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Nara is one of the most relaxing and peaceful places we visited during our trip to Japan. Nara is famous for its sacred deer but it is also packed with numerous historical and unique sights you can not miss when visiting the ancient capital of Japan. Some of the most important sights in Nara are the Nara-Koen Park, Todai-ji Temple, Isui-en Garden, and Kasuga-Taisha Shrine. Although Nara can easily be visited on a day trip from Kyoto or Osaka, I definitely recommend spending at least 2 days here in order to enjoy the chilled vibes and beautiful nature.
The beautiful city of Nara was the first capital of Japan from 710 to 794 and therefore you will have the unique opportunity to dive into Japan’s most ancient past. During that time, Buddhism moved permanently to Japan under the reign of Emperor Shomu and became one of the official religions in the land of the rising sun.
Where to stay in Nara
If you are not planning to visit Nara just on a day-trip, the best place to stay in Nara is somewhere near the central station and Nara Park. We stayed in Onyado Nono Nara Natural Hot Spring which was within walking distance from the station and 10 minutes from Nara-koen Park.
One of the most visited places in Nara is the Nara-Koen Park. The Park is located in the heart of the city and here you will find the largest population of deer in Nara. Of course, you can also enjoy the beautiful nature and many historical buildings like Todai-ji Temple, Isui-en Garden , Kofuku-ji Temple, Sarusawa Pond, and Uneme Shrine. There are also some smaller gardens to be found around the temples as well. Nara-Koen Park is lined with beautiful pathways where you can long for a little relaxation.
Deer in Japan are not just some usual deer – they are considered to be sacred animals! Nara was established on the grounds of Kasuga Taisha Shrine, with deity Takemi Kajichi no Mikoto. It is believed that god Takemikazuchi rode upon a sacred white deer to Nara. Therefore, the deer are viewed as messengers and helpers of Gods in Japan’s mythology.
Nowadays, the deer of Nara coexist with humans and are still considered being sacred and are protected by the local government. There are more than 1200 deers roaming around Nara and although they love interacting with humans, they are still considered wild animals and anyone should respect them as such. Sometimes they could even get a bit aggressive in their pursuit of food. The deer often try to bite your clothes and bags or push you in order to get some extra food. Some deer have apparently even learned how to bow to people and beg for treats! If you want to feed the animals you can buy deer crackers from one of the many street vendors in the park.
Nara Deer Park is open 24 hours 7 days a week and is free for everyone who wants to visit it. Only the various temples located in the park have opening hours and an entrance fee.
The Children from Mino City
We met and talked to many locals during our trip to Japan. Sometimes because we were asking for direction or advice. Sometimes, because they thought we would need some help (I think we looked a bit lost now and then). Sometimes, locals were curious about who we are and where do we come from. And this time is my favorite of all – the school class from Mino City!
We got interviewed by Aruku Hasegaka and Hayata Suzuki – two boys from Mino city in Japan. They told us, the Nara trip was a part of their English class, so they have to find as many people as possible for their interview in English. They told us that Japan’s school system is changing and more and more children start learning English at a young age.
After the interview, they gave us a self-made “business card” and illustrated leaflet with information about their favorite things about Japan (e.g. favorite food, favorite season, favorite attraction, etc).
Todai-ji Temple is one of the most important Buddhist Temples in Japan and home of the Great Buddha ”Daibutsu”. Todai-ji was rebuilt twice due to fire. The original building was reconstructed in 1709 and is 30% smaller than the original temple founded in 728.
Daibutsu is a 16-meter-high bronze statue of Buddha that weighs over 500 tons. The Great Buddha of Todai-ji is the biggest bronze Buddha in the world! The Great Buddha is located in Daibutsuden (the Hall of the Great Buddha) which is also the world’s largest timber building. Todai-ji is the headquarters of the Kegon school of Buddhism and is also a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Isui-en Garden is probably the best garden in Nara and also in central Japan. Here you can find a beautiful pond and countless blooming flowers and ancient trees. Isui-en Garden is also home to Neiraku Art Museum and two teahouses. Unfortunately, you cannot visit the garden for free. While it costs Y650 to enter, it’s well worth it! The garden is open for its visitors from 9:30 to 16:30.
One of the most magical places and the most important Shinto shrine in Nara is Kasuga-Taisha Shrine. The shrine was founded by Fujiwara Nagate in 768 during the 8th century in Kasuga-Zukuri style. Kasuga-Taisha Shrine consists of four separate buildings which are dedicated to the Gods Takemikazuchi and Futsunushi.
Kasuga-Taisha Shrine is located in the mysterious forest up in the hill at the far end of Nara Park. The many paths leading to the shrine are lined with stone lanterns, smaller sub-shrines and mystic trees, and of course – numerous deer searching for treats. The bronze and stone lanterns lit each February and August during special Lantern Festivals. The surrounding forest, called Kasugayama Primeval, is home to rare birds, trees, and wildlife.
Nara National Museum
A short walk away from Kasuga-Taisha Shrine is the National Museum of Nara. The National Museum of Nara is the most prominent museum in the city that was built in the year of 1895. Nara museum displays Buddhist artwork from around Japan and artwork from the eighth century in Nara. Here you can rummage in the numerous permanent and periodic exhibits with a large collection of sculptures, paintings, and calligraphy.
Yakushi-ji Temple is the brightest and most colorful temple of Nara built in 680 AD during the reign of Emperor Temmu. The temple is home to the Healing Buddha “Yakushi-ji”. The original East Pagoda was built in 972. Behind the pagoda is the East Hall which was built in 1285. In the East Hall, you can find the two-meter-high bronze figure of Sho-Kannon which was a gift from the King of Korea. In the main hall called Kondo is located the three-meter-tall Akushi Trinity dating from 697 AD.
Hōryū-ji Temple or the Temple of the Flourishing Law was constructed in 607 AD which makes it the oldest wooden building not only in Japan but also in the world! The building was destroyed by fire several times and it is estimated that the building which you can see nowadays has about 20% of the original wooden materials. Hōryū-ji Temple is also one of the Seven Great Temples of Nara.
Naramachi is the traditional district of Nara where you can explore through hundreds of shops, cafes, workshops, restaurants. Naramachi is located south of Sanjo-dori Street and JR Nara Station, and south of Kintetsu Nara Station. Naramachi is the former merchant district of Nara, where you can still see and visit some of the traditional residential buildings and warehouses from the Edo period.
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Enjoy the day!
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