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Asia,  Itinerary,  Japan

The Ultimate Travel Itinerary – Nara in 1 Day

In a nation bursting with cultural diversity, rich heritage and a generous helping of whole-hearted religions, Japan has plenty of spots to feed your cultural appetite! Hidden amongst the shadows of Kyoto and Osaka stands a relatively small city that quenches this thirst better than most! As the birthplace of thousand-year-old Japanese cultural and religious practices, the city also functioned as the nation’s ancient capital! Yet for most, none of this matters! The city of Nara earns a place on everyone’s itinerary for one simple reason, bowing deer!

Whatever your itinerary may look like, a detour through Nara is beyond necessary! Luckily for those on a time limit, you can see all the city’s biggest highlights in just one day! So let me show you how to do it!

Where is Nara?

The city of Nara lies in the northern end of Nara Prefecture right at the centre of Japan. It directly borders Kyoto Prefecture to the north and Osaka to the West.

How To Get To Nara

Nara can be easily accessed from two very popular nearby cities, Osaka and Kyoto.

From Osaka take the Kintetsu-Nara Line from Osaka-Namba Station for ¥570 for 40-minutes. You can also take the Yamatoji Line from JR Osaka Station for about 30 to 45 minutes. You can use your JR Pass on this line.

From Kyoto, take the JR Nara Line from Kyoto Station which takes 45-60 minutes (depends on whether it’s a rapid or local train) and costs ¥690. You can use your JR Pass along this route! Otherwise, you can take the Kintetsu-Nara Line which takes about 35 minutes from Kintetsu Kyoto Station.

A list of the 20 biggest highlights worth seeing during your time in Kyoto!

Click here!

The Route Around Nara

Though it’s worth spending one day of your Japanese itinerary in the city, many choose to explore Nara as part of a day trip from nearby Kyoto or Osaka. Either way, this teenie ex-capital has plenty of things to see!

The good news is that many of these attractions are within walking distance of each other, and most are within the grounds of a single park! So even if you’re on a tight schedule, you can still tackle many sites in a short amount of time!

Kofuku-ji Temple

nara itinerary temple
Kofuku-ji’s iconic pagoda. Photo by 663highland, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Much like the rest of Japan, Nara is highly regarded for its many spectacular temples! In that case, there’s no better place to start than a temple that’s seen as one of the Seven Great Temples of Nara!

Established in 669, Kofuku-ji Temple was moved to Nara as the city became the new capital. The temple belonged to the Fujiwara, the most powerful aristocratic clan at the time (their name will pop up more than once on this list!)

Though the temple had upwards of 200 separate buildings during its heyday, the few remaining structures are some of the best! One of the most iconic is the 50 meters tall, five-storied pagoda, which happens to be Japan’s second tallest wooden pagoda, just short of the one at Kyoto‘s To-ji Temple.

Other structures of note include an octagonal hall (the Nan-endo) which is home to a statue of Fukukenjaku-Kannon and a 9th-century bronze lantern with inscriptions from Kobo-daishi, the founder of the Shingon school of Buddhism! Its also worth visiting the National Treasure Museum to see some outstanding examples of Buddhist art, including the three-faced, six-armed Ashura Statue, one of the holiest figures in Japan.

Getting to the next stop:

Though you could take a 4-minute bus ride, you can easily get there by walking deeper into the park for a few minutes.

Nara National Museum

The main exhibition hall of Nara’s National Museum. Photo by 663highland, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Further into Nara Park, you’ll come across the city’s most extensive collection of historical and cultural artefacts at Nara National Museum. Within are some major examples of Buddhist artistry, some of which date as far back as the 8th century.

The museum has several rotating displays along with a large permanent collection of archaeological finds, sculptures, paintings, calligraphy, scrolls and ceremonial objects. If one museum deserves a place on your Nara itinerary, this is it!

Getting to the next stop:

Walk north for a few minutes and you’re there!

Isuien Garden

Total peace. Photo by Kimon Berlin, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Japanese certainly know a thing or two about crafting beautiful gardens, and the tranquil expanses of Isuien Garden is no exception! Translated as the “borrowed landscape”, the gardens incorporate the beauty of the nearby South Gate of Todai-ji and Mount Wakakusa as its backdrop.

There are a few little treats within the garden itself, the biggest of which is the Neiraku Art Museum, which has humble displays of artefacts from ancient China and Korea. Another beautiful little feature, which is typical for Japanese gardens, is a small scattering of teahouses! These provide the perfect setting to kick back and enjoy the stunning view with some freshly brewed tea!

Getting to the next stop:

It’s a stone’s throw away, just keep heading north!

Todai-ji Temple

nara itinerary temple
The enormous main hall of Todai-ji

Todai-ji, or the Great Eastern Temple, is one of Japan’s most historically significant Buddhist temples and is also included on the prestigious list of Nara’s greatest! Built in 752, the temple soon became so influential that the capital had to be moved to Nagaoka in 784 to avoid its influence on government decisions!

Though it may not be as influential today, the temple still holds some of the country’s major national treasures. One of which stands within Todai-ji’s monstrously large main hall, the Daibutsuden, in the form of Japan’s largest bronze statue of Buddha! Keep an eye out for a nearby pillar with a hole at its base that’s supposedly the same size as the Daibutsu’s nostril. Apparently, if you can squeeze through its opening, you’ll be granted enlightenment in your next life. So dive right in!

Near the entrance of Todai-ji stands yet another national treasure, the Nandaimon Gate, which is watched over by two fierce statues representing the Nio Guardian Kings. Of the many temples on this list, this one deserves a big tick!

Getting to the next stop:

Good news, you’re already there!

Nara Park and The Bowing Deer

nara itinerary deer
Oh hey there!

No matter what point you are along your itinerary, some time should be spent enjoying the park you’re spending so much time in! Located at the eastern edge of the city, Nara Park is the true cultural and historical centre of the ancient capital, and still holds most of the city’s biggest highlights! Not only is it the largest park in Japan AND one of the oldest, but it’s also home to Nara’s most iconic resident, deer!

But these aren’t just any deer, these little cuties are known for their iconic party trick, these deer are able to bow on command!! These curious little creatures have learned the adorably polite gesture as a way of getting fed!

First, get yourself some “deer crackers” or “shika senbei” which are sold around the park (¥200 for 10), the profit of which goes towards protecting the deer and the park itself! Then, present a cracker to an awaiting deer, bow in front of them and they should eagerly bow back! It’s worth coming to Nara JUST for this!

Getting to the next stop:

Keep heading further into the park and you’ll be there in a few minutes.

The ultimate guide on visiting the world-famous Japanese icon, the bowing deer.

Click here!

The Manyo Botanical Garden

The vast grounds of the Botanical Gardens. Photo by Mx. Granger, via Wikimedia Commons

Still within the boundaries of the park, we have yet another garden worth a gander! Located right next to the Kasuga Shrine, the wonderful Manyo Botanical Garden is a famous Japanese landmark that includes 150 different species of plants. Some of the most notable (for the flora connoisseurs amongst you) are the Japanese andromeda, iris and wisteria! Another quirky addition are the stone monuments with references to poems related to each plant.

The garden also has its own little museum, Rekishi Kyoshitsu, with exhibitions relating to the cultural history of Japan from 3000 BC to 794. The small-scale exhibitions include picture panels of old tombs, temples, and pagodas.

Getting to the next stop:

The Botanical Gardens are part of a bigger complex which includes our next stop. So just walk there!

Kasuga Taisha Shrine

nara itinerary temple
The swinging lanterns of Kasuga Taisha. Photo by Marcin Chady, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The next stop of your itinerary brings you to the most celebrated shrine in Nara! Established the same year as Nara was made the capital, Kasuga Taisha was built to spiritually protect the city. The site was also used to enshrine the Fujiwara, the same family which owned Kofuku-ji.

This 8th century UNESCO World Heritage Site is recognised by its characteristic red beams and many hundreds of stone lanterns that hang throughout the property. Each lantern is actually a donation from a faithful worshipper, so maybe you could have one too! Sadly, they’re only lit twice a year during biyearly Lantern Festivals.

Until 1863, the buildings were pulled down every 20 years and re-erected in their original form. Nowadays though the exhaustive process has come to an end! Most of the temples other features remained untouched! These include the smaller shrines that surround Kasuga Taisha, twelve of which are dedicated to the lucky gods. One of the most popular is Meoto Daikokusha, which apparently brings luck in relationships. Hopeless singles, head this way!

Getting to the next stop:

Unfortunately, this is the longest step of your Nara itinerary. But not to worry, it couldn’t be easier! First, take a train from JR Nara Station along the Yamatoji Line towards Hōryūji Station for a 10-minute ride. From there just walk north for about 15 minutes until you reach the temple.

Horyu-ji Temple

nara itinerary temple
The traditional structures of Koryu-ji. Photo by 663highland, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Another one of the Seven Great Temples of Nara, Horyu-ji is the oldest completely preserved temple in all of Japan! Founded in 607 by Prince Shotoku, both he and the temple itself are credited with the early promotion of Buddhism in Japan.

The UNESCO World Heritage Site contains many masterly works of art covering a whole range of Japanese history. Amongst the 45 buildings on-site, 17 are considered Major National Treasures and include some of Japan’s oldest surviving wooden structures. These include the Western Precinct’s (Sai-in Garan) 8th-century central gate (Chumon), which is guarded by two muscular figures representing light and dark.

The Eastern Precinct (To-in Garan) also holds some worthwhile treats, such as a life-sized statue of Prince Shotoku surrounded by statues of Buddha and various monks.

Getting to the next stop:

For the next step, you have 2 options. If you prefer taking the bus, head to Chumiyaderahigashiguchi Bus Stop and take bus number 97 to Yakushi-ji Chushajo.

If you prefer taking a train, first take a bus from Horyuji Bus Center to Tsutsuieki on bus number 63. Then take a train along the Kintetsu-Kashihara Line towards Nishinokyō Station. Both take the same amount of time.

Now you’ve seen Nara, here’s a complete itinerary for visiting the trendsetting capital of Tokyo over 4 days!

Click here!

Yakushi-ji Temple

nara itinerary temple
The immense main hall of Yakushi-ji. Photo by 663highland, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

We arrive at yet another one of Japan’s oldest temples that has an equally fascinating history! Constructed in the 7th century by Emperor Tenmu to aid the recovery of his sick wife, Yakushi-ji has since become the head temple of the Hosso Sect of Japanese Buddhism.

Sadly, only a few of the original structures remain. However, one incredible relic that has survived is the three-meter-tall Akushi Trinity figure which dates back to 697, back when the Indian origins of Japanese Buddhism were still very much apparent.

Other notable landmarks include the 12th century East Pagoda and the footprints of Buddha imprinted in stone tablets. There is also a nearby complex dedicated to the 7th-century Chinese monk Genjo-sanzo and an exhibition of Hirayama Ikuo’s work, one of Japan’s most celebrated artists!

Getting to the next stop:

Luckily your next temple is within walking distance, just a few minutes north.

Tōshōdai-ji Temple

The humble halls of Toshodai-ji. Photo by 663highland, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Founded in AD 759 by Ganjin, a Chinese priest who was brought to Japan to help develop Japanese Buddhism and train prospective priests. Soon after, Toshodai-ji became the principal temple for the religion’s development and acted as the head temple of the Ritsu sect.

Today, only two of the original buildings remain. The Classic Golden Hall (Kondo), is famous for the seated figure of Rushana-butsu and its magnificent halo decorated with 864 seperate Buddhas. Equally fascinating is the Lecture Hall (Kodo), which was originally the administrative building of the Imperial Palace.

The temple also has a famous wooden statue of Ganjin which is displayed to the public only once a year for a few days on the anniversary of Ganjin’s death. Luckily these days there is a permanent replica on display. There’s even a path that leads to Ganjin’s grave nearby! What a way to end your Nara itinerary!

Thank You for Reading! Check Out These Other Helpful Links!

Thank you so much for reading The Ultimate Travel Itinerary – Nara in 1 Day! Check out these other helpful articles!

TravellingWelshman

A Welsh university drop-out on a mission to travel the world for as little money as possible. My adventures have taken me through over 30 countries across Europe, Asia and Oceania, and the list keeps on growing! From classic backpacking to working and volunteering, I have found all sorts of ways to maintain a life on the road.

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