Nara is quite possibly the most popular day trip you could take from Kyoto. Many people don’t always realize that Nara was Japan’s first established capital, serving as the seat of power from 710AD to 784AD. However, when Japan’s powerful ruling families upped sticks and moved to Kyoto at the end of the 8th century mostly to escape the meddling influence of the local temples, Nara’s star began its meteoric fall. Like the older sister eclipsed by a younger sibling whose taller, prettier AND gets into med school, it’s no secret which city most Japanese (and tourists) prefer these days.
But Nara has its charms, and a bucketful of history to boot. It’s easy to get around on foot if you’re not averse to walking a bit over mostly flat ground. The following sights can all be seen in a half day’s exploration from the train station.
Kofuku-ji (Kofuku Temple) is the first sight you’ll pass, just a few hundred meters east of the Keihan line train station. Feel free to pop into the grounds of this temple that once belonged to one of the most famous and powerful medieval families in Japan, the Fujiwara. It was established here in 710, back when Nara was the Imperial Capital, and at one time over 150 buildings graced the grounds. Today, it still sports the second-tallest 5-story pagoda in Japan (the first is up the road in Kyoto at Toji Temple) and an intriguing octagonal hall.
Large sections of Nara Park (Nara Koen) come next. These grassy expanses aren’t terribly exciting, save for the residents who call them home – Nara’s famed deer, living off the land (and deer crackers) since at least the 700s. There is a legend that the god enshrined in Kasuga Taisha on Nara’s eastern side rode into town on a white deer (not quite a white horse, but close enough) and the creatures have been fawned over ever since. Today, 1095 deer live in the sprawling Nara Park area, though only 188 of those are male.
Take the back road to Nara’s popular UNESCO sight of Todai-ji Temple and you’ll come across Isui-en, a stroll garden lovely enough to rival any in Kyoto. It’s worth the ¥650 admission price if you’re a garden fan, but if you’re watching your yen, next door is the free (for foreigners – just sign the paper at the entrance) Yoshikien Garden. Just as nice AND with views from its high point into neighboring Isui-en. 😉
Nearby Todai-ji is the main draw for most. Meaning “Great Eastern Temple”, this was one of the most significant buildings in the Nara plain, constructed around 752. It grew to be so influential in political affairs that the capital was actually relocated to Nagaoka in 784 as a way to lessen the reach of the temple’s heads. It may be hard to believe, but the current incarnation of the great hall – aweing visitors since 1692 – is only two-thirds the size of the original. The Buddha inside is also the largest of its kind in Japan. If you have been to Kamakura outside of Tokyo, you may have heard similar claims about the Daibutsu (Great Buddha) there, but Nara’s is the largest Buddha fully enclosed by a building.
On the far eastern edge of Nara Park, don’t miss the Kasuga Shrine. As old as Nara itself, it was established when the capital was built here. If Kofukuji was the Fujiwara’s main temple, this was their shrine. It used to be rebuilt every 20 years, like the famous Ise Shrine in Mie Prefecture, but the practice was stopped in the mid-1800s. Today, the shrine is a good place to catch a traditional wedding party.
There are plenty of other sights in Nara Park, including one of my favorite places ever to view the cherry blossoms. Sign on for one of my Japan itineraries and I’ll happily share my secrets!