Japan’s first capital city, venerable Nara offers ancient wooden UNESCO temples, bowing deer and a giant golden Buddha statue, all at a more sedate pace than its neighbour, Kyoto.
Before Tokyo there was Kyoto, and before Kyoto there was Nara. Japan’s first permanent capital city was founded here at the start of the 8th century, before the title (and all the attention) shifted to Kyoto. Thanks to this historic past, low-key and restrained, yet Nara holds its own with its flashier and more famous northern neighbour.
Nara offers a trove of ancient treasures, including some of the world’s oldest and largest wooden buildings and the world’s largest Buddha statue. In 2010, Nara celebrated the 1,300th anniversary of its ascension as Japan’s Imperial capital. Quieter and more sedate than Kyoto, it is the ideal place to slow down and delve into Japan’s ancient past.
What to Do in Nara
Any visit to Nara is likely to focus on its impressive lineup of UNESCO World Heritage sites. These include a group of eight sites - five Buddhist temples, a shrine, palace ruins, and a primeval forest (numbered 1-8 below) - which were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1998 as the Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara, and a further group of Buddhist monuments in the Horyu-ji area of southern Nara, inscribed in 1993.
Arriving into Nara by train, the train stations and Nara’s downtown area are neatly sandwiched in between the Heijo Palace Remains area in the west and deer-infested Nara Park, where the bulk of the UNESCO sites can be found, in the east. Visit the Heijo Palace Remains (1), the former site of Nara’s Imperial palace, at the same time as tree-ringed Toshodaiji Temple (2) and strictly symmetrical Yakushiji Temple (3), constructed by an emperor in hope of recovery for his sick wife.
Nara’s population of over 1,200 free-roaming shika deer are its most famous residents. Legend has it that in ancient times, a god riding a white deer arrived in Nara to guard the newly built capital, and the deer, now a National Treasure, have been regarded as Nara’s guardians ever since. When not on sentry duty, they are partial to the “deer crackers” on sale from the many kiosks, and some have learned to “bow” to express their demands or appreciation for the favour (it’s not clear which!).
Kofukuji Temple (5), home to Japan’s second-tallest pagoda, and Kasuga Taisha Shrine (6), Nara’s original guardian shrine, prized for its beautiful stone and metal lanterns, are also inside Nara Park, while Kasugayama Primeval Forest (7), a sacred old-growth forest, forms a verdant backdrop on the mountains behind.
Gangoji Temple (8) is located slightly separately, at the south-west corner of Nara Park. Once expansive, its grounds were gradually swallowed up by Naramachi, the surrounding merchant district. Combine a visit to the temple with a stroll around the district’s narrow streets, lined with former merchants’ houses and warehouses, boutique shops and cafes, and terrapin-infested Narusawa Pond.
Another UNESCO site, Horyuji Temple, is worth the hour’s journey by train from central Nara, so that you can boast you’ve seen the world’s oldest surviving wooden structures, dating from the 7th-8th centuries.
How to get to Nara
Nara is located in between and to the southeast of Kyoto and Osaka. The bullet train does not pass through Nara, necessitating a change of trains at either Kyoto or Osaka.
Coming from Tokyo in the east, visitors must change from the bullet train to the ordinary train in Kyoto. From Tokyo to Kyoto, Nozomi (not covered by the JR Pass) bullet trains take about 140 minutes, Hikari trains about 160 minutes, and Kodama trains about 4 hours.
Approaching from Kobe, Hiroshima and other destinations in the west, alight from the bullet train at either Osaka or Kyoto and catch the ordinary train the rest of the way. Nara is 30-45 minutes by direct train (JR or private) from Osaka and Kyoto.