When I was booking my career break, Japan was at the top of my list and while I was pinning like a crazy woman on Pinterest I came across a picture of a deer bowing its head in order to receive a bit of dry overpriced cracker from a traveller. From that moment on I was obsessed with the idea of visiting this intriguing place, which I found out was called Nara. Taking a day trip to Nara turned out to be one of the highlights of my time in Japan.
Here is my guide to visiting Nara.
Where is Nara?
Nara is in the Kansai region of Japan and is easily accessible from Kyoto and Osaka making it a very popular day trip. Nara is famous for having deer roaming around the town, which will bow for a bit of cracker or in our case mobbing us to steal our packed lunch. Either way, it is a very enjoyable experience, which I highly recommend.
When is the best time of year to visit Nara?
Spring (March - May) is a lovely time to visit Nara, as the city comes alive with cherry blossoms and temples are even more breath-taking. Autumn is also a good time to visit which is October-November, as the weather should be pleasant.
Getting to Nara from Kyoto or Osaka
Now I appreciate a lot of people will be travelling to Nara from places other than Kyoto or Osaka, but these are the two main places which are commonly on a travellers itinerary. If you have a JR pass, (which I suggest purchasing), then getting to Nara is quick, easy and cheap. The JR pass should cover your train journey which is even better!
Kyoto to Nara
The Miyakoji Rapid train runs from Kyoto to Nara every 30 minutes and only takes around 45 minutes. There is also a local train which goes from Kyoto to Nara, which takes around 75 minutes if the Miyakoji Rapid train was not running. This journey is fully covered by your JR pass.
The Kintetsu Railways also offers trains from Kyoto to Nara, but you cannot use your JR pass on these trains. The limited express train takes around 35 minutes and costs around 1130¥.
Osaka to Nara
The Yamatoji Rapid train goes once an hour from JR Osaka Station to JR Nara Station and takes around 45 minutes. This journey is fully covered by your JR pass.
The Kintetsu Railways also offer trains from Osaka to Nara, arriving at Nama Station (Kintetsu Nara Station), which takes around 30 minutes but this journey is not covered by your JR pass.
When we were on the trains, the announcements were in Japanese and English so it is easy to know when you have reached your station.
Getting from the train station to Nara Park
Depending on what train company you use will determine which station you end up in Nara. If you use the Kintetsu Railways, their underground station is right next to Nara Park and the Kofukuji temple. However, as most travellers have a JR pass, the JR Nara station is around a 15-20 minute walk to the main deer park.
There is a handy network of buses that go to all of the main sites of interest and the two rail stations, which is operated by Nara Kotsu. If you have a Suica or Icoca card these can be used on the buses. When you come out of the station, to the left is the tourist information where you can pick up some handy maps (and they have a Starbucks inside if you fancy a coffee). You can catch the bus from outside the front of the station if you don't want to walk.
Nara is a perfect place to walk around and you can see a lot on foot. However, if you want to visit Horyuji, Yakushiji or Toshodaiji then it will be easier to get the train or bus.
If you plan on using the buses a lot then you can get a bus pass, which can last one day or two, and cover different areas in and around central Nara. If you are in the JR station, then this can be purchased inside the station or if you are in the Kintetsu Nara Station, then you need to find the bus ticket station which is just outside the station.
Tip - If you have luggage, there are lockers in the JR station and if the lockers on the main floor are all occupied, then go to the bottom floor and walk down a passage, which has a little restaurant and at the end, you will find a lot more lockers.
Things to do and see in Nara
Feed/Play with the Deer
Nara does have more to offer than just the deer park, but there is no point denying that the majority of people are there to see the four-legged creatures. Legend has it that the god Takemikazuchi arrived at Nara on a white deer, so he could protect and guard the capital Heijo-kyo. From this point on, the deer are seen as heavenly animals which protect the country. The deer in the park are known as Japanese deer, spotted deer or sika deer.
As you approach the park you will come across snack vendors selling deer crackers (sika senbei) for 150¥, which you can feed to the deer. But this is best bit…some of the deer have learned to bow in order to receive the cracker. It really is mind-blowing and it kept us entertained for hours.
Just be warned the deer can be quite feisty and if they smell you have crackers in your pocket, they will do anything to get them from you. We found out that it's not just crackers they love but they will bunt you to get your banana skin or sandwiches if they are peckish.
Visiting the deer at Nara really is the perfect day trip from Osaka or Kyoto.
But, if playing with deer isn't enough then there is a lot more to see in Nara. Here are a few examples:
Book yourself onto a tour:
There are lots of different tours in Nara, which range from Kimono lessons, guided tours by a local or even walking tour around Nara with your own personal photographer!
Click here to get some more information on the tours which are on offer in Nara.
If you are visiting Nara as a day trip from Osaka or Kyoto (or anywhere else), then the Todai-ji Temple is a perfect starting place. Todai-ji is a world heritage site and is a great place to take a stroll. The Todai-ji Temple is the largest wooden building in the world and houses the Buddha statues and is seen as one of the most significant Buddhist temples in Japan.
Nara National Museum
If museums are your thing, then the Nara National Museum is conveniently located in the Nara deer park and contains a large collection of Japanese Buddhist art, which was established in 1889. If you want more information, then head to the official website here.
Harushika Sake Brewery
If you are looking to fill your time between the deer, temples and museums, then why not head to a sake brewery which is based in the Naramachi district. You can taste around 5-6 different sake for around 500¥ and at certain times of the year, you can even have a tour of the brewery.
Address: 24-1 Fukuchiin-cho, Nara 630-8381
Kasuga Taisha Shrine
The Kasuga Taisha Shrine is a Unesco World Heritage site and is one of the most visited and photographed shrines in Nara, as it is known for the amazing collection of stone lanterns. If you are visiting in late spring then you might even be treated with a mass of cherry blossom which makes everything look even more beautiful.
Kofukuji Temple and Pagodas
This temple is renowned for having the second tallest pagoda in Japan and is definitely worth a visit. There are lots of deer hanging around and you will have to stop yourself taking selfies with the deer to take in the beauty of the temple.
These are just a few examples of things you can do in Nara. I loved visiting Nara and it was a quick and cheap journey, as we had a JR pass. If anything, I wish we had more time in Nara as there is a lot to see and do and think we only just scratched the surface.
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