Nara, the city filled with wild deer, just may become one of your top Japan memories. It definitely is one of mine… It’s that special. It is about the same distance from Kyoto and Osaka, making it an easy and popular day trip from either location, and one you must add to your Japan itinerary.
I came to Nara expressly to see the deer. More on that below. However, it is chock full of historic, beautiful Japanese architecture – some of the most notable in the region. Nara was the capital of Japan in the 8th century, so the thread of rich history is still woven through the city.
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Sites to See
After arriving at Nara Station, a one kilometer walk will bring you to the entrance of Nara Park and to Kofuku-ji Temple, known for its iconic five-story pagoda. Then continue your walk through the park to view the Nara National Museum and the Todai-ji Grand South Gate. An absolute must-see in Nara is Todai-ji Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the world’s largest wooden structures (pictured above; originally built in the 700s). You will be impressed by the massive bronze Buddha statue housed within the temple’s Great Buddha Hall.
Next, a moderate walk (about 20 minutes) through Nara Park and a path lined on either side with stone lanterns and friendly deer will lead you to Kasuga Taisha. This ancient Shinto shrine famous for its vibrant vermilion buildings and hundreds (thousands?) of lanterns. The shrine’s peaceful atmosphere tucked into the forest creates a truly serene experience. At this temple you can buy a fortune that comes rolled up in the mouth of a ceramic souvenir deer. Speaking of deer…
Nara is most famous for its friendly inhabitants – the deer. As you explore Nara Park, you’ll be greeted by these (mostly) gentle creatures roaming freely throughout the area. They are wild but are accustomed to congregating around certain tourist-friendly areas. Interacting with these enchanting creatures is a unique and delightful experience. You can feed them special crackers, called “shika senbei,” and watch as they cutely bow their heads in exchange for a treat. (I bought three packs of crackers throughout the day- feeing the deer is so fun!)
Considered sacred messengers of the gods, the deer in Nara hold a special place in Japanese culture and history. These creatures have become beloved symbols of Nara, adding an extra touch of magic to your visit. Just remember to treat them with respect and follow the guidelines to ensure both your safety and theirs. And don’t forget to buy a little something with a deer on it to remember your new friends.
In addition to visiting the sites I’ve listed, there is a 11.5km trail in the Mt. Kasuga Primeval Forest that would be a good choice for those who love to hike. Nara also has a hot restaurant scene. Reservations are always a good idea in Japan so do a little research beforehand (link 1, link 2, link 3 to get you started). Ask your hotel concierge to call and arrange a dinner for you in advance. Ask me how I know… we wanted to go to to a specific spot but were turned away since we didn’t have a reservation.
For your Nara day trip, you can take the train very easily. From Kyoto, it is a breeze. You can hop on the JR Nara Line from Kyoto Station, and the trip to Nara takes around 45 minutes. If you’re starting from Osaka, you can take the JR Yamatoji Line from Osaka Station directly to Nara Station, with the journey taking around the same time. When possible, make sure to take the express train, not the local. Both routes are covered by the Japan Rail Pass, making it convenient for travelers. Once you arrive in Nara, the city center and main attractions, including Nara Park and Todai-ji Temple, are within walking distance from Nara Station.
Did I miss anything? Care to share an experience about feeding wild animals? Please leave a comment! And as always, thank you so much for stopping by!