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Nara is one of the oldest cities in Japan that is named after its prefecture. The “Southern Capital” is more than a thousand-year-old history and has been home to different temples and shrines, wondrous gardens, and the famous Deer Park - a park where deer roam freely among the people.
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Many foreign tourists in Japan, especially those visiting for the first time, exclude Nara in their travel bucket list as they would rather opt for more well-known cities in the region. However, this ancient capital of Japan is a hidden gem waiting to be discovered by more people - and for Japanese tourists, it’s often visited as a set with Kyoto. Before Kyoto and Tokyo, Nara was the first permanent capital of ancient Japan. Let’s take a quick trip down memory lane of Nara’s vibrant history.
Empress Genmei ended the tradition of moving capitals around frequently when she established the permanent imperial court in Heijo-Kyo (also known as Nara) in 710 CE. The capital stayed in Nara for more than 80 years when those who came after Empress Gemmei decided not to transfer the capital from there. This status only changed when Emperor Shomu ultimately decided to transfer the capital from Nara to Kyoto.
※ The Ancient History Encyclopedia, "Ancient Nara"
After the capital was moved to Kyoto, the once vibrant city of Nara was abandoned and had lost its spark for years because the spotlight had been directed to the new capital. The Heijo palace of the time isn’t intact except for a few structures, but Nara was able to preserve numerous other historical infrastructures and iconic places like temples, shrines, and more. Because of these well-preserved scenic historical sites, Nara gradually received more recognition over the years and more tourists are starting to get curious about what this ancient capital has to offer.
Nara is quite accessible. It is only 35 kilometers away from the city of Kyoto and less than 30 kilometers from Osaka, and you can get to Nara via train rides in less than an hour from both places. If traveling from other locations in Japan, you can take a bullet train to Kyoto or Shin-Osaka and then travel via train to Nara. If you are arriving from Kansai International Airport, there are train rides and buses that will take you to Nara as well.
You can read more specifics here: Exploring Kyoto, Osaka and Nara: The recommended way to travel between the Kansai Trio
As you can see, Nara is not too far away from your usual go-to places in Japan. So, why don’t you try spending even a day to visit this hidden gem and give it a chance to fascinate you with all the wonderful experiences it has in store? Keep reading as we give you a teaser of what Nara has to offer.
Here are some of the must-visit places in Nara that will give you a glimpse of Japan’s history and the beautiful scenery.
A day trip to Nara will not be complete without stopping by in the ever-popular Nara Deer Park. You can find other essential spots here to visit like the Todai-ji Temple. However, the most exciting feature of Nara Deer Park is the chance to interact with deer. The park is home to a large population of semi-wild deers who roam around not only the park but a lot of the city freely. You can take pictures with the deers and even feed them. Any search online of Nara is in fact filled with photos of the adorable deer. You can buy special deer crackers from stalls in the park but be ready to be surrounded by aggressive deer trying to be the first to be fed - they might bite other belongings you have as well as your clothes in the process. This adorable and memorable deer encounter is an experience that you might never experience just anywhere else. So, you have to seize this opportunity and visit Nara Deer Park.
Isui-en is a relaxing and colorful quiet garden located near Todai-ji Temple and Kofukuji Temple. The abundance of nature and the pleasant and scenic layout is what draws people to this garden. . A remarkable feature of Isui-en Garden is its use of “borrowed scenery” by having Todaiji’s famous Nandaimon Gate and Mount Wakakusayama and other surrounding mountains as part of the background. The entrance fee to the garden is a little bit high but once you are there, the beauty of the garden will more than make up for the price.
Another pleasant garden located in central Nara is this Yoshiki-en Garden. It is found just across the Isui-en Garden with only a small river named Yoshikigawa River separating the two. You can enjoy three distinct Japanese gardens: a koke (moss) garden, an ike (pond) garden, and a chabana (tea ceremony) garden where you can find a thatch-roof teahouse. Exploring each garden and appreciating its unique features is such a fulfilling way to unwind and take the stress away from your system for a while. And take note, this garden is free to foreign tourists!
The Nara National Museum is an excellent museum located in Nara Park that features wonderful Japanese Buddhist art. The museum is divided into two buildings. If you are interested in Buddhism, you have to check the old building which contains a permanent collection of Buddhist arts and images including an array of paintings, artifacts and decorative and ceremonial works. The new building, on the other hand, is also intended for seasonal exhibits, especially during autumn. You can check the website to see what special exhibits and national treasures are currently on display. There is so much to discover at Nara National Museum so feed your artistic souls and take a tour here.
Literally meaning “Nara Town”, Naramachi is an old merchant district in Nara where you can find streets full of traditional shops, restaurants, and narrow houses that were built back in the Edo Period. Some old shops in Naramachi are preserved and functioning as public museums nowadays where tourists can have a tour inside. Walking around this once bustling merchant district and peeking inside some of the preserved houses and shops is such a fascinating way to experience and imagine what it feels like living in ancient Japan.
In case you are looking for more historical and cultural sites to visit aside from the top tourist spots mentioned above, check out some of the historic and beautiful temples and shrines you can find in Nara that contain significance to ancient Japanese culture and religion.
You have to visit arguably the most important Shinto shrine in Nara which is Kasuga Taisha. Aside from its religious significance, you will enjoy the Ghibli-esque vibes of the place brought by the elegant shrine itself and also the forest and ornaments surrounding it. One of the most famous features here is the huge collection of stone lanterns decorating the pathways towards the shrine, as well as the bronze lanterns hung on the sides of the shrine itself.
Another important temple in Nara is the Yakushiji Temple. You can find here a collection of some of the most beautiful Buddhist statues in the world which are great especially if you are interested in Buddhism. The amazing and symmetrical design of the temple complex is also a spectacular sight that is super picture-worthy.
A temple complex that is not difficult to find is Kofukuji Temple. It houses numerous buildings including the second-tallest wooden pagoda in Japan. This five-story pagoda in Kofukuji is quite symbolic and can be found on a lot of souvenirs from Nara. Therefore, your Nara visit should include a tour around the city’s symbol. Most of the areas outside the temple have free access so you can enjoy appreciating the temple’s exterior without a fee.
And last but not least is the most famous Todaiji Temple. Apart from meeting the deer, most people don’t leave Nara without a visit to see the Nara Daibutsu (Great Buddha). The building where the Buddha is located is one of largest wooden buildings in the world - which is amazing because it was built so long ago and it’s not even as big as the original size currently. The Buddha itself is about 15 meters tall and is incredibly impressive to see in person.
The sites mentioned here in the article are just some of the hidden gems you can find and experience in Nara. There is actually more to discover. Being the first permanent capital of Japan for decades, the city has preserved a huge collection of historical and cultural treasures including some of the oldest and largest temples and shrines in Japan. Visiting all these spectacular remains of history combined with the proud development of the city is a memorable way to travel back in time and reimagine what it is like living in ancient Japanese times. So, come here to Nara, and let’s celebrate history, culture, and the beauty of nature with the famous deer!
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