In a world of Buddhist culture, shrines, and ancient gardens only an hour from Osaka, intriguing Nara’s popularity sees many local and foreign visitors.
A little background
Heijo-kyo, the imperial capital of Japan between 710 to 784, was located where Nara city is located today. Several historical sites are registered with UNESCO’s World Heritage List as “Historical Monuments of Ancient Nara”, cementing Nara’s importance in Japan.
Enriched in ideas and technology from Europe, China, and Korea as a result of the Silk Road, Nara’s 1,300 years of architecture and art make the city a living museum.
What to see
Aged authentic townhouses, historic sites, Buddhist treasures, temples and shrines including Shinto temples, wooden Pagodas, and Mt. Kasuga’s Primeval Forest will keep you exploring Nara for a day (or more).
With origins dating back to at least the 8th century and in the central part of the city, Nara Park is home to around 1,200 deer roaming its vast grounds. The touristy thing to do at the park is buy Shika Senbei (deer crackers) from one of the tiny mobile stalls, to feed the deer with as they’re very tame.
Nara Park is only around a 15-20 minute walk up Sanjodori Street.
Why so many deer?
Legend has it that in the 8th century, a mighty God from Kashima Shrine rode into Nara on a white deer. Since then, deer have been seen as the protected and respected divine messengers of God.
Kasugayama Primeval Forest
Soaring beech trees and ancient evergreen oaks tower the grounds of the Kasugayama Primeval Forest on Mt Kasuga.
Forbidden from felling for over 1,000 years, the trees bring respite to this sacred mountain, home to the Kasuga Taisha Shrine.
Pagodas, Shrines, and Temples
Amble through Nara’s endless fascinating pagodas, shrines, and temples – only a few are mentioned in this post.
Founded in 669 and one of Nara’s eight historic sites, the expansive Buddhist Kōfuku-ji Temple site includes several intricate wooden halls…
…and Pagodas. includes the five-storied Pagoda. Standing 50.1 metres tall, this Pagoda is the second-highest in Japan.
More shrines around Nara
Nara boasts a plethora of shrines sprinkled throughout the city and its outskirts. You can easily forget the number of shrines that you visit in one day.
Only a five-minute walk from Nara City, a reservoir whose source is the Isagawa River (Bodaigawa River), Ara-Ike Pond offers a lovely picnic spot and a long stroll around its long perimeter towards Ukimido.
The pond’s history is unclear but may have started in 1589, dried up in the 18th century, and restored in the 19th century. Then, in the 20th century, the pond’s use was to maintain water for agricultural irrigation purposes.
Naramachi Koshi-no-Ie (ならまち格子の家)
Visit the narrow lane of Nara’s former merchant district, Naramachi (奈良町) and step back in time while experiencing one of the Naramachi Koshi-no-Ie houses open to the public.
Also known as the Lattice House, the Naramachi Koshi-no-Ie’s depiction of a traditional Japanese house is authentic.
With gorgeous dark polished timber floors protected by large rattan mats and huge round timber posts for internal support…
…the deep interior opens to quaint traditional rooms and a Japanese inner garden (Naka-niwa). These old urban townhouses (Machiya) served as workplaces and residences for local merchants.
The steep timber stairwell is built in the traditional box staircase (Hako-Kaidan) to preserve space and create a storage area.
The skylight (Akari-tori) rising high above the earthen kitchen (Doma), allowed sunlight to enter freely while also circulating air.
Naramachi Koshi-no-Ie is free entry and open to the public.
Wander further along the street to see more of these older houses with tiny doorways and mysterious windows. The slatted wooden lattice-work covering windows (Koshi) acted as a double-sided mirror at the front of these traditional pretty houses. This allowed occupants of the house to look out onto the street without being seen.
Where to eat
Many restaurants and cafes dot the streets of Nara City, including a couple of supermarkets for cheaper ready-made eats.
Cafe de Crie
Stop at the Cafe de Crie for good coffee and yummy cake at reasonable prices considering Nara is a tourist destination. Clean cafe and friendly service.
Okest Fresh Mart
One delicacy to taste in Nara is deer and although deer is sacred here, it’s sold in souvenir shops and the Okest Fresh Mart.
Be warned, the pickled deer (I nicknamed Bambi) in cream cheese is nothing like I’ve tasted before and is awful. I’m not recommending this at all but try some if you feel the need.
A well-stocked supermarket with reasonable prices, the Okest Fresh Mart is famous for its pickled vegetables but it is quite pricy.
Where is Nara?
Nestled in the southern-central region of Japan’s main island Honshū, Nara is within easy reach of the city of Osaka, which makes this a great day trip as there is quite a lot to see in Nara.
Getting there from Osaka
Make your way to the metro lines from the Osaka City Train Station in Umeda.
Take the purple metro line from Minami-morimachi to Higashi-Umeda (¥180).
On arriving at Higashi-Umeda, take the Kintetsu Limited Express train to Nara, for the 50-minute journey. Trains to Nara leave every half-hour.
The train travels through Osaka’s congested suburbs for around half an hour before larger homes, green space, and rolling hills form the landscape, replacing urban modernity.
The easy return journey from Nara to Osaka is the same but in reverse and also leaves every half-hour. Information for the Osaka Metro Route map.
Coming next: Historic Hiroshima
Note: All photos by Nilla’s Photography unless otherwise mentioned. No part of this post was composed with the help of ChatGPT or AI.