Full of incredible old temples and shrines, Nara was the first capital of Japan all the way back in the eighth century. Under the influence of Buddhism, an amazing array of beautiful buildings sprung up, while lots of wonderful artworks and books were produced. Much of the town’s rich history and cultural heritage can still be seen today and one of the best things to do in Nara is just wandering around its ancient streets. Follow us.
Best Things To Do In Nara, Japan
Whether you arrive at JR Nara Station or Kintetsu Nara Station, you’ll be a short walk from the first must-see temple of the city: Kofukuji. Established in 669 by the wife of Fujiwara no Kamatari to wish for his recovery from illness, the temple was originally located in present-day Kyoto, before being moved to the original planned capital and finally to Nara in 710. Although it was damaged by fires and civil war, it has remained important due to its links to the Fujiwara family, and has six remaining buildings.
If you need an extra temple in your day, have a read about Gangoji Temple, a short walk from Kofuku-ji.
Isui-en Garden is the best garden in Nara and one of my favorite gardens in Kansai (central Japan). It’s a spacious stroll garden with a pond and plenty of blooming flowers and trees. Isui-en is conveniently located on the way from the train stations to Todai-ji Temple (it’s on maps given away by the tourist information offices) and marked by signs near the pedestrian underpasses that run below Noborioji Street (the main street that leads up from the train stations to Nara-koen Park). While it costs Y650 to enter, it’s well worth it.
Take some time to stroll the garden (pathways run all the way to the back of the garden). At any time of year, there is usually be something in bloom, and you can marvel at the genius of the garden designer, who employed the technique of shakkei (borrowed scenery) to incorporate the roof of Todai-ji Temple into the background of the garden.
Kasuga-Taisha Shrine is the most important Shinto shrine in Nara. More than just the shrine buildings, Kasuga-Taisha is a mysterious world of forest, pathways, lanterns and wandering deer. After visiting Isui-en Garden and Todai-ji Temple, Kasuga-Taisha is next up to complete any visit to the Nara-koen Park area.
The buildings are only the nexus for the mysterious expanse of pathways lined with stone lanterns, smaller sub-shrines, atmospheric forests and, of course, the ever-present deer in search of handouts. Take some time to go into the haiden of Kasuga-Taisha, but don’t neglect to take a leisurely stroll along the surrounding pathways. This is really a very special world unto itself.
With lots of gorgeous old buildings from the Edo Period, the historic district of Naramachi is a delight to wander around. Besides its many restaurants, cafes, and shops, there are also a couple of traditional houses and warehouses for you to check out if you want to see what life in Japan used to be like.
While simply strolling around and taking in the ambiance is a lovely way to spend an afternoon, you can also stop off to try some sake or stay the night in one of its ryokan – a traditional Japanese inn.
Although it only reaches a height of around 350 meters, Mount Wakakusa boasts one of the best views of Nara. The grass-covered mount lies just behind Nara Park, with some lovely cherry blossom trees dotted here and there. The hike to the top should take just under an hour, although most people stop off at a plateau which lies halfway up, as the view from there is just as stunning.
January is a particularly memorable time of year to visit. On the fourth Sunday of the month, its grassy slopes are set ablaze. Although the origins of the Wakakusa Yamayaki festival have long been lost, seeing the mountain afire behind the city makes for a spectacular sight, and lots of fireworks are let off during the celebration.
If you order sushi in one of Nara’s more traditional restaurants, you may be surprised to see that it arrives wrapped in kaki (persimmon) leaves. In years gone by, sushi had to be transported overland to Nara, a city far from the coast. It was discovered that persimmon leaves have antibacterial properties that helped to keep the fish fresh – while also contributing a subtle fragrance of their own that enhanced the flavour of the fish.
To try this delicacy, head to Hiraso, founded near the Yoshino area 150 years ago. There are four branches in Nara, but for the full sit-down experience, the Imamikadocho location is the only option. This sushi is an example of the sort of unfailingly refined experience that marks out Nara from the more run-of-the-mill Japanese city.