Nara rivals Kyoto as one of the most culturally rewarding cities to visit in Japan. This former capital city is home to temples, shrines, and famous roaming deer.
A day trip to visit Nara city is easily one of the best day trips to take in Japan. Nara is home to herds of roaming resident deer and a fair share of UNESCO World Heritage sites. Its history as a former Japanese capital city explains it’s trove of historic treasures.
There’s a lot to fit into this Nara day trip itinerary, so it’s best to start as early as possible. Many sites don’t have an official opening time, so you can wander through in the early morning before the crowds. And since some important temples and shrines close around 5 pm, you’ll want to make sure you leave enough time to visit. There’s also a lot of ground to cover, so wear comfortable shoes. Since most attractions are in the park, there will be plenty of walking.
If you’re super excited to visit Nara city, I’d recommend staying the night. Most travellers visit Nara from nearby Osaka or Kyoto. But since Nara is a smaller city, accommodations can be cheaper. Plus, you’ll be steps away from the parks and shrines. Our day trip to Nara felt a bit rushed; I would have liked a second day to take my time to wander. If you stay the night in Nara, you’ll have a more leisurely trip and possibly save a few yen on your stay.
If you visit Nara by car, there’s a fair amount of parking scattered on the west side of Nara Park. We parked near the Nara Prefecture Government office. Kintetsu Nara Station and the Nara Park Bus terminal are also nearby. You’ll start to encounter Nara’s famous deer as you near the park.
Here are the must-see spots on the Nara day trip itinerary:
First up, the star of the show: Nara Park. Most stops on this day in Nara itinerary are in Nara Park. The park takes up a good chunk of the city and is an attraction in itself. Many famous temples and shrines are scattered throughout the park. For a one day trip to Nara, you’ll be spending most of your time in the park walking from one attraction to the next.
The park is where you’ll encounter Nara’s famous and protected deer. The deer are adorable, and they really do bow. But keep in mind they are wild animals. It’s important to treat them with respect. Only feed them crackers from the licensed vendors around the park (each pack only costs 150 yen/$1 USD). Don’t tease them or mess around with them, some of them can be very aggressive. Injuries happen every year, being respectful is the easiest way to stay safe.
We worked our way through the park from South to North. This was the best way to end up at Nigatsudo for sunset, which was absolutely gorgeous.
Our first real stop was at Kofukuji Temple, in the South-East corner of the park. It’s one of the most historic temples in Nara, established in 669 in Kyoto and relocated to Nara in 710. Because of its long history, it’s one of Nara’s UNESCO world heritage sites
The buildings have gone through many reconstructions since the 700’s. The five-storied pagoda here is Japan’s second tallest wooden pagoda and was most recently rebuilt in 1426. As a Canadian, the “rebuilt” versions are still older than pretty much any Canadian historical site. This pagoda is one of four nationally-recognized treasures on the temple grounds, along with a few famous halls. Many of the buildings here hold historical significance.
Entry to the temple grounds is free and you can enter certain halls for a small entrance fee. Since this was the first stop on our Nara day trip itinerary, we just observed from outside the buildings and moved on. Those on a two-day trip may want to enter the halls and museum nearby. The Kofukuji National Treasure Museum houses historical Buddhist artworks. Kofukuji’s historical importance and close distance to transit make it a perfect first stop on your Nara day trip itinerary. Not to mention, of course, you will encounter plenty of deer on your way here.
Ukimido Hall and Sagiike pond
We continued through the park and stumbled on Sagiike pond. This wasn’t a location on our Nara itinerary list. We found Sagiike pond as part of our wander through the park while feeding deer.
Ukimido Hall is the small pavilion that juts out into the pond. It’s a very popular spot for wedding photos, and I completely see why. The fall leaves reflect beautifully off the pond. It’s a picturesque setting for a stroll.
It felt a lot quieter than the rest of the park, like a calm little oasis next to the busy Kofukuji complex. While the other areas are full of tourists and deer, the area around the lake is peaceful with couples and photographers milling about.
Higashimuki Shopping Street
After a morning feeding deer, visiting temples, and admiring the scenery, head back into the city for lunch. Higashimuki Shopping Street is the covered shopping arcade near Nara Park. It has an awesome selection of restaurants, stores, and souvenir shops. We stopped into a small cafe for omurice. If you have time to spare, it’s the area to do a bit of shopping after your meal. Since the street is covered, it’s a particularly nice spot to explore on a rainy day.
Todaiji temple is arguably one of the most interesting and important sites on the Nara day trip itinerary. The architecture and scale of Todaiji is stunning. It’s another one of the UNESCO World Heritage sites in Nara, Japan. It’s famous for its awe-inspiring towering bronze Buddha statue. But the building itself is also beautiful, with dark wooden beams that contrast with the white walls.
The Great Buddha Hall holds one of the world’s largest Buddha statues—it is the largest bronze statue of the Daibutsu (the Buddha Vairocana). The hall was originally constructed in the 700’s, but has gone through many reconstructions due to natural disasters or fire. The current building was built in 1709 and is actually about 1/3 smaller than the previous construction. It’s still so large that it was the world’s largest wooden building up until 1998.
The Great Buddha statue itself has also been recast many times over the centuries. Its current hands were made in the Momoyama period (1568-1615), and the head made in the Edo period (1615-1867). The full height of the Buddha statue is an impressive 15 meters. Just the face itself is 5.3 meters. The statue’s shoulders are 28 meters wide, and the statue weighs 500 tonnes.
Nigatsudo is located in Nara Park, just east of Todaiji but still part of the same temple complex. It doesn’t have the accolades of Todaiji, but it was my favourite temple to visit on our day trip to Nara.
The shallow steps leading up to the temple are lit by warm lanterns. We walked up at sunset. Seeing the temple bathed in a sunset glow made it feel magical, with its wooden structure, stone pillars, and cobbled stone steps. The sunset view from Nigatsudo is stunning and I’m glad we made it our last stop. You can walk around the temple and the best view is from the balcony that wraps around the front.
The current temple building was built in the 1660s. This temple is most famous for its yearly Omizutori festival, an impressive fire and water ceremony that takes place in March. The historic ceremony has been held yearly at this temple since 752. The historical importance of Nigatsudo, and its location at the foot of Mt Wakakusa, makes it one of the top spots to visit in Nara.
Other spots to add to your Nara day trip itinerary:
Taking a day trip to Nara is high on the Japan bucket list, but it’s even better to spend the night. Nara has its fair share of historic temples and shrines, with smaller crowds than in Kyoto. The major spots on this day trip to Nara itinerary are the city’s must-visit spots. But if you spend a little more time in this city, you’ll have the chance to check out lesser-visited spots.
Here are a few more spots to add to the Nara day trip itinerary (or two-day stay). These are on my list for next time!
Taking a day trip to Nara is high on the Japan bucket list, but it’s even better to spend the night. Nara has its fair share of historic temples and shrines, with smaller crowds than in Kyoto. The major spots on this day trip to Nara itinerary are the city’s must-visit spots. But if you spend a little more time in this city, you’ll have the chance to check out lesser-visited spots. Here are a few more spots to check out when you visit Nara, Japan.
Yakushi-ji Temple is another famous temple in Nara. But since it isn’t in Nara Park, it’s not on most Nara day trip itineraries. It is much more colourful than the temples in Nara Park, with its red columns and green-paned windows. It’s one of Japan’s oldest temples, constructed in the late 7th century.
Of course, most parts of it have been destroyed many times since its original construction. The East Pagoda dates back to 730, and the main hall was rebuilt in the 1970s. Its longstanding history makes it one of Nara’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Tōshōdai-ji Temple is a smaller temple, also located outside of Nara Park. It has a good bit of history, but the location means it’s often not on the Nara day trip itinerary. The temple was established in 759, and the main building (the Kondo or “Golden Hall”) dates from the 8th century. It’s one of the most significant Tempyo Era (8th century) structures still standing in Japan today. It’s surrounded by beautiful trees and moss, and is a peaceful spot to wander around in Nara.
Yoshikien Garden is a lovely little garden in the city, built next to a quiet river. Like many gardens in Nara, it has beautiful fall leaves in autumn. The red leaves are stunning on the backdrop of the wooden tea house. And to encourage tourists, Yoshikien offers free entry with a foreign passport. Even if you don’t carry your passport, it’s just 250JPY otherwise.
Just across the river from Yoshikien is Isuien Garden. It’s a lovely maintained garden, quieter than some of the more popular spots in the city. Isuien has a reputation for beauty and is a lovely spot to visit a tea house and admire the grounds.
Kasuga-taisha is Nara’s most famous Shinto shrine and is located in Nara Park. It’s a bright vermillion shrine with thousands of bronze and stone lanterns. The path to the main building is flanked with stone lanterns. The building itself also has hundreds of hanging beautiful bronze lanterns. It’s especially worth visiting during the Lantern Festivals in February and August. The historical shrine also has a museum nearby that displays relics from the shrine.
Naramachi is the former merchant district with old-style buildings. These traditional buildings have been preserved and transformed into cafes, shops, restaurants, and ryokans. Many are in the Edo period style. The narrow streets, dark wood buildings, and decorative details have a rustic look. It’s a great spot to wander for a bite to eat and to pick up some traditional sweets and deer-themed souvenirs.