Let’s go back to 8th century Japan. The imperial infrastructure of the country had been growing for quite some time, causing the empress to choose a permanent location for the capital. She picked a spot on the Yamato plain and the construction of Nara began.
At the time, Buddhism was becoming more and more deeply rooted in the cultural identity of Japan. Laws were even passed requiring each family to have a household shrine. As a result, there were an abundance of shrines dotting the city–many of which remain to this day.
Before Buddhism was introduced to Japan, an ancient religion known as Shinto flourished. Shinto, meaning ‘way of the gods’, was (and is) a pantheistic religion focused on strengthening ties to the past, nature, and spirits known as kami. One unique thing about the Shinto belief is its lack of sacred text or official ritual–a flexibility which enabled its practitioners to incorporate elements of Buddhism into their ceremonies and belief structures. To this day, Shintoism is a thriving belief for many people in Japan.
Now, let’s go back to Nara. Nara is dotted by a number of stunning Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, all in very close proximity to each other. Lacking the modern-city feel permeating Osaka and (to some extent) Kyoto, Nara provides a snapshot of a time when change and growth in Japanese society were rampant.
Now, without further adieu, here are the Top 5 Things I recommend doing in Nara!
Walk around Nara Park
Not only does Nara have an abundance of temples and shrines, it also has some citizens who have been venerated and protected for more than a millennium. I’m talking, of course, about the famous (or infamous?) sika deer which roam freely around Nara Park and beyond.
Believed to be sacred messengers of one of the local Shinto deities enshrined at Kasuga-taisha, the sika deer in Nara have enjoyed government protection for centuries. In fact, killing one was a capital offence up until the 17th century. Now, however, they are simply protected as national treasures. They are spoiled rotten due to continuously being offered the deer crackers sold throughout the park–making them extremely tame.
That said, the deer are still technically wild animals; it’s best to remember that before getting too comfortable around them. The City of Nara has some signs put out to remind people that, while cute and friendly, the deer can still be dangerous…
Explore Todaiji Temple
One of the main sights in Nara is the massive Todaiji Temple. Its main claim to fame is the massive, 500 ton, bronze Buddha statue known as Daibutsu housed inside, but the building is impressive in its own right.
Fun Fact: Todaiji makes an appearance as a Wonder in Age of Empires 2. Twelve year old me just about had a conniption fit when I found that out!
Behind the main building and the Daibutsu are two magnificent wooden halls: Nigatsu-do and Sangatsu-do. The two cedar structures have burned to the ground in the past, but have remained standing in their current state for centuries.
Experience Kasuga Taisha Shrine
Kasuga Taisha was one of my favorite aspects of Nara. A Shinto shrine established by the Fushiwara family, it is renowned for the abundance of stone lanterns around the premise–over 2000! Walking along the path lined with moss-draped lanterns and overshadowed by towering cedars leaves one with a feeling of awe. This place, more than any other in Nara, feels ancient.
One striking feature of Shinto shrines is their color. The wood is painted a brilliant, deep orange which–when combined with the dark accents of natural wood–makes for a striking appearance.
Relax by Ukimido Gazebo
West of Kasuga Taisha and near a series of tranquil ponds is the Ukimido Gazebo. After seeing more temples and shrines than you can shake a stick at, finding a quiet spot around a pond and just sitting for a spell is a great way to unwind and process the events of the day. There are even paddle boats available to rent!
Hike through Kasugayama Primeval Forest
The forest behind Kasuga Taisha shrine is sacred and ancient. Walking through the cedars was my single favorite experience in Nara when combined with hiking along a trail to the top of Kasugayama Mountain. Click the link to the left to read about that experience, as I’ve already written about it and this post is getting a bit long.
There you have it! Five awesome things to see/do in Nara. It’s a wonderful city, one I highly recommend visiting for a few days if you’re traveling through the Kansai area. If you make it there, let me know what you think!
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Looks beautiful. My two favorite photos was one of the deer which was freaking cute. Also the black and white of the temple. Nice shots! Looks like fun!
Living in Korea for Expats.com
It looks so peaceful and beautiful there. I think the best part of it would be the Gazebo, or at least a nice rest if you are planning to do all of the things on your list. Is it possible to do all of them in one day?
Maybe if you started early you could pull it off. I’d allow two days for Nara, though, one would seem pretty rushed!
Nara is a truly special place. It was really great to relive it all through your photos and words. Thanks for sharing.
Evan and Rachel
We loved our time in Nara, and you did a great job of capturing the city in this post. I love that I learn something new every time I read a post from you. Evan and I are bad about not knowing what we’re looking at when we go to new places. Is this research you did before the trip, during, or after? We’re trying to be better about it so we can share posts like this with our audience.
Thanks Nathan, enjoyed your writing as always.
Thanks! What was your favorite part about Nara?
I do general research about a place before I go, just to get an idea of what I might want to see. When I’m there I grab any and all brochures/maps I can find and read them as I go through. Then, afterwards, I do a bit more research to fill in the gaps when I’m writing a post. For me, the most important part is getting the brochures and maps. They seem to be where all the cool info is 🙂
Steve Miller (@qiranger)
Man, I love those black and white images! Looks like an amazing trip.
Wow, this looks like an awesome city. The pictures remind me of Kyoto a little bit. Seems like a really relaxing, peaceful place. I want to visit for the deer alone!
I didn’t realize this, but apparently the deer will bow to you if you don’t give them the cracker right away. A buddy of mine has a hilarious video of him and a deer bowing repeatedly to one another. Good stuff!
Meagan | LifeOutsideOfTexas.com
I’ve been to Japan several times and one of my main regrets is that I never got to Nara. It looks really awesome! If I ever get back to Japan, I’ll definitely be visiting here and checking out your 5 things.
Great words and photos. Now I wish I’d visited Nara. Love the photo of the sika deer. Japan has the best signs…butt! Knock down! Haha
10 years ago I visited Nara as a side trip from Osaka. It’s one of the only Japanese cities on a grid – right?
I didn’t know that, but it appears so! http://www.hgeo.h.kyoto-u.ac.jp/soramitsu/heijokyo.html
Awesome bit of trivia, thanks 🙂