Top 24 Things to Do in Nara
Heading to Nara? Need some sightseeing ideas? Our list of the top 24 things to do in Nara should help you out.
The city of Nara is famous for its free roaming deer, which never fail to beguile the many tourists that flood into the city every year. Yet, there’s more to Nara than just its wildlife. As Japan’s ancient capital, the city is rich in history and culture, leaving it with a healthy glut of UNESCO World Heritage Sites to its name.
If Nara sounds like your kind of place, read on for a full rundown of everything that makes it great.
Nara Parks and Gardens
Nara is surrounded by many parks and gardens, areas of green that are home to the city’s most famous (and cutest) residents.
Located to the east of the city, Nara Park is a vast expanse of lush green, bordered by other tourist hotspots such as Todai-ji Temple, Isui-en Garden and Kasuga-Taisha Shrine. The park is the best place to make friends with the deer, who seem to like Nara Park best of all. Deer crackers (150 yen) can be bought from numerous vendors to feed the animals, though do be careful as they can get a little over-enthusiastic at times. Generally, the deer and incredibly friendly and well-used to human contact.
To be found right beside Nara Park, Isui-en Garden is a beautiful little garden which seems to be perennially in bloom. The small pond at the centre is picture perfect and the ideal spot to sit and contemplate what to do with the rest of your day.
Yoshiki-en is a pleasant collection of gardens in central Nara, named after the Yoshikigawa River that flows beside it. Happily, tourists get in for free.
The complex includes a moss garden, pond garden and a tea ceremony garden, several pagodas and an original teahouse. There is loads to discover around every corner at Yoshiki-en and the atmosphere is endlessly relaxing, making it a great interlude to any day in the city.
Station: Kintetsu Nara Station Address: 60 Noboriojicho, Nara, Nara Prefecture 630-8213 Phone: 742-22-5911 Hours: 9:00 - 17:00
Manyo Botanical Garden
Manyo Botanical Garden, opened in 1932, is to be found inside the Kasuga Taisha Shrine complex, just behind the teahouse. The garden is home to over 300 plants types, all chosen for their inclusion in Manyo-shu, the oldest known collection of Japanese poetry.
The spectacular tunnel of hanging wisteria always has a lasting impact on visitors, though each section is artfully composed and utterly beautiful. Seasonal wonders are to be found here too, whether it’s the blossoming ume in February and March, the spring cherry blossoms or the summer azalea.
Station: Kasuga Taisha Honden (Bus) Address: 160 Kasugano-cho, Nara Phone: 742-22-5911 Hours: March to November 9:00 - 17:00/December to February 9:00 - 4:30 (Closed on Monday) Website: Kasuga Taisha
Nara Temples and Shrine
No visit to Nara is complete without taking in a few temples and shrines, of which, it has more than its fair share.
Kasha Taisha Shrine
Kasha Taisha Shrine is one of the city’s most popular, but don’t let the crowds put you off, it’s truly a sight to behold. Built for the powerful Fujiwara clan, the architects utilised everything at their disposal to create a shrine defined by its bold colours, stone and bronze lanterns and the beautifully landscaped nature that surrounds it.
Kasha Taisha is actually composed of four separate shrines and a number of smaller sub-shrines, each, unfortunately, subject to individual entry fees. The shrines do come together throughout the year to hold a number of festivals, however. Some of the best include December’s traditional dance festival, the Mantoro Lantern Festival and the Monkey Festival held in March.
Station: Kasuga Taisha Honden (Bus) Address: 160 Kasuganochō, Nara-shi, Nara-ken 630-8212 Phone: 0742-22-7788 Hours: April~September 6:00 - 18:00/October~March 6:30 - 17:00 Website: Kausga Taisha
During Nara’s time as the capital city of Japan, Heijo Palace acted as the imperial residence. Even with such historical importance, the palace was victim to a number of fires and other accidents once the capital was moved to Heian in 794, leaving it irreparably damaged. It was left to archaeologists to restore the palace in the 1950s, ultimately leading to the faithful recreation that stands today.
For more information about Heijo Palace, check out our guide.
Station: Yamato-Saidaiji Station Address: Sakicho, Nara, Nara Prefecture 630-8577 Phone: 742-30-6752 Hours: 9:00 - 16:30 (Closed on Monday) Website: Heijo Palace
Todai-ji Temple is said to contain one of the world’s largest wooden structures, The Great Buddha Hall. The hall was built as a home for the 15-metre bronze statue of the “Cosmic Buddha” (Mahavairocana) which remains there today.
Also within the temple grounds, visitors can find the Todai-ji Museum, home to an extensive collection of religious art and treasures; Nigatsudo Hall, the site of the spectacular omizutori (“water drawing”) ceremony in March; Sangatsudo, with its brilliant Kannon statue; and most interesting of all, a pillar with a small opening at its base (“the Buddha’s nostrils”), which, it is said, grants enlightenment in the next life to anyone who can squeeze through.
Station: Kintetsu Nara Station Address: Sakicho, Nara, Nara Prefecture 630-8577 Phone: 742-22-5511 Hours: 9:00 - 16:30 (Closed on Monday) Website: Todai Temple
Toshadaiji Temple is one of the city’s oldest. Kondo, the main hall, is over 1,200 years old and is home to Japan’s oldest Buddhist statue, among other impressive examples of early Buddhist art. The whole place can be explored for just 600 yen.
Station: Nishinokyo Station Address: 13-46 Gojo-cho, Nara Phone: 742-33-7900 Hours: 8:30 - 17:00 Website: Toshodaiji Temple
Kofukuji Temple is perhaps Nara’s largest, in all encompassing 11 main buildings and endless smaller structures besides. Two pagodas to the east and west of the complex are particularly notable, one for its size and the other for its collection of over 1,000 images of the Buddha painted on wood panels within.
Every year, the Nirvana Ceremony is held on February 15th in memory of the Buddha’s death, which is always a great time to visit. Alternatively, every second Saturday of the month sees a variety of experts on Buddhism and Buddhist art take part in a symposium open to all.
Station: Kintetsu Nara Station Address: 48 Noboriojicho, Nara, Nara Prefecture 630-8213 Phone: 742-22-7755 Hours: 9:00 - 17:00 Website: Kofukuji Temple
Yakushi-ji, the very first temple in Japan to make use of twin pagodas, was constructed by Emperor Tenmu in the 7th century as a suitably grand place for his wife to convalesce. It is now designated as an official national treasure and is home to an excellent collection of Buddhist art from down the ages. Entry to the main hall costs 1,100 yen.
Station: Nishinokyo Station Address: 457 Nishinokyōchō, Nara-shi, Nara-ken 630-8563 Phone: 742-33-6001 Hours: 8:30 to 17:00 Website: Yakushiji Temple
The “Shin” of Shin-Yakushi-ji Temple translates as “miraculous” (not “new” as some people confuse it)—a reference to the temple’s principal deity, the Medicine Buddha, or Supreme Healer. The temple was once home to over 1,000 priests, making it one of the largest religious sites of its time. Today, it’s most notable for the brilliant colours and statues in the main hall. Entry into the hall costs 600 yen.
Station: Takabatakecho (Bus) Address: 〒630-8301 Nara-ken, Nara-shi, Takabatakechō Phone: 742-22-3736 Hours: 9:00 - 17:00 Website: Shin Yakushi-ji Temple
Horyu-ji is the oldest intact Buddhist temple in Japan. It has survived the tumult of the centuries and today stands as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In fact, it was the very first place in the country to be awarded the honour.
Horyu-ji is divided into two main areas: the main hall—featuring several bronze Buddha statues—and a five-story pagoda, which was built using early earthquake-proof technology that has time and time again proven its effectiveness.
Entry will set you back 1,000 yen.
Station: JR Horyuji Station/Horyujimon-mae(Bus) Address: 1-1 Hōryūji Sannai, Ikaruga-chō, Ikoma-gun, Nara-ken 636-0115 Phone: 745-75-2555 Hours: March 11th~November 19th 8:00 - 17:00/November 20th~March 10th 8:00 - 16:30 Website: Horyuji Temple
Nara Attractions & Sightseeing
Kazugayama Genshirin (Kasugayama Primeval Forest)
Kasugayama Primeval Forest, adjacent to Kazuga Taisha Shrine, has been looked upon as a holy site since ancient times. After hunting and logging were prohibited in 841, the forest has been left to its own devices, allowing it to flourish into an area of rich plant and animal life, despite its close proximity to the city. To keep it that way, access to much of the forest is restricted, though there are a variety of specially laid out paths to hike along.
One of the best is the Kasuga Okayama trail. Although 9 km long, the trail is suitable to all and includes some magnificent natural scenery along the way. One of the best times to visit is in the autumn when the whole forest turns into a rich tapestry of yellow, gold and red.
Station: JR Nara Station/Nara Station Address: Kawakamicho, Nara, Nara Prefecture 630-8202 Phone: 742-22-7755 Hours: All day Website: Kazugayama Genshirin
Mt. Katsuragi stands halfway between Osaka and Nara and represents one of the area’s best spots for an escape to the country. There are various trails that crisscross the mountain, most of which suitable for hikers of all levels of experience. In spring and summer, violets, lilies, azaleas and other flowers wash the foothills with colour, though, whatever season you choose to visit in you’re sure to be impressed.
Address: Kujira Gose, Nara Prefecture 639-2312 Phone: 745-62-3001 Hours: All day
Nara Prefectural Government Office Building Rooftop
Though a trip to a government office building may not sound too thrilling, you may change your tune after a visit to the rooftop of the Nara Prefectural Government Office Building. There, you’ll find a rooftop garden coupled with panoramic views over the city, with Mt. Katsuragi even visible in the distance on a clear day. Head up when you first arrive in the city and it may help you to get your bearings.
Station: Kintetsu Nara Station Address: 〒630-8213 Nara Prefecture, Nara, 登大路町30 Phone: 742-22-1101 Hours: 8:30 - 17:15 (Closed on weekends) Website: Nara Prefectural Government Office
Nara Kenko Land
Nara Kenko Land is a family-friendly spa-park connected to the Nara Plaza Hotel, though you don’t need to be a guest to use the facilities. With a whole load of hot springs, saunas, pools and massage services, it’s the ideal way to regain your strength after a long day of sightseeing, especially in the winter. The large communal bath sources its water from natural hot springs 800 metres below the ground. If that wasn’t enough, there are also play facilities for kids, arcade games and karaoke facilities.
Entry costs 1,500 yen with additional fees for use of the hot springs and swimming pool.
Station: Kintetsu Nikaido Station Address: 600-1 Kabatacho, Tenri Phone: 0743-64-1126 Hours: All day Website: Nara Kenko land
Harushika Brewery was founded in 1884 in Nara prefecture, where many years earlier sake was first produced. This heritage expresses itself in the simple, almost puritanical approach of the brewery to their craft, best expressed in their motto: “Polish the rice, polish the water, polish the technique and polish the mind.”
Visit the brewery and for just 400 yen you will be invited to sample a plethora of sake types in an hour-long tasting session, which, handily, is conducted in English. You’ll also receive a souvenir sake cup and have the opportunity to purchase a bottle or two to take home.
Station: Kintetsu Nara Station Address: 24-1 Fukuchiin-cho, Nara 630-8381 Phone: 742-23-2255 Hours: 8:15 - 17:15 Website: Karushika Brewery
Japan is fond of a festival and Nara especially so. Check out some the best, below.
Wakakusa Yamayaki Festival
Fireworks are a great way to welcome in the New Year, but how about setting an entire mountain on fire? This is the way they do things in Nara. On the fourth Saturday of January each year, the Wakakusa Yamayaki takes place, an event that sees the slopes of Mount Wakakusa ritually set ablaze.
The festival is believed to have its roots in 1760, when a boundary dispute between monks from Kofuku-ji Temple and Todai-ji Temple was taken to extremes. With no solution in sight, the disputed land was set on fire in an act of mutually detrimental destruction.
The festival starts with the ceremonial lighting of a torch using sacred fire from Kasuga Taisha Shrine. The fire is paraded to a small shrine at the foot of Mount Wakakusa where a large bonfire is lit.
At 18:15, fireworks light up the sky and fire from the bonfire is taken and used to ignite the long grass, which gradually spreads over the mountain. The entire process usually takes between 30 minutes and one hour.
The fire can be seen from across the city, but one of the best vantage points is Nara Park. Get there early to guarantee a spot.
Station: Kintetsu Nara Station (20 minutes walk) Address: Mt. Wakakusa, Zoshicho, Nara, Nara Prefecture 630-8211 Hours: Fireworks begin 6:15 pm Website: Nara city sightseeing
Mantoro Lantern Festival
Kasuga Taisha’s Mantoro Lantern Festival takes place twice yearly, in early February and mid-August. During the festival, the shrine’s vast collection of stone lanterns are lit, filling the shrine and the surrounding forest with a subtle, magical light. A popular tradition is to write a wish on a strip of paper and lay it on top of a lantern in the hope that it will be granted by the next festival.
Station: Kintetsu Nara Station (30-40 minutes walk)/Kasuga Omotesando (Bus) Address: 160 Kasuganochō, Nara-shi, Nara-ken 630-8212 Phone: 742-22-7788 Hours: Bugaku (ancient court dance with music) 17:30 - 18:00/ Lanterns lit up 18:00 - 20:30 Website: Kasugataisha
For a deeper understanding of the rich history and culture of Nara, take a visit to one of the city’s many fantastic museums.
Nara National Museum
Nara National Museum was built in 1894, only slightly after the national museum in Tokyo. It is split into two main parts: the Nara Buddhist Sculpture Hall and the Ritual Bronzes Gallery. The former is the home of the most complete collection of Buddhist sculptures anywhere, while the latter houses a spectacular collection of ancient Chinese bronzes. For those with a special interest in Nara’s history as a religious center, the museum can’t be beaten.
Station: Kintetsu Nara Station (15 minute walk) Address: 50 Noboriōji-chō, Nara city 630-8213 Phone: 050-5542-8600 Hours: 9:30 - 17:00 Website: Nara National Museum
Nara Prefectural Museum of Art
Nara Prefectural Museum of Art opened in 1973 after artist Yoshikawa Kanpo’s personal art collection was donated to the prefecture upon his death. Since, the museum has continued to amass art from other sources and is now home to over 4,000 works of priceless Japanese art, predominantly from the Edo and Meiji eras. Exhibitions rotate every few months and entry is free for tourists.
Station: Kintetsu Nara Station Address: 10-6 Noborioji-cho, Nara Phone: 0742-23-3968 (Closed on Monday) Hours: 9:00 - 17:00 Website: Nara Prefectural Museum of Art
Naramachi Mechanical Toy Museum
This free museum is housed inside an original Edo period house, which is a selling point in itself. The museum is dedicated to mechanical toys from throughout Japan’s history and can boast a collection of over 200 individual artefacts. As well as the toys themselves there is also heaps of information on how the contraptions were made and even monthly workshops for you to have a go yourself.
Station: Nara Station Address: 7 Inyocho, Nara, Nara Prefecture 630-8338 Phone: 742-26-5656 Hours: 9:00 - 17:00 (Closed on Wednesday) Website: Naramachi Mechanical Toy Museum
Higashimuki Shopping Street
Though few people come to Nara especially to shop, the city is nonetheless pretty good in this regard, especially if you’re in the market for souvenirs or traditional craft items. Higashimuki Street, the city’s main shopping street, is a good place to start. Here, find an array of shops selling everything from traditional clothes and jewellery to sweets and artisan ornaments. Between the shops there are also a few decent restaurants serving Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese food.
Station: Kintetsu Nara Station Address: 5 Higashimuki Minamimachi, Nara, Nara Prefecture 630-8216 Hours: 10:00 - 22:00 Website: Higashimuki Shopping street
Naramachi, in central Nara, is a complex of narrow streets that constitutes the merchant quarter of the city. The area was once the precinct of Gango-ji Temple and still retains a unique, old-world atmosphere.
Naramachi is full of small museums, souvenir stores, arts and craft shops and a number of temples and shrines. The stores are some of the best in the city for traditional goods, though be sure to shop around for the best prices.
Station: Kintetsu Nara Station (15 minutes walk) Address: Yamatokoriyama, Nara Prefecture 639-1159 Phone: 742-27-5509 (Naramachi Museum) Website: Kofukuji Temple