Nara Travel Guide: Things to Do, Places to See, Getting to and Around, Tips & Souvenirs

This travel guide to Nara, Japan will open out to many insightful tips no one told you before. Dig in and explore!

Nguyen Oanh

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35 kilometers south of Kyoto, Nara is a haven for nature enthusiasts and culture lovers. The serenity and slow pace of life allows you to decompress and recharge after a year of working at the office. Visiting Nara is easy. You can totally make it a day trip with less than an hour on the train.

Nara was once the imperial capital of Japan until the end of the 8th century. And that’s why Nara today is home to some of the oldest temples in the country.

Other than the extensive collection of traditional temples, Nara is enriched by the serenity and peaceful charisma dominated by nature. If you’re wondering if Nara is the right choice for you, ask yourself if you’re keen on something truly Japan with a complete absence of chaotic nightlife and bustling streets. If that’s a yes, then this Nara travel guide is for you!

How to Get to Nara from Osaka and Kyoto?

How to get from Osaka to Nara?

If you’re wandering around Dotonbori or staying near this area, hailing the Kintetsu Nara Line is the best way to get you to Nara. You only need 40 minutes to reach Nara from Osaka on the Kintetsu Nara Line. Board the train directly from Namba Station and get off at Kintetsu Nara Station.

How to get from Kyoto to Nara?

You’ll be riding either the JR line or the Kintetsu Kyoto line starting at the Kyoto Station and getting off at Kintetsu Nara Station. Between the two, the Kintetsu Kyoto Line is the way faster, which only takes 35 minutes to get you to Nara from Kyoto.

Given the short train ride, making a day trip between Nara and Kyoto or Osaka is doable. But we only recommend doing this if you’re really short on time because Nara has so much to offer and you definitely want to spend at least two days to fully discover the area.

In case you can only afford a day, opt for a guided day tour to make the most of it. Having a local guide and pre-arranged transport will eliminate all the hassle that may happen along the way. Plus, you can save tons of time from self-navigating. All you need to do is sit back and enjoy the best Nara has to offer.

And those who’d rather meander around by yourself, don’t forget to obtain a Kansai Thru Pass to benefit from unlimited bus rides, train journeys, and subways all over the entire Kansai region (including Nara, of course!). 

If you only want to visit Nara via subway, then IC cards like Suica and ICOCA would be handy.

Tips for Getting Around Nara

On Foot

Exploring Nara can be done just by walking. Even though you’re gonna end up with lots of walking, the attractions and food spots are not sparsely scattered so you can totally enjoy a leisure stroll.

Out of the two subway stations serving Nara: Kintetsu Nara Station and JR Nara Station, Kintetsu is closer to Nara Park with only 10 minutes walking, while JR Nara Station is 20 minutes away.

By Bus

Walking may not be the top priority if you have kids and juniors traveling along. In this case, riding buses is the next economical option to consider!

Local Nara Kotsu buses stop at the major sightseeing spots and you can obtain the Nara Bus Pass for unlimited use. You can choose between a one-day valid pass and a two-day valid pass. The fare is also higher for the two-day pass which covers additionally covers the Horyuji area and Asuka area other than the Toshodaiji and Yakushiji area

By Rickshaw

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If you’re looking for a little more fun or something more on the traditional side, a rickshaw ride will come in handy. You can start from Nara Park which serves as the central point. 

If you walk around Todai-ji towards the Kintetsu Nara station, rickshaw drivers will be waiting along the T-junction. Just come up to them and let them know where you’re going. The rates are offered on a duration basis and the two-pax rate is cheaper.

Historical and Instagrammable Spots in Nara

Todai-ji Temple: The Great Buddha Statue

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Playing host to one of the largest bronze Buddha statues in the world, Todai-ji Temple is the most popular holy shrine in Nara. The up-close look of the statue is impressive with lots of deer walking on the grounds. 

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Just thinking about how all those massive wood pillars come together to support it as the largest wooden structure in Japan is mind-blowing.

The Deer at Nara Park

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This is a must-see, especially if you come with kids or looking for some ideal photo-ops. You can literally pet and feed them on the grassy knolls using some crackers offered by the local vendors for sale.

Just be careful with the horns and watch out for some of those naughty boys biting your bottom from the back. It’s a goofy but fun experience overall!

Heijo Palace

It was surprising to see how empty the palace was, unlike many other attractions and temples that were packed with people. 

The surrounding ground is huge with lots of empty space that make a great cycling route. It’s sad to think that most of the original buildings couldn’t stand the test of time!

The Old Neighborhood of Nara-machi

Being a former merchant district of Nara during the Edo period, Nara-machi today is dotted with trendy milk tea shops, cute cafes, and trinket stores that exist next door to residential buildings.

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Mount Wakakusa

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If you have more time to spare, walk further afield to see Mount Wakakusa just 15 minutes away from Todai-ji Temple!

Mount Wakakusa is like a nearby getaway from the chattering noise of tourists in the central area. It’s basically an open field with grazing deer napping and walking around.

Kasuga-taisha Shrine

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The shrine is filled with a fresh green space within a walking distance from Mount Wakakusa. 

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Treat it as a mashup of forest bathing and a spiritual visit. The scent of moss and trees is injected into the air, giving the trip a mysterious zest.

Kofuku-ji Temple

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Kofuku-ji was once a family temple of the Fujiwara family. This was the most powerful aristocratic clan during the Nara and Heian Periods. 

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Today, the temple and its open field make a great place to walk around and feed deer. It’s funny to see deer hanging around all over the place and you can buy some crackers to feed them. 

The best time to visit Kofuku-ji Temple is during sunset if you want to capture the reflection of sunlight on the majestic wooden building.

Sarawak Pond

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Sarawak is a man-made pond with a reflection of the five-storied pagoda setting foot right on the bank. It’s a lovely stroll to meander around the pond and soak up in its serene beauty. 

No visit to Kofuku-ji Temple is complete without a short getaway to the pond. If you come over during autumn, it’s gonna be the most romantic walk ever!

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Bonus Experience: Sake Tasting at Harushika

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If you’re looking for something fresh, new, and fun to enjoy Nara with a different angle, stop by Harushika for a sake tasting experience! It only costs you 500 yen to sample a variety of seasonal sake and bring home the tasting glass as a souvenir.

Where to Eat in Nara: Our 4 Favorite Food Spots

Nakatanidou Mochi

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We couldn’t believe that finally we could make it here to Nakatanidou and saw them pounding on that big, chubby mochi. It’s so cool to see how fast their hands are doing the pounding! 

The whole process inside the store is displayed for the public’s eyes, while you’d be waiting outside for your turn to get a mochi order.

Mentouan Udon

Next door to Nakatanidou is Mentouan, the best place possible to get some slurp on good udon for a chilly day. You’ll always see a constant line of diners getting in and out, waiting for a steaming hot bowl of their famous tofu broth.

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Kamameshi Shizuka Clay Pot Rice

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It was great to find unique Japanese food other than noodles and sushi. Clay pot rice is not something you see everywhere and that’s why you need to check out this traditional store as long as you can. 

It’s gonna be crowded with tourists for sure, so expect to wait an hour in line to be seated. The topping is optional and includes a choice of vegetables and meat such as chicken, fresh oysters, eel, and crab.

Kasuga Ninai Jyaya Garden Café

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It was lovely to find this forest-themed café and enjoy the soft sun rays bouncing on the leaves. Make sure to get the Japanese raindrop cake! It’s their signature order.

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Sitting under the shades on the stone chairs and tables was a pure joy to cleanse our minds after all that walking!

Final Words: Best Souvenirs to Buy in Nara and A Sample One-Day Itinerary in Nara

What to Buy in Nara?

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  • Mahoroba Daibutsu Pudding: Mahoroba Daibutsu Pudding is a local dessert with a silky and smooth texture made of Nara special custard, Yamato Tea, and regionally sourced Nara sake.
  • Everything Deer-Related:It would be a waste to go home without a keepsake with that iconic deer image on it. From deer cookies to fortunes (craft pieces) to tea towels, key holders, and bookmarks, you can find them widely sold around souvenir shops, temples, and department stores around the subway stations.
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A Sample Itinerary in Nara to Keep You Occupied for a Day

  1. Kamameshi Shizuka Clay Pot Rice
  2. Visit Nara Park and feed deer
  3. Getaway to Mount Wakakusa
  4. Kasuga-taisha Temple
  5. Enjoy a shopping spree on Sanjo-dori street
  6. Kofukuji Temple and stroll around the Sarusawa Pond

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