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Day trip to Nara

Last updated: 19 April, 2024

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.

Who to go with: tour operators

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Kasuga Taisha Shinto Shrine

  • Nara, Kansai, Japan

Red temple in forest

Experience

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.

Good for age: 18+

Isuien Garden

  • Nara, Kansai, Japan

Hill trail

Experience

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

Good for age: 13+

  • Nara, Kansai, Japan

Fire display

Bucket List Experience

Omizutori Festival

The Shuni-e is a Buddhist ceremony held each year at certain Buddhist temples across Japan – involving horn blowing, bell ringing, and burning torches – designed to cleanse the people of sin, cleanse their karma and welcome the spring of the new year. Once the ceremonies have finished, the cherry blossoms have usually started blooming and spring has arrived.

During the Shuni-e, monks will engage in various ascetic practices, including fasting, sleep deprivation, and rigorous physical training, and many of their ceremonies are closed to the public.

The Todai-ji temple in Nara is where the most famous and oldest of all the Shuni-e ceremonies, the 1250-year-old Omizutori, takes place – and it is open to viewing by the people. Omizutori literally means ‘drawing the sacred water’, and it sees monks draw water from a sacred well believed to possess healing properties.

Spectators then gather to witness the Otaimatsu (meaning the ‘fire ceremony’) – a part of the Omizutori ritual. It’s the dramatic climax, where massive torches ranging in length from 6-8m, are carried up to the balcony of the temple and then swung out over the crowd, showering sparks on the people below. It’s thought by locals that these sacred sparks will protect them from evil. The monks also chant, perform ritual circumambulation, and wave swords to ward off evil spirits.

It’s quite the show…

Good for age: 13+

Duration: 10-45 minutes

When: 10-14th March

Freq: annually

Todaiji Temple

  • Nara, Kansai, Japan

Statue of a gold Buddha in temple

Experience

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.

Good for age: 18+

Logistics

Price: Free
Minimum age: 0
Age suitable: 4+
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.