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Travel bucket list idea:

Last updated: 30 July, 2023
Expert travel writer: Rob Goss

Japan’s first permanent capital, from 710 to 794, the city of Nara is calmer, greener and more historic than Kyoto, and it’s home to some of Japan’s finest historical sites.

UNESCO recognises eight locations making up the ‘Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara’ World Heritage site, including 5 Buddhist temples, one palace, one Shinto shrine and primaeval forest. See the full list on Wikipedia.

Most people start at Todaiji, a temple built in 752 that houses a 15-metre-high bronze statue of Buddha, then walk through the leafy expanse of Nara Park to Kasuga Taisha. The stone lantern-lined approach to this shrine passes through ancient forest, before reaching a vivid red main building decorated with hundreds of bronze lanterns.

On the way, look out for the park’s thousand or so wild-roaming deer. You can get close and even feed them.

Kasuga Taisha Shinto Shrine

Nara, Kansai, Japan

Red temple in forest

This UNESCO World Heritage site dating back to 768, is the shrine of the once-powerful Fukjiwara clan and an outstanding example of kasuga-zukuri architecture. Nara’s most important shrine is also renowned for hundreds of bronze lanterns, donated by worshippers and lit twice a year during for lantern festivals.

Best for ages 18+

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Isuien Garden

Nara, Kansai, Japan

Hill trail

Meaning ‘garden founded on water’, Isuien is a gorgeous Japanese garden dating back to the 17th century. It’s filled with ponds, colourful acer trees and a smattering of traditional tea houses.

Adult price: £6

Best for ages 13+

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Omizutori Festival

Nara, Kansai, Japan

Bucket List Experience
Fire display

A dramatic Buddhist fire ceremony of giant swinging torches famously performed at the Todai-ji temple in Nara each year, to cleanse the people of sin and welcome in the spring.

Best for ages 18+

Duration: 10-45 minutes

When: 10-14th March

Frequency: annually

Todaiji Temple

Nara, Kansai, Japan

Statue of a gold Buddha in temple

One of Japan’s most famous and historically significant temples. It was built in 752 as the head of all provincial Buddhist temples, and instantly became a seat of power to rival the shogun. Today, it’s also renowned for the 15-metre-high bronze statue of Buddha (Daibutsu) in the main hall.

Best for ages 18+

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Price: Free
Minimum age: Any
Age suitable: 18+
When: All year around

Getting there & doing it

Nara is 40-minutes from Kyoto by train. Organised tours, led by expert guides, are a better bet. They’ll ensure you visit all of the top spots, provide historical insights as you go, and arrange all of the logistics.

If you prefer to go independently, the best option is to take the Kintetsu Kyoto Line from Koyoto station to Kintetsu Nara Station. That takes 40 minutes, and the station is just a five-minute walk from Nara Park. The main sites are fairly easy to walk between, but local Nara Kotsu buses also do a loop around the main attractions – buying a one-day pass makes these easy to hop on and off.

When to do it

Nara is especially lovely in its autumn foliage in October and November, but avoid the stifling summer – there’s a lot of walking and the temples don’t have much air-conditioning. The atmospheric Omizutori festival takes place in the first two weeks of March.

Destination guides including or relevant to this experience


Kansai, Japan

Geisha woman with white face paint

Ancient temples and shrines, sublime cuisine, manicured gardens, colourful geishas and living history in spades – Kyoto is traditional Japan at its best.