How to Spend One Day in Nara
Western Japan is a goldmine for those hoping to see a lot in a relatively short period of time. There are a ton of classic Japanese cities within a very close distance, and when using the Shinkansen to move from one to another, the transit time all but disappears. With Kobe’s beef, Kyoto’s temples, and Osaka’s nightlife, the only missing piece is the peaceful tranquility of Nara. The city was Japan’s first permanent capital from 710 – 784, but nowadays is more known for its famous deer. We encourage you to base yourself out of one of the above cities (perhaps Osaka?) and then take a day trip to enjoy the sights and sounds of Nara.
1. Hop Aboard the Train to Kintetstu Nara Station
In order to maximize your time in Western Japan we recommend basing yourself out of one of the four major tourist areas and then taking the train to explore the other surrounding cities. In our opinion, Osaka seems to be the most central and overall the prices for lodging seem to be a smidge better (especially when comparing them to those found in Kyoto). If you’re thinking the same way expect a ~45 minute train ride from Osaka to Nara.
2. Try Mochi at Nakatanidou
Nara is pretty small, so it doesn’t take long to navigate from site to site and thus you can find yourself at Nakatanidou pretty quickly after leaving the station. After all, witnessing one of the fastest mochi makers in Japan pound some serious mochi was on your Japan bucket list, right? The process (which is actually fairly short) is known as “mochitsuki” and it’s pretty fun to see, although to be honest, the best part of the whole stop is trying the fresh mochi for yourself. Mochi, is a Japanese rice cake that is made from japonica glutinous rice which is pounded into paste and then molded. It is considered a sweet treat/dessert in Japan, although it is not nearly as sweet as many western treats. Even so, our kids LOVE it (+ we dig it, too)!
- Hours: 1000 – 1900 (demonstrations take place at random times between 1100 and 1600)
- Admission: Free
3. Visit Kofukuji
After indulging in mochi goodness continue onwards to Kofukuji, a temple constructed by the ruling aristocratic clan during the Nara period in 710. Spend a some time wandering the grounds and then on your way out enjoy the beautiful 5-storied pagoda which is the second highest in Japan (highest is in nearby Kyoto).
- Hours: 0900 – 1700 (last admission is 1645)
- Admission: 500yen/Adult, 300yen/Jr. High & High School Students, 100yen/Primary School Students
4. Stroll through Nara Deer Park
Nara is chock full of temples and shrines and although we find them fascinating, our kids can quickly get “temple-ed/shrine-ed” out without breaks. To break up the day (and avoid an imminent meltdown) head over to the Deer Park and hang with some of the ~1200 free-roaming, tame deer that are believed to be messengers of the Shinto gods. The deer have become the symbol of the the city of Nara, and have even been designated as a national treasure. If you want to get a bit closer to these beautiful creatures buy a pack…or two…or three of “shika senbei” (deer crackers) and they’ll flock to you! Just make sure to keep an eye on the young male deer as they seem to be a tad more aggressive. If they know you have food, they WILL keep after you until they get it. This was our children’s favorite part of the day, particularly when the the trained deer would bow to them before eating the crackers.
- Hours: Sunrise to Sunset
- Admission: Free. You can purchase deer crackers (“shika senbei”) many places around the park (1-pack costs 150yen).
5. Visit Himuro Shrine
Feeding deer allllll along the way, of course, make your way over to Himuro Shrine (which is essentially just across the street from the deer park). Buy a fortune on a special piece of paper from the shrine office and then place it on a large block of ice and wait for it to be revealed! Although the fortune itself is in Japanese, English translations are available – just ask!
- Hours: 0630 – 1730
- Admission: Free
6. Visit Todai-ji
Todaiji isn’t too terribly far from Himuro Shrine and makes a great next stop. You’ll pass through the Nandaimon Gate on your way to this World Heritage site constructed in 752 under Emperor Shomu. Here the sika deer flood the streets and as you make your way closer to the gate you’ll stand at the foot of two muscular Nio, guardians of Buddha, made in 1203 who stand 8.5m tall!
After passing Kagami-ike Pond you’ll see Todaji. Until 1998, this structure was the largest wooden building in the world and although it has since relinquished that title, it does however, still have the world’s biggest bronze statue of Buddha inside standing at 16m tall. It. Is. Massive. Meander around the hall taking it all in until you find the wooden pillar with a hole. Why would this hole be so important? Well, the hole is said to be the same size as Buddha’s nostril and those that can successfully squeeze through it will be granted enlightenment. So perhaps give it a shot? Our kids had no problem getting through…Dom and I on the other hand must not be so enlightened.
- Hours: 0800 – 1630 (November – February), 0800 – 1700 (March), 0730 – 1730 (April – September), 0730 – 1700 (October)
- Great Buddha Hall + the Todaji Temple: 1,000yen/Adult , 400yen/Child (6 – 11yo), children under 6yo are free
- Great Buddha Hall: 600yen/Adult, 300yen/Child (6 – 11yo), children under 6yo are free
7. Visit Kasuga Taisha Shrine
Upon exiting Todaji take a relaxing stroll up towards Kasuga Taisha Shrine. This area is very peaceful and wooded. As you approach the religious site the paths are lined with stone lanterns. We would absolutely recommend visiting Kasuga Taisha Shrine towards the end of the day and trying to time your visit there with “golden hour” for as the sun begins to set the light bounces off of the thousand hanging bronze lanterns inside. Incredibly beautiful place to round out the day. So peaceful. Kasuga Taisha has been destroyed and rebuilt every 20 years since 768 to represent the Shinto religions belief in both purity and renewal.
- Hours: 0900 – 1630 or 1700 depending on the time of year
- Admission: Offering hall can be visited free of charge, but to see the inner area you have to pay 500yen/Adult
8. Browse Kikuichi Knife Shop
If you’re looking for a perfect Japanese souvenir we recommend checking out Kikuichi Knife Shop (especially if you love to cook!). Kikuichi Cutlery has been making knives and swords for over 750 years. Its founder was chosen by the emperor as his swordsmith, giving them the right to use the royal symbol of the Chrysanthemum flower as a mark of the high quality of their blades.
- Hours: 0930 – 1630
- Admission: Free
9. Try Sushi Wrapped in Persimmon Leaves at Kakinohasushi
Before hopping on the train for the evening make sure to pick up some street eats (our “go-to” is always Takoyaki) and perhaps some sushi wrapped in persimmon leaves, a Nara specialty!
- Hours: Can be bought at several vendors along the shopping streets around Nara
- Admission: Prices for a seven piece set range:
- 983yen: 7 pieces of sea bream
- 1048yen: 3 pieces of salmon, 4 pieces of sea bream
- 1178yen: 2 pieces of mackerel, 2 pieces of salmon, 3 pieces of sea bream
Kakinohasushi Tip: We bought a box of 7 pieces including Saba Mackerel, Sake Salmon, Tai Sea Bream all of which were delicious, but the salmon was our favorite! Just make sure to unwrap the sushi and not to eat the persimmon leaves.
10. Sayonnara Nara!