Nara, Japan: An Exploration Guide

Nara, a shining jewel of Japan, is a city rich in culture and history. Once the capital of the nation, grand temples and breathtaking architecture now adorn the city. One could find entertainment simply by wandering the streets, but there are many historic landmarks and modern sites that you will not want to miss during your visit. 

In this article, we list out the top attractions in Nara, Japan that will make your visit unforgettable. 

Todaiji Temple

Todaiji Temple is known for its impressive size and even more impressive origins. You will want to spend time meandering through these halls, stopping to marvel at the historic treasures along your path.

On a nice day, make your way outside to enjoy the peaceful scenery and the friendly deer that gather there. 

Todaiji Temple Official Website

Nara Park 

You cannot spend time in Nara without visiting this gem in the center of the city. Many of your other stops will be in and around this park, including the Todaiji Temple.

Nara Park is a wide-open space filled with over a thousand native deer that have grown accustomed to being fed deer crackers, which can be purchased in the park, from the park’s many visitors. 

Nara Area Park Official Site

Kofukuji Temple

More a compound of temples and buildings, the Kofukuji complex is a sight to behold. Of the buildings still standing, the most notable is the five-storied pagoda and the three-storied pagoda.

Entrance into the grounds is free, but you will pay to explore The Central Golden Hall, the Eastern Golden Hall, and Kofukuji’s National Treasure Museum

Kofukuji Temple Official Site

Isuien Garden

Any Japanese garden is a must-see, and Isuein Garden is no exception to that rule. Near Todaiji Temple, this garden is decorated with lush greenery and serene ponds.

If you have the time, stop into one of the tea houses within the gardens, or visit the quaint ancient artifact museum on the outskirts.

Isuien Garden Official Site

Nara National Museum

Displaying an awe-inspiring collection of Buddhist artwork, including paintings, statues, and spiritual artifacts, Nara National Museum is a great place to spend a fun-filled and amazing afternoon.

The museum consists of two wings, and tickets provide access to both. 

Nara National Museum Official Site

Yakushiji Temple

As ancient as it is enormous, Yakushiji is a masterpiece of Japanese architecture. Serving as the current headquarters for the Hosso School of Buddhism, this temple is one of the most prestigious in all of Japan.

Throughout time it has fallen victim to many fires, and the East Pagoda is the only original structure standing. So, do not forget to take a moment to stand in awe as you stroll by. 

Yakushiji Temple Official Site

Naramachi

Famished and want to delight in the local cuisine of Nara, while popping in and out of charming Japanese boutiques? Then head on over to Naramachi, Nara’s former merchant district.

If you can, carve out a good chunk of time for Naramachi. You will not regret it. 

Naramachi Area Visitors Guide Official Website

Kasuga Grand Shrine 

Nara’s most beloved shrine is a striking landmark dripping in lanterns. For free, visit the outer area, which includes the shrine’s offering hall. For a small charge, explore the inner area of the shrine.

Even better, if you are up for it, take a short walk from the complex to the majestic Kasuga Taisha Shinen Manyo Botanical Garden.

Kasuga Grand Shrine Official Website

Horyuji Temple 

Not only is Horyuji one of Japan’s oldest temples, but it also contains the oldest wooden structures in the world. These include the central gate, the main hall, and a five-story pagoda.

You can find these spectacular structures in the Western Precinct, but do not neglect the Eastern Precinct during your visit as you are sure to enjoy what it has to offer as well.

Horyuji Temple Official Website

Omizutori 

If you plan your visit to Nara during the first two weeks of March, you are in for a treat. Omizutori, an annual festival consisting of long-standing Buddhist rituals, takes place from March first to March fourteenth.

This festival is famous for Otaimatsu, which is an event that occurs just after sunset where flaming torches are waved over the crowd that gathers beneath Nigatsudo’s balcony near Todaiji Temple.

Omizutori Festival (Wikipedia Article)

Omizutori Festival via Youtube

Mount Wakakusa 

Mount Wakakusa might not tower over Nara, but it does provide a magnificent view of the city to those that hike its hill.

A trek to the top should not quite take an hour, but if you do not have the time nor the energy for the full trip up, there is a plateau at approximately the halfway point where you will still get the full effect. 

Mount Wakakusa Travel Guide Official Website

Wakakusa Yamayaki

Have you ever seen a mountain ablaze at night? Well, that is what you will see during the annual festival of Wakakusa Yamayaki, which occurs on the fourth Saturday of January.

During this festival, the grass of Mount Wakakusa is set on fire for all to see. The burning display is then followed by fireworks. 

Yamayaki Festival via Youtube

Yoshikien Garden

Not one but three distinct gardens make up Yoshikien Garden. Each garden has been cultivated in a way to represent Japanese gardens in a different light. In this eclectic spot, you will find a pond garden, a moss garden, and a tea ceremony garden.

Yoshikien Garden is located in the center of the area and can be a natural stop on your way to other attractions

Yoshikien Garden Official Website

Heijo Palace 

Long ago, when Nara served as Japan’s capital, Heijo Palace was the official residence of the emperor. There are several structures to tour on the grounds of Heijo Palace.

In addition, just outside the gates is Suzaku Hiroba, a square that gives home to a museum, sightseeing and information centers, eateries, izakaya, and more. 

Heijo Palace Official Website

Nara, Japan offers an experience unlike any other. Equipped with this article and a google map of the city, you will have an amazing visit Exploring all that is Nara.

Nara Cities Official Site (Visit Nara)

MT Lee
My fascination with Japan began several years back at a roadside bonsai stand while on vacation. I became more interested in the where and why's more than the trees themselves. My love of Bonsai led me to further research my interest in the gardens where they originated from and the places and people that surrounded those little trees. My curiosity was well rewarded upon visiting Saitama where the National Bonsai Museum was located and Omiya Village the bonsai mecca for lovers of this ancient art form. Exploring many towns and villages and even making my way to Japan's furthest southern prefecture of Okinawa. I hope to share my love of this wonderful and exotic place with all those who want to know more about Japan.