I can’t recall the first time I heard about the city of Nara but by the time I arrived in Kyoto the summer of 2015 I knew that I couldn’t miss it.
A short train ride away from Kyoto, Nara is a cultural must-see of Japan. Nara is the capital of the Nara Prefecture located in Japan’s Kansai region. During Japan’s Nara period from 710 to 794, the city was the capital of the country. It is home to the Great Buddha, housed in the Todai-ji Temple, and to the friendliest deer you will ever meet. The sika deer in Nara were considered sacred in Japan up to World War II, when they were then stripped from their divine status and instead became a national treasure. Visitors are encouraged to buy “deer-crackers” to feed them.
I gave myself one day to visit Nara Park, a public park in the city at the foot of Mount Wakakusa and home to over 1,200 deer. The Nara Park area usually brings to mind not only the park itself but also the surrounding temples and shrines as well as private gardens, which are now open to the public.
To guide me, I followed Chris Rowthorn’s Nara One Day Itinerary on his website InsideKyoto.com. Rowthorn is a long time Kyoto resident and a Lonely Planet author. If you have more than one day to spend in Nara, he also has multi-day Nara itineraries to offer.
A Whole Lotta Deer
Equipped with my Japan Rail Pass, I arrived at the JR Nara station early in the morning. Whether you arrive at the JR station or the Kintetsu Nara station, the itinerary works the same for both locations, according to Rowthorn.
Following Rowthorn’s instructions, I headed up Nobori-oji Street to eventually reach the underground crossing that would lead me to my first destination: Isui-en garden. I had read about how calm and bold the Nara deer are towards humans but nothing could prepare me for my first encounter with them. I hadn’t even reach the underground crossing when I spotted over 20 deer being fed by tourists and locals on the street.
A Look at Private Gardens: Isui-en and Yoshiki-en
After I had gotten my fill of feeding, petting, and photographing the deer, I moved on and got to the underground pass. I followed Rowthorn’s instruction to head towards the northeast corner of the Nobori-oji/Route 169 towards Isui-en Garden. (There is a sign in that points you in the right direction)
Isui-en Garden is one of Nara’s most beautiful gardens. The garden was created during Japan’s Meji era and has been preserved ever since. Visitors can access the grounds for ¥650.
Before exploring the wonders of Isui-en I decided to take a look at Yoshiki-en, the next door garden that offers free admission for foreigners. Small compared to its neighbor, Yoshiki-en is a charming location that offers a pleasant stroll for visitors and a nice view of a thatch-roof teahouse.
Yoshiki-en Garden was such a beautiful experience that I was pleasantly surprised when my walk through Isui-en Garden topped it. One part of the garden is built around a pond that has two statues on it, one representing a tortoise and the other a crane. While strolling through this paradise, I was lead by stepping-stone paths through hills, decorative rock formations, and waterfalls.
The garden’s designer used the technique of shakkei, which means borrowed scenery, to incorporate the roof of the Todai-ji Temple into the scenery of the garden. I skipped purchasing matcha tea and a sweet but I can’t imagine anything more relaxing than eating and drinking in such a magnificent environment. In the hot summer heat, the shade provided by the tea houses was much welcomed.
I grudgingly left Isui-en Garden after a mere 30-minute visit to go see the Giant Buddha at the Todai-ji Temple, which ended up being one of the most spectacular sights I got to see during my entire trip in Japan. (For further reading on Isui-en Garden, visit the Japanese Garden Research Network’s website)
Todai-ji Temple and the Great Buddha
The Todai-ji Temple is one of Japan’s UNESCO World Heritage sites, which houses the Great Buddha (Daibutsu). It is one of Nara, and Japan’s, most amazing sites and I was thrilled to have the chance to see it. After paying my ¥500 admission fee, I walked towards the entrance of the temple. As I made my way down the large stretch of stone pavement, the enormity of the building really set in. The temple is a breath-taking sight but an even more impressive one was waiting for me on the inside.
The temples main area is the Daibutsuden, which means the Great Buddha Hall. In this hall, the Great Buddha, which is the world’s largest gilded bronze Buddha, towers over visitors at 49 ft. It depicts the Buddha Vairocana and throughout the years, it has undergone a series of repairs after the damage inflicted by multiple earthquakes. Its head even fell off in 855.
After admiring the remarkable giant statue, I made my way around the Daibutsuden. According to legend, the holes at the bottom of the two rear supporting pillars guarantee a place in Heaven for those who can squeeze through. I watched as mainly small children easily made it through the holes, but I didn’t dare try for fear of getting stuck.
(To read more about the Todai-ji and the Great Buddha, visit the Japan Atlas entry on the pair.)
The Nigatsu-do and Sangatsu-do Halls
As I left the presence of the Great Buddha, I continued to follow Rowthorn’s itinerary religiously so I made my way to the Todai-ji’s two sub-temples: Nigatsu-do and Sangatsu-dō. The path to Nigatsu-do Hall is a lantern-lined staircase which leads to a building with a veranda that circles it, offering amazing views of the city. After completing the climb, I gazed onto the city of Nara while catching my breath. The humidity in Japan during the summer is ridiculous so resting while being cooled down by a pleasant breeze magnified the pleasure from viewing this site.
After getting my fill of a new view, I left Nigatsu-do Hall and made a brief stop at Sangatsu-do Hall. The building is the oldest on the Todai-ji Temple compound and one can see some Nara period statues that are housed in it.
A Shared Meal: Lunch Time
I left the sub-temples around lunch time and made my way to the base of the Wakakusa-yama Mountain, where Rowthorn advised there would be places to eat. Along the base of the mountain, there were a variety of shops and restaurants to choose from as well as the largest gathering of deer I had seen all day. The deer were resting around in groups of five to six under the patches of shade provided by the trees.
After purchasing my daily soft-serve ice-cream cone from one of the shops (a strange obsession of mine when I’m in Japan), I witnessed an old man with a large bag showering the street with what I assumed was deer feed. Suddenly all the deer dashed over to the food and had a hearty group meal.
At the end of the road with all the shops, I climbed down some stairs and encountered what seemed to me the perfect place to enjoy my lunch on such a warm summer day. The restaurant was a tiny place with limited tables inside but it offered a pleasant tatami covered surface to enjoy my meal outside. Why was it the winner? The leafy trees protected customers from the glare of the sun.
I ordered my meal (cold noodles with a side of edamame) and fended off a curious deer who kept begging me for food.
After I finished my meal, I made my way to Nara’s next big attraction: The Kasuga-Taisha Shrine. The Shrine was the tutelary shrine of Nara’s most powerful family during the Nara and Heian periods, the Fujiwaras. In order to access the inner shrines, visitors had to pay an admission fee and I decided to skip it this time.
Even though I didn’t get to experience the building, I did get to see the hundreds of lanterns that the shrine is famous for. Donated by devotees, the lanterns are only lit twice a year for the city’s lantern festivals in February and August. The buildings have bronze lanterns hanging from them and the paths that lead to the shrine itself are lined by stone lanterns.
(If you’re interested in reading more about the shrine, visit this JapanGuide.com guide)
The walk from Kasuga-Taisha Shrine to Kofuku-ji Temple was a long one. The distance between the two sites was longer than I had gotten accustomed that day but I also had to factor in the presence of adorable deer. I never got over how creatures that usually speed away at the sight of the slightest movement on your part could be completely fearless in this city.
When I finally got to the temple I was very disappointed to discover that the main building was hidden away by large sheets of plastic to cover up construction.
Kofuku-ji Temple was founded in 669 by a member of the Fujiwara clan and it later became the head temple for the Hosso sect of Buddhism. Along with the Todai-ji Temple, Kofuku-ji is also a UNESCO World Heritage site.
At this point during my day, the summer’s heat and humidity had gotten the best of me so I only explored the famous five-story Pagoda. Gojunoto is 164 ft. high. and is a symbol of Nara.
For further reading on Kofukuji-ji Temple, visit the sacred-destinations.com page on the temple.)
I left Nara around 4 p.m. and I decided to treat myself to Osaka’s Spa World, an onsen (hot spring) that features different types of baths from all over the world. While the baths were very crowded that day, I left feeling clean and relaxed.
What I Wish I Could Have Seen
I only gave myself one day to visit Nara’s magnificent temples and shrines, which, looking back, was a mistake. Not only does the city offer a beautiful park and historic sites, Nara also has a handful of great museums and temples and shrines located in places other than the park and the surrounding area.
Here is a list of places recommended by Chris Rowthorn that I aim to see next time I get the pleasure of visiting Nara: