is the opportunity to experience the convergence of historical eras, and there’s no better place to do that than in neighborhoods where everyday life has carried on for centuries.
Many houses and buildings in the Naramachi area of Nara date back to the Edo era and still operate as shops and cafes in this historic merchant district. The traditional atmosphere, classic architecture, and local dining make Naramachi a fun cultural experience.
In addition, the privately-owned Naramachi Museum here exhibits a diverse collection of folk items, including traditional tools, crafts, and valuable works like picture signboards from the Edo and Meiji Periods depicting theater scenes.
Activities in Nara
Cycle around the city
Since so many of the top sights are situated so close to one another, a guided bicycle tour is a perfect way to get around quickly and make the most of your time in Nara. Tours typically cover a half-day adventure around the city and include bilingual background for Nara’s main temples and shrines and more.
Take a full or half-day tour of Nara
Full or half-day tours with a guide might be one of the most attractive options available for seeing the sights in Nara.
Private tours can often be customized with an itinerary to reflect your personal interests. Whether you want to focus on Nara’s most revered temples, experience a variety of museums, or bask in natural beauty, the tone of the tour is up to you!
Meanwhile, bus tours offer a great budget-friendly experience to see the area's highlights, while leaving the driving to someone else. This option can be great for families.
Enjoy formal worship and meditation
Embark on a soul-stirring 1-night, 2-day journey into the heart of Japan's spiritual landscape at the renowned Tamaki Shrine, a crown jewel in the World Heritage 'Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range'. Guided by a wise and compassionate priest, you'll explore the mystical world of Japanese kami (nature spirits) and learn the elegant, formal ways to worship and meditate.
Through this unique experience, you'll not only rejuvenate your body and mind but also connect with the local people, who embody the true essence of Japanese culture.
Experience an exhilarating hike around Nara's spiritual Yoshino District
Step into the footsteps of ancient pilgrims on a mesmerizing 1-night, 2-day trek through the World Heritage area of the Hatenashi Pass on the Koheji route. This ancient path, one of the revered Kumano Kodo routes, has woven its way through Japan's steep, emerald mountains for centuries, connecting the sacred Mount Koya and Kumano.
Along the way, you'll encounter breathtaking natural vistas that stir the soul, including the Hatenashi hamlet, Tenku no Sato (Village in the Sky), and age-old paved paths that whisper stories of spiritual seekers from ages past.
But this is not merely a trek; it's an intimate embrace of the very essence of Japanese culture. Engage with local people whose lives are interwoven with this sacred land, and feel the pulse of true Japanese hospitality and heritage. And if your heart desires a different course, you can personalize your pilgrimage to resonate with your own spiritual quest.
Shop for deer-themed souvenirs
Japan’s souvenir culture has a creativity and playfulness that makes gift shopping a highlight for many tourists, and many cities and regions have their own local mascot. In Nara, naturally, it’s the famous deer of Nara Park.
Three of the city’s best souvenir shops are conveniently located near Kofuku-ji Temple and are easy to stop by on your way back to the train station to find your favorite deer earrings, plush toy, sweets, and more.
Food & Drinks in Nara
Try foods and confectionary using Kudzu
Nara is home to local cuisine like narazuke pickles, persimmon leaf sushi, locally-produced sake, and much more. Among Nara’s culinary specialties is high-quality kudzu powder, produced by traditional methods in the Yoshino district. Kudzu is used to make noodles, desserts, and other fine dishes you can find in Yoshino and throughout Nara City.
Savor Michelin Starred Kaiseki in Nara at Tsukumo
Tsukumo Kaiseki is one of the best dining experiences in Nara, with two Michelin stars. Each dish takes advantage of seasonal ingredients and is arranged around its own theme.
Learn how to make sushi
For an unforgettable experience, why not try your hand at making your own sushi? With expert guidance from an English-speaking sushi master, you’ll learn about Japan’s most popular cuisine, make and eat your own sushi, and be able to use your newly acquired skills to make sushi a regular part of your home menu!
Sample sake at Imanishi Seibei Shoten Sake Brewery
For an authentic tasting of Japanese sake, Imanishi Seibei Shoten is an excellent destination. Friendly staff give visitors a memorable introduction to 5 kinds of sake.
Enjoy a craft beer and sake walking tour
Along with a bilingual guide, you can take a stroll off Nara’s regularly-beaten tourist path to sample local beverages on an afternoon tour.
Nara welcomes you with open arms, offering an endless array of experiences that cater to every traveler's taste. The city's landscape, filled with lush greenery, majestic monuments, and warm, welcoming locals, is a testament to Japan's rich cultural heritage.
Don't just read about it – come, feel, and live the Nara experience. Every street, every flavor, and every smile in this timeless city has a story to tell. Your story in Nara is waiting to be written.
*Prices and options mentioned are subject to change.
*Unless stated otherwise, all prices include tax.
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