Nara () is an ancient capital city in Nara Prefecture, Kansai region of Japan. Overshadowed by its more famous neighbor Kyoto, Nara is omitted from many a time-pressed tourist's itinerary. However, Nara is home to many important scenic and historical sites, and today preserves its main sights much more attractively than Kyoto within Nara Park and neighborhoods like Naramachi. In addition to lovely foliage and many old buildings, Nara Park is famous for deer—hundreds of them that have become very comfortable around people and can be fed and petted.
While the Heijōkyō Palace (平城宮) site turned into plain fields after the capital was moved to Kyoto, the shrines and temples were left on the east side of the palace (called Gekyo (外京)), and Buddhism remained influential throughout the following centuries. Another part of the area developed as a merchant town, notably in the Edo period, known as Naramachi (奈良町) today.
Eight places in the old capital Nara have been inscribed to the UNESCO World Heritage Site "Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara" since 1998, including five Buddhist temples, one Shinto shrine, an imperial palace and a primeval forest.
There are several tourist information centers.
Nara City Tourist Information Centerphone: +81 742 22-3900address: 上三条町２３−４
JR Nara Station Tourist Information Centerphone: +81 742 22-9821address: 三条本町１−１
Kintetsu Nara Station Tourist Information Centerphone: +81 742 24-4858address: 東向中町２８
Sarusawa Pond Tourist Information Centerphone: +81 742 26-1991address: 登大路町４９
By planeNara does not have its own airport; most visitors arrive via either Kansai International Airport (KIX) or Osaka's Itami Airport (ITM), for domestic flights.
From Kansai Airport, Airport Limousine buses run to the two Nara train stations every hour (¥2000, 1½ hours). More frequent service is available by rail: if you have a Japan Rail Pass, you can take the Haruka limited express to Tennoji station and then transfer to the Yamatoji line for the run to Nara (¥2900, no charge with rail pass). Otherwise, it's cheaper to take the Nankai Railway's Kūkō-Kyūkō (空港急行) express train to Shin-Imamiya, and then take the JR Yamatoji line from there (¥1480). With good connections, both trips take around 1¼ hours and 1½ hours, respectively.
Limousine buses connect Itami Airport to the two Nara train stations for ¥1440; the ride takes about one hour.
By trainFrom Kyoto Station, the JR Nara Line and the private Kintetsu Kyoto Line will get you to Nara quickly. The Kintetsu Nara Station is better located than the JR Nara Station, and all-reserved Tokkyū (特急) trains leave Kyoto twice an hour, making the run to Nara in 35 minutes. On slower but more-frequent Kyūkō (急行) services, the trip takes about 50 minutes and you may need to change trains at Yamato-Saidaiji Station. The trip costs ¥620, plus ¥500 extra on the Tokkyū. For Japan Rail Pass holders, JR's Miyakoji Kaisoku (みやこ路快速) runs during mid-day hours from Kyoto to Nara in 45 minutes (¥690, no charge with rail pass).
A few Kyoto subway trains on the Karasuma line (running north-south) run directly to Kintetsu Nara, offering one-seat rides for those coming from the northern part of Kyoto city. These trains are designated as express trains to Nara - running local through the subway, then continuing to Nara as an express service. For example, a one-seat journey to Nara from Kyoto's Shijō subway station (connection with the Hankyu Railway) costs ¥860 and takes one hour.
The fastest route from Osaka is to take the private Kintetsu Nara Line from Namba Station. Kaisoku-Kyūkō (快速急行) trains run three times per hour to Kintetsu Nara (40 minutes, ¥540). For Japan Rail Pass holders, JR runs up to three Yamatoji Kaisoku (大和路快速) trains each hour from Osaka, Tennōji, and intermediate stations on the Osaka Loop Line. The run to Nara is 45 minutes from Osaka Station and 30 minutes from Tennōji (¥780 and ¥450 respectively, no charge with rail pass).
Hanshin offers services from Kobe's Sannomiya Station to Kintetsu Nara via the Hanshin Namba line for ¥940. Direct Kaisoku-Kyūkō services leave three times per hour during most of the day; otherwise, you change trains at Amagasaki. The trip takes about 90 minutes.
If traveling between Kyoto, Nara and Osaka consider purchasing the Kansai thru-pass which enables unlimited travel for 2 or 3 days on private railways, buses and subways (not-JR) in the Kansai area.
A few companies operate direct overnight buses from Tokyo to Nara:
- Kanto Bus and Nara Kotsu make the run to/from Shinjuku in around 7 hr 30 min with fares starting at ¥6000 each way.
- Keisei Bus runs from Chiba (including Tokyo Disneyland), Tokyo SkyTree, Ueno and Yokohama. Trips from Ueno start at ¥7000 each way with advance purchase and take around 8 hours.
Other bus carriers, including JR Bus and Nightliner, operate overnight services from Tokyo to Nara by way of Kyoto, resulting in slightly longer travel times (8-9 hours). Some JR buses are Seishun (youth) buses with higher-capacity 2x2 seating configurations. These buses are much cheaper, with fares starting at ¥3500.
If you are unable to book a bus to Nara, an alternative is travel instead to Kyoto, where there are more options available. When you reach Kyoto, you can travel to Nara by train on either the JR Line or Kintetsu Line.
From Nagoya, Nara Kotsu runs five round-trips each day from the Meitetsu Bus Center (2 hr 30 min, ¥2550).
On footOnce within Nara Park, you can walk to almost all the other major sites. The conventional round course (from Kintetsu Nara Station to Kōfuku-ji, Nara National Museum, Tōdai-ji, Kasuga Taisha and back to Kintetsu Nara Station) is about 6 km long, a pleasant walk for the typical tourist.
Nara Kotsu Bus ServiceThe City Route Loop runs every 30 minutes.
Several temples are on the outskirts of town. Tōshōdai-ji, Yakushi-ji, and Horyu-ji are accessible from JR and Kintetsu Nara train stations without change by Nara-Nishinokyo-Ikaruga Excursion Bus line (Line No. 97).
- Tōshōdai-ji (E-8) from JR and Kintetsu Nara stations (E-6, E-7), ¥240.
- Yakushi-ji (E-10) from JR and Kintetsu Nara stations (E-6, E-7), ¥320.
- Hōryu-ji (E-15) from JR and Kintetsu Nara stations (E-6, E-7), ¥760.
See also World Heritage Tour in Nara.
By taxiTaxis are available at Nara but those who do not know Japanese may find it difficult to make the taxi driver understand where they want to go.
Nara Park (奈良公園 Nara-kōen), a wide, pleasant space of greenery. According to legend, the god of the Kasuga Taisha came riding a white deer in the old days, so the deer enjoy protected status as envoys of the god; however, based on their current behavior, either the deer have lost the job, or the god has taken an extremely passionate interest in biscuits from tourists (¥150, Mar 2019), empty food wrappers and harassing shopkeepers.
Tōdai-jiHome to the famous Great Buddha (Daibutsu, 大仏), the largest Buddha statue in Japan and one of the largest in the world. The Daibutsu-den, which houses it, is said to be the largest wooden building in the world and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The giant front gate, Nandai-mon, is guarded by two fierce, awe-inspiring protectors. It's also swarmed by deer, who know this is the best place to come looking for a hand-out. Through the gate is a stone path leading to the outer walls surrounding the Daibutsu-den. Follow the signs to the left to enter the inner courtyard, and if you happen to have a stick of incense with you, join the crowd around the incense offerings before you head onward. The Daibutsu-den contains four other giant statues. Once you've taken in the Daibutsu itself, walk around it to the left to see the other statues, as well as a few old tiles and leftover relics. There's a stand inviting you to sponsor a tile in order to help with the upkeep of the temple, and English-language fortune scrolls (omikuji) are on sale year-round. Take a final look at the Daibutsu as you leave; don't let the souvenir stand be your last memory of this incredible sight. Just before the souvenir area, behind and to the right of the Daibutsu, is a wooden column with a small hole carved through the bottom. Enlightenment is reportedly promised to anyone who can squeeze through this hole. In practice, this means a lot of kids have enlightenment in store (thanks in part to other kids who kick their feet to "help" them through), and all but the skinniest adults can only look on in envy. To the right of the entrance to the Daibutsu-den is a statue of the Yakushi Nyorai. Though a bit scary-looking on first glance, it's actually a Buddha of medicine and healing. Touching a part of the Yakushi Nyorai and then the corresponding part of your own body is said to heal any ailments you have there.
phone: +81 742 22-7755address: 登大路町４８This temple has a three-story and a five-story pagoda; historically, the latter has contended with Kyoto's Toji for the title of Tallest Pagoda in Japan, although Kofuku-ji seems to have surrendered for now.
Sarusawa Pondaddress: 登大路町４９This small pond at the east end of Sanjō-dōri with Nara Park behind or Naramachi to its south is a very popular viewing spot for Kōfukuji.
phone: +81 742 22-7771address: 50 Noborioji-choThis museum has one of the world's best collections of Buddhist art and changing exhibitions. The National Treasure Hall has an impressive collection of statues. There are "English Guides" inside the museum however, they do not guide you through the museum; instead they are there to answer questions. The guides are highly knowledgeable, so if you can think of questions that require explanation, you can learn a lot more about the exhibits, Buddhism, and Buddhist art. Each year for about 2 weeks in late October - early November (dates vary) the museum hosts on a rotating basis a part of the collection of Shōsōin, the Tōdai-ji treasury (which is closed to the public). Expect enormous queues, as this is a notable event in the cultural calendar of the country, and tourists from all over Japan converge on Nara at this time.
phone: +81 742 23-7297A shrine dating from 1217 and home to several fine cherry trees. Although the architecture is unremarkable, the trees in front of the shrine explode into beautiful clouds of pale pink and white blossoms in spring (late March-early April).
UkimidōA hexagonal building built on Sagiike Pond in Nara Park so that it appears to float on water.
phone: +81 742-22-7788address: 春日野町１６０Worth a visit for the beautiful approach, through the Kasuga-yama Primeval Forest (see below), more than the temple itself. What Kyoto's Fushimi Inari Taisha is for torii, Kasuga Taisha is for stone lanterns. Notice the giant rack of sake barrels near the front gate and the fountain-statue of a giant buck. The temple is occasionally closed for services, but a walk around the outside is likely to be no less rewarding.
Kasuga-yama Primeval ForestA gorgeous hill of wild, undeveloped forest leading to Kasuga Taisha and some of the other sights in Nara Koen. The path is clearly marked, though, so don't worry about getting lost. It's a quiet walk at any time of day. If you're determined to feed some deer, save your biscuits for the ones out here instead of the loafers by Todai-ji.
phone: +81 742 25-0781address: 水門町７４Enjoy the magnificently arranged garden with full of flowers, surrounded by all the rest of Nara Park. Restaurant on site.
phone: +81 742-22-5911address: 60-1, Noborioji-cho, Nara City 630-8213Really nice garden that is worth a visit because it is free. Can be coupled with the Isui-en Garden as the entrances are right beside each other.
phone: +81 742 22-3736address: 高畑町１３５２It's a single hall with twelve ferocious warrior statues (each with his own collection plate) standing guard by a Buddha of healing. The statues are quite impressive — this is as well-protected a Buddha as you're likely to find.
Nara City Museum of Photographyphone: +81 742 22-9811address: 600-1 Takabatake-chōThe steel-and-glass building sits as if reflected upon the linear pond that surrounds it. Inside, there are reasonably interesting exhibits of photography on local subjects like the Mount Wakakusa Fire Festival (see below).
phone: +81 74 233-6001address: 457 Nishinokyo-chōAlthough most of the temple was reconstructed in the 1970s after a fire, Yakushi-ji is still worth the visit. The Buddhist Yakushi trinity housed in the hondo is a great work, and the two pagodas on each side of the temple make it a unique and recognizable complex. The east pagoda has survived and dates back to 730 AD. Like Gango-ji, Yakushi-ji was one of the seven top temples in the city during the Nara Period.
phone: +81 74 223-1377address: 11 Chuin-chōIt was considered to be one of the seven most important temples in Nara when Nara was the nation's capital. The original temple burned down in the 18th century, but the architectural style remains true to the original, with its unique Korean-style roof. The mandala within the temple is one of the most famous in the nation. Around the outside of the temple there are many Buddhist statues, but perhaps more interesting are the various demon statues scattered about among them. While the Buddhist statues are quite typical and obviously religious, the demon statues are comical and seem out-of-place. Some even appear sacrilegious, with a demon doing Zen meditation among the Buddhist statues and another in a rather erotic centerfold-like pose. There is a story that supposedly associates the demons with the temple. For visitors, it is fun to try to spot them all.
phone: +81 74 230-6752address: 2-9-1 Nijo-chōThe Suzaku Gate (朱雀門) is a replica, along with the newly built Daigoku-den (大極殿). In the center of this large expanse of land you'll find the best preserved excavation area, with some foundation structures on the site. On the rest of the grounds, you can still see where structures once stood by looking at the elevated and sunken areas. On opposite ends of the site there are museums where you can learn about the history of the palace, see artifacts recovered from the excavation, and learn about the excavation process.
Tōshōdai-jiphone: +81 74 233-7900address: 13-46 Gojo-chō,A temple that was important in helping to spread Buddhist teachings in Japan, Toshodai-ji is where the great Chinese priest Ganjin preached. His grave is within the precincts of the temple.
phone: +81 74 234-0100address: 7-1 Sanjo Miyamae-machiHosts a variety of events, concerts, and musicals. Sometimes a flea market is held in front of the hall.
Japanese Tattoo Art Galleryaddress: Higashimuki Shopping StreetA little gallery with photos of traditional Japanese tattoos, run by a tattoo artist who will talk to visitors about the difficult social and legal status of tattoos in modern Japan.
Mount Wakakusa Fire Festivaladdress: Wakakusayama, Nara ParkGreat fireworks and the dry grass on the slopes of this mountain is set on fire by two temples. The size of the burn depends on how dry the grass is.
address: 3 Ikeno-choLearn basic Japanese calligraphy or origami. They'll pick out kanji that match the sound of your name so you can learn to write them with a calligraphy brush pen. Or you can learn to make an origami deer, something you're not likely to find outside of Nara. The teachers are charming, and the center has other cultural activities as well, and all the other information you'd expect from a visitor center.
Shuni-e (Omozu-tori)address: Nigatsu-dō, Todai-ji.An annual Buddhist memorial service that has been carried out first in 752 AD and continues today without a year off. Priests run around the Nigatsu-dō carrying large flaming torches.
Nara Tōka-eAn annual light festival. 10,000 candles illuminate the area around Nara Park and major temples.
Deer-horn Cutting Ceremonyaddress: Rokuen, Nara ParkDeer have their horns cut to prevent people from being injured.
NaramachiThe neighborhood, founded in the 8th century when Heijōkyō was the capital of Japan, today contains several small museums, machiya (町家) (traditional Japanese merchant houses from Edo Period), unique cafes and restaurants. (David Bowie is rumored to have owned a house here.) It's well worth the time to stop and do a tasting at Harushika (春鹿), Naramachi's fabulous Nihon-shu (sake) brewery.
Saturday Walking TourThis tour is led by a professional English-speaking local guide. You will see old "machiya" houses and lively local alleys full of interesting sights. The tour ends near Kasuga Shrine and Todai-ji Temple so that you can visit these major sights of Nara afterwards.
Nara WalkTour covers popular destinations around Nara Park: Great Buddha, Todaiji Temple, Kofukuji Temple, Deer Park and Kasuga Grand Shrine. Reservations not necessary for regular tours. Private tours or tours in French available with reservation.
Nara YMCA Goodwill Guidesphone: +81 742 45-5920
Nara Student Guidephone: +81 742 26-4753
Nara S.G.G. Clubphone: +81 742 22-5595
One other unusual local specialty is chopsticks and other small objects carved from the sawn-off horns of the Nara Koen deer. They should be readily available from any tourist stall in the park, but for best selection and prices travel east from Todai-ji until you bump against the barren side of Wakakusa-yama and turn right - the entire right-hand side of the street is taken up by two-story shops, with souvenirs on the ground floors and shokudo (Japanese fast food restaurants) up top. Just follow the throngs of students being herded there for a bite after seeing the sights.
Higashimuki Shopping StreetA covered shopping arcade with many souvenir shops and restaurants.
phone: +81 742 22-8039address: 5 Higashimuki MinamimachiA well-known purveyor of narazuke.
Mochiidono Shopping StreetAnother covered arcade.
Sanjō-dōri AvenueMany souvenir shops, traditional writing brush and ink stores, narazuke stores as well as various bars and restaurants are located on this avenue. Most major banks have a branch here.
address: 2-4-1 Saidaiji Higachi-choOne of the largest shopping malls in Kansai.
Kudzu, also from Yoshino, is a very renowned product of Nara, which is used for making various food ranging from kudzu noodles (葛切り kuzu-kiri) to Japanese sweets (和菓子 wagashi). Somen (thin wheat noodles) from Miwa region (三輪そうめん Miwa sōmen) have a history as old as Nara. The noodles are served either hot or cold. Another well-known culinary product is shika-senbei, a rice cracker sold around Nara Park. Don't try eating it yourself though — it's meant for the deer! Closing times may be as early as 22:00.
Sanshū-teiaddress: In the Isui-en Garden (依水園).It's worth a visit more for the attractive old house and garden than the menu, which consists of two very traditional dishes: mugi tororo (plain rice with ground yam, ¥1200), and unagi tororo (the same with grilled eel, ¥2500).
phone: +81 742 22-3900address: 30-1 Imamikado-choA nice sampling of local foods such as kakinohazushi and chagayu (tea gruel, which tastes better than it sounds) are included in dinner sets miyoshino and heijou. An English picture menu available.
Udon-teiphone: +81 742 23-5471address: 6 Higashimuki-NakamachiServes udon (thick wheat noodles) in various ways: hot or cold, plain or with tempura, etc. Always packed with local people at lunch times. Try one of the combos. Menu in Japanese and English.
Okaruphone: +81 742 24-3686address: 13 Higashimuki-MinamimachiA restaurant specialized in okonomiyaki (お好み焼き), a pan-fried cabbage cake with selection of meat. Okonomiyaki is definitely shortlisted on Kansai people's most beloved dishes. A choice of western or traditional Japanese tables are available. English menu available.
Totoginphone: +81 742-20-1010A conveyor-belt sushi restaurant that won't break your wallet. Sushi is handmade and prepared fresh; just watch out as the different plates correspond to different prices so read the menu (both sides) carefully before chowing down.
Yatagarasuphone: +81 742 20-0808address: 13-1 Hayashi-kōji-choFresh poultry from local farms cooked and served in many different ways (eg. grilled, fried, even raw) with a variety of either local or other regional sake available.
Nara Shōyaphone: +81 742 24-2151address: 48-5 Takama-cho (Keiwa building B1F)A branch of large chain pub restaurant with traditional food like raw fish (さしみ sashimi), sushi, tempura, yakitori available. Though little (except for sake) is Nara local, quality of food is excellent for a chain type of restaurant. The restaurant is always filled with a dynamic, yet agreeable mood.
Maguro KoyaA tiny hole-in-the-wall place that specializes in tuna. Tekka-don (rice bowl with raw slices of tuna and thinly sliced nori), tuna karaage (breaded deep fried pieces of tuna), tataki (seared on the outside, raw on the inside slices of tuna), and many other methods of preparations. For most meals you can choose a maguro (tuna), honmaguro toro (Japanese fatty tuna), or chuutoro (fatty tuna) version of the dish. The proprietor is an ojiisan (elderly gentleman) who seems to really like what he's doing, is friendly and welcoming.
Take-outAlternatively, you can take out kaki-no-hazushi, the persimmon leaf wrapped sushi, which is actually very popular for domestic travellers. There are three kaki-no-hazushi stores that can be easily spotted around Kintetsu Nara Station. Packages of various size and combination are available.
MaruchūA take-out sushi store with a selection of prepared packages.
Kuramoto Hoshukuphone: +81 742-26-2625address: 28 Higashimuki (Nara Kintetsu Bldg B1F)Operated by a local brewery, Nara Toyosawa. A popular drop-by place for people commuting back home on Kintetsu lines.
phone: +81 742 26-7741address: Nishimura Bldg, 14 MochiidonochouA British pub with local and import beers, pub food and naturally premier league, rugby and other English sports on the TV.
House of the Rising Sunphone: +81 742 32-405address: 299 Namibashi-Kudo 2-chomePopular foreigner bar.
address: 24-1 Fukuchiincho, Nara 630-8381A highlight of Naramachi neighbourhood. Taste six sake flavors distilled here with accompanying narazuke for ¥500. The brewery will guide you through the different taste profiles (with varying dryness and fruitiness).
address: 22 NishiterabayashichōA small sake bar/liquor store where you can stand at the counter and join the Japanese businessmen coming in for after-work drinks. English menu available.
phone: +81 742 81-8757address: 27-1 NasiharachoThis Japanese style house transformed into a cosy hostel is run by a modest welcoming guy. It has two clean 4-bed dorms for ¥2000 per person and a double for ¥3000 per person. Free Wi-Fi and a shared PC available. It was opened around September 2011.
phone: +81 742-31-2223address: 1-4-10 Omiya-choThis is a Japanese style house that has a very cozy feel. Owner speaks good English and is very helpful. Free Wi-Fi and a shared PC available. Bike rentals and Western breakfast available. Ceilings are low so be prepared to hit your head on random beams often.
phone: +81 742 22-2670address: 29 Higashi-Kitsuji-choIn the Naramachi section of the town, among the tangle of narrow lanes and old houses. Tatami mats, classical architecture, and a well-kept inner garden feature in this traditional ryokan. The rooms are showing their age, but each features a samovar for tea and a small room with a table overlooking the garden. The shared bathrooms have been recently remodeled. Japanese/Western breakfast for ¥700/450 is served in the tatami dining room. Curfew 11PM. The manager speaks very passable English, can lend you a variety of guidebooks (in several languages) and puts out his own laptop in the common room in the mornings and evenings for guests to catch up on e-mail.
phone: +81 742 22-3686address: 28-1 Higashi-Terabayashi-choThe owners profess to be familiar with Buddha statue carving and calligraphy. Free wifi. No dinner, but you can get a Japanese breakfast for ¥900—reserve it the night before. (A Western breakfast is available too.)
phone: +81 742 35-1306address: 2-11-1-5f Shibatsuji-choA cozy hostel run by a very friendly and helpful Japanese gentleman. Easy access to train station. 8-bed mixed dorm, kitchen, shower. Small quarters but very clean and good for getting to know people.
phone: +81 742 23-8111address: 47-1 Shimosanjō-choA modern western-style hotel, between JR and Kintetsu Nara stations.
phone: +81 742 27-0410address: 31-1 Shimosanjō-choNationwide western-style hotel chain. Rooms have internet at no extra charge.
phone: +81 742 22-0551address: 9 Higashimuki-NakamachiJapanese and western-style rooms available.
Kikusuirōphone: +81 742-23-2001address: 1130 Takabatake-choDeluxe Japanese-style ryokan inn.
phone: +81 742-26-3300address: 1096 Takabatake-choClassic western-style hotel of deluxe class, since 1909.
phone: +81 742 35-8831address: 8-1 Sanjō-HommachiA Japan Airlines group chain hotel.
If you are allergic to pollen, beware: the heaviest cedar pollen fluctuation in this area is usually from mid-February to April.
- If you have three days, consider doing the World Heritage Tour in Nara, which goes to Asuka, Hōryūji, and Yoshino.
- Kashihara — the site of Japan's capital city, Fujiwarakyo (藤原京), before Nara.