Although overshadowed in popularity by Kyoto, Nara was Japan’s first real capital. The ‘Nara Era’ only lasted from 710 to 794, but the time period had a profound impact on Japanese culture. Many impressive historic sites remain scattered around the city and prefecture. To really get a feel for Nara, you need two or more days. However, if you only have only one day, and it is your first visit, here are the TOP 10 things you should see and/or purchase!
First, I highly recommend that you concentrate on sightseeing spots located in and around Nara Park – all of which are within walking distance of Nara Station and Kintetsu Nara Station.
1. Todaiji, ‘the Great Eastern Temple’, should be at the top of your list. See Japan’s largest bronze Buddha sitting majestically inside one of the world’s most impressive wooden structures.
2. Find the cobblestone path that leads to Nigatsudo, a special sub-temple of Todaiji. It is built into the side of a hill and, from its balcony, offers fantastic views of Nara itself.
3. Kasuga Taisha is Nara’s most important shrine. It is located deep within Nara Park, surrounded by forest, at the end of a long lantern-lined path.
4. Kohfukuji is one of Japan’s oldest Buddhist temples and there is no cost to stroll through the grounds. However, if you are interested in national treasures, this is an excellent place to see a spectacular collection of them (for a fee).
5. Established in 1880, Nara Koen is one of the country’s oldest parks. It is filled with large grassy lawns, a maple tree-filled forest , and approximately 1,200 wild deer – which are docile enough to be fed by visitors (special deer rice crackers only please). Note: All of the sightseeing spots listed in this article are located in or very close to the park.
6. Central Nara boasts two impressive gardens, Isuien and Yoshikien. They sit beside one another down a side street and are easy to miss if you aren’t looking for them. If you have the time, I recommend visiting both.
7. If you want to buy a special souvenir, consider purchasing a knife or pair of scissors from Kikuichi Cutlery. This company’s origin dates back 700 years… as sword-smiths for the emperor!
8. After you’ve seen the major sightseeing spots, take some time to wander Naramachi, a former merchant district filled with machiya (traditional wooden homes) – many of which have been converted into stores, cafes, and mini museums.
9. Alcohol lovers should make an effort to visit Harushika Shuzo, a sake brewery dating back to 1884. They produce… “a light, mellow tasting sake with a flowery yet sharp flavor,using highly polished rice.” Delicious! Or, for something modern, five minutes on foot from Harushika is the Naramachi (craft beer) Brewery!
10. The perfect place to end your visit is within the Higashimuki Shotengai, a traditional covered shopping arcade lined with shops and restaurants. Kintetsu Nara Station sits at one end. *Unless you have a Rail Pass, I recommend this station and train line over JR Nara Station.
*Want to see these locations with a guide? We offer 4-8 hour tours of central Nara’s sightseeing spots. Or, we can create a detailed do-it-yourself itinerary for you. Send an e-mail to ExcursionsJapan@gmail.com for more information.