Top Things To Do in Nara, Japan

Nara, once the capital of the Japan from 710 to 794, is home to some of the oldest temples in the country. It’s conveniently located less than an hour south of Kyoto, and it’s full of attractions, boasting eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites, encompassing the Nara Palace Site, five Buddhist temples, a Shinto shrine, and an associative cultural landscape.

During my visit to Nara, initially drawn by its friendly sika deer and the incredible Todai-ji Temple, I discovered much more than expected, including perfectly landscaped gardens and an incredible hiking trail in a primeval forest.

In this guide, I will tell you what are the top attractions to see in Nara, including the most important highlights and some of my favourite off the beaten path experiences nobody talks about.

The exterior of Todai-ji Temple in Nara
The exterior of Todai-ji Temple in Nara

Todai-ji Temple

Entrance Fee: 600 yen
Opening Hours: 7:30 – 17:30 (Apr-Oct); 8:00 – 17:00 (Nov-Mar)

Todai-ji Temple is famous for housing the world’s largest bronze statue of the Buddha, known as Daibutsu (15 meters in height). Many people come to Japan specifically to see this temple. Todai-ji is a listed UNESCO World Heritage Site as one of the “Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara”.

Todai-ji Temple dates back to the 8th century and was constructed under emperor Shōmu, by the best craftspeople in Japan with the latest building technology. Todai-ji marked the adoption of Buddhism as a state religion.

Don’t miss the Great South Gate (nandaimon) which is a National Treasure. The temple grounds are filled with traditional buildings and historic villas, aesthetical gardens and sika deer roaming freely.

Sika deer around Nara Park in front of the Todai-ji Great South Gate
Sika deer around Nara Park in front of the Todai-ji Great South Gate

Nara Park

Entrance Fee: Free
Opening Hours: 9:00 – 18:00 (most shops)

Nara Park is one of the main attractions in Nara, renowned for its free-roaming sika deer. The deer are semi-wild and considered messengers of the Shinto Gods.

You can feed deer special deer crackers or take photos with them. Don’t be alarmed if they follow you, they are just used to people giving them food. You’ll notice that they even learned how to bow when asking for food. We had a couple of them following us around for more than 20 minutes after we fed them.

Beyond the deer, Nara Park is dotted with significant cultural and historical sites, including Todai-ji Temple, Kasuga-taisha Shrine, and the Nara National Museum.

Cory from You Could Travel exploring the Nara shrines and temples
Cory from You Could Travel exploring the Nara shrines and temples

Kasuga-taisha Shrine

Entrance Fee: Free (fee applies for inner areas)
Opening Hours: 6:30 – 17:30 (Mar-Oct); 7:00 – 17:00 (Nov-Feb)

Kasuga-taisha Shrine is an 8th century Shinto shrine known for its hundreds of bronze and stone lanterns that line the paths leading to the shrine. The best time to see Kasuga-taisha Shrine is during the Latern Festivals in February and August, when the shrine’s lanterns are illuminated, making the path look out of this world.

The shrine complex includes several smaller shrines and is surrounded by Nara’s primeval forest.

While you can visit the shrine’s offering hall for free, there’s a special inner area you can enter for a fee. This paid section gives you a closer look at the more intimate parts of the shrine’s buildings.

Isuen garden in Nara Japan
Isuen garden in Nara Japan

Isuien Garden

Entrance Fee: 1200 yen
Opening Hours: 9:30 – 16:30 (last entry 16:00)

Isuien Garden is an iconic garden in Nara known for its unique concept of “borrowed scenery”. This means that its design barrows from the natural beauty of its surrounding areas, including the nearby hills, the temples and the shrines.

Its name means water drawn garden, which signifies the importance of its main mirror pond. Make sure to visit the rear garden as it’s the oldest part.

Please note that the entrance fee is for the Isuien Garden and Neiraku Museum, which houses a collection of Chinese and Korean artefacts.

Horyu-ji temple in Nara
Martin Falbisoner CC BY-SA 4.0
Horyu-ji temple in Nara Martin Falbisoner CC BY-SA 4.0

Horyu-ji Temple

Entrance Fee: 1500 yen
Opening Hours: 8:00 – 17:00 (Feb-Nov); 8:00 – 16:30 (Nov-Feb)

Horyu-ji Temple is one of Japan’s most important ancient temple complexes, founded in 607 by Prince Shotoku. It is one of the oldest surviving wooden structures, not just in Japan but in the whole world!

Horyu-ji Temple is split into two main areas: the Western Precinct (Saiin Garan) and the Eastern Precinct (Toin Garan). In the West, you’ll find a famous five-story tower and the main building, which holds important Buddhist statues and artefacts. The East area has the Hall of Dreams, a special building named after Prince Shotoku, known for its stunning architecture.

Nara National Museum
Nara National Museum 663highland, CC BY-SA 3.0

Nara National Museum

Entrance Fee: 700 yen
Opening Hours: 9:30 – 17:00 (Mondays closed)

The Nara National Museum is in Nara Park, and it’s a place where you can see a lot of Japanese art, especially from ancient and medieval times.

It has two main buildings where they show sculptures, paintings, and other religious art related to Buddhism. One of the coolest things they do every year is an exhibition of treasures from Todai-ji Temple, including some very old and important Buddhist statues.

The museum also has a nice garden, and it’s a good spot to learn more about Japan’s history and culture.

Nara Rooftops as seen from the Todai-ji Nigatsudo (February Hall)
Nara Rooftops as seen from the Todai-ji Nigatsudo (February Hall)

Yoshikien Garden

Entrance Fee: Free
Opening Hours: 9:00 – 16:30 (Mondays closed)

A must-see attraction in Nara is the serene Yoshikien Garden. It’s just a short 5-minute walk from Todai-ji Temple but because of its location, is often overlooked by tourists, making it a fantastic off the beaten track gem.

Yoshikien Garden is a stunning-landscaped garden divided into three main areas: a moss garden, a pond garden and a tea ceremony garden. And yes, there is a tea house used for tea ceremonies which can be hired for the morning, afternoon or all day.

Naramachi

Entrance Fee: Free
Opening Hours: 9:00 – 18:00 (most shops)

Naramachi is the old merchant district, lined with traditional machiya houses (long, narrow wooden townhouses). These buildings with their distinctive wooden lattices and tiled roofs are now shops, restaurants, and cafés and many still preserve their authentic look and feel.

Make sure to add Naramachi Koshino Ie to your must-see list of attractions. Naramachi Koshino Ie is run by the local council and is a replica of a preserved machiya house open to the public.

Nigatsu-do Hall where the Omizutori festival is held
Nigatsu-do Hall where the Omizutori festival is held

Omizutori Festival

Entrance Fee: Free
When: March 1 to 14

Omizutori is an ancient and significant Buddhist ceremony held every year in March at Todai-ji Temple. This is one of the oldest Buddhist events in Japan, which has been observed and practised for over 1250 years. It is part of the two week Shuni-e ceremony.

The highlight of Omizutori is on March 12, when you will see the display of giant torches, some measuring up to 8 meters long, which are lit and held over the balcony of Nigatsu-do Hall. Following this, on the next day, there is a ritual where water is drawn from a well, all set to the backdrop of traditional Japanese music.

Monks chanting during the Wakakusa Yamayaki Festival in Nara, Japan
Monks chanting during the Wakakusa Yamayaki Festival in Nara, Japan

Wakakusa Yamayaki Festival

Entrance Fee: Free
When: 4th Saturday of January

Wakakusa Yamayaki is an annual festival held in Nara where the grass on the slopes of Mount Wakakusayama is set on fire. The festival is held in the winter, when the entire mountain looks on fire against the night sky.

There are plenty of celebrations, and stalls set up with street food, fireworks and ceremonies before seeing the mountain set ablaze.

On our way out of Nara Park and towards the hiking trail up Wakakusayama Hill
On our way out of Nara Park and towards the hiking trail up Wakakusayama Hill

Mt. Kasuga Primeval Forest

One of my favourite experiences in Nara was a hike in the Mt. Kasuga Primeval Forest. Many people come for the temples and the shrines, but few know that Nara Park is an excellent starting point for hiking trails.

On the Eastern side of Nara park there is a hiking area leading up the Wakakusayama hill. The path starts behind the Western restaurant Le Case and continues towards the Nakamizuya Rest. The path is well-defined and easily accessible. You just need a comfortable pair of shoes.

How to get to Nara

Take the JR Nara Line from Kyoto Station to Nara Station. The trip takes just under an hour, and it is covered by your Japan Rail Pass.

Japan Rail Pass

The optimal way to explore Japan is with a rail pass that is available for durations of 7, 14, or 21 days, offering unlimited travel across the country. Shinkansen included!

Frequently Asked Questions

Is Nara worth visiting?

Nara is absolutely worth a visit, and it was one of my favourite day trips from Kyoto. Nara was once the first permanent capital of Japan, and it’s full of historical sites and stunning gardens. One of the highlights is Todai-ji Temple, where you can see the largest bronze Buddha statue in the world. Nara Park is right nearby, and it’s filled with friendly and sacred sika deer that you can feed and pet. Nara also has Kasuga Taisha Shrine, with its striking red gates and lanterns that create a magical atmosphere. Don’t forget to explore Naramachi, the old merchant district, where you can walk through narrow streets and see traditional houses.

How do I spend a day in Nara?

Start by visiting Todai-ji Temple, home to the enormous Great Buddha. You won’t believe your eyes when you see this gigantic bronze statue up close—it’s mind-blowing! After that, head over to Nara Park, where you can hang out with the friendly deer. Feed them, take selfies, and watch them bow. Don’t forget to explore Kasuga Taisha Shrine with its vibrant red gates and lanterns—it’s like stepping into a fairy tale. And if you want a taste of the local history, wander through Naramachi, the old merchant district. Oh, and the food! You have to try some of Nara’s delicious local treats like narazuke pickles, persimmon leaf sushi, local alcohol, and much more.

How many days do you need in Nara Japan?

To make the most of your time in Nara, I recommend spending at least a full day exploring the city. Luckily, this is doable as it’s only a short 45 minute train ride from central Kyoto. With a full day in Nara, you’ll have enough time to visit iconic sites like Todai-ji Temple, Nara Park for its sika deer and the traditional streets of Naramachi.

What is Nara in Japan famous for?

Nara is renowned for its massive Great Buddha statue at Todai-ji Temple, the Kasuga Taisha Shrine, with its beautiful red gates and lanterns and the friendly sika deer in Nara Park. Of course, there is a lot more to do in Nara, including seeing the old Naramachi district and eating local food which tastes incredible!

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Cory from You Could Travel entering Senso-ji in Tokyo, Japan

Cory Varga – Cory Varga is a licensed travel agent and published travel writer. Her main expertise is writing about Japan, where she happily lives with her husband.
Cory published her first book on Japanese customs and manners because she’s obsessed with everything Japan and wants to share more about the local customs with the rest of the world.
While Cory has visited hundreds of destinations and has lived in 7 different countries, Japan remains her favorite place to live and write about. Cory is multilingual.

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