Hello and welcome back to my blog series through which I investigate the parts of Japan I would like to explore on my next trip there. Of course, a lot of that will depend on how the pandemic is handled over the coming months and potentially coming years. At this point in time, it is hard to predict how international travel to our favourite places is going to be impacted. Even interstate travel here in Australia is tricky especially now as they have just closed the border between NSW and Victoria. Crazy times! Hence why I decided to invest some time and energy into this series. Enough about that – let’s push on believing that travel to Japan will one day be possible again.
In my last blog about this series, I talked about my experience in Osaka in 2016 and how I would explore the city differently next time. Branching out from Osaka, I want to talk about Nara which is also part of the Kansai region. Nara’s city centre is only 32km from Osaka and 45km from Kyoto. By train, it is only around an hour from either city to Nara depending on the line that you catch – express or stopped. For example, the Yamatoji rapid train between JR Osaka and JR Nara stations operate every hour. The one-way trip only takes 45 minutes and is covered by the JR Rail Pass – although separate tickets can also be purchased. Given that it is such a short trip and the trains run frequently, Nara is a perfect day or overnight trip from Osaka. As for how long I would spend in Nara, let’s take a better look at what there is to do first.
But before that, here’s a bit of info about Nara. Centuries ago, the Japanese capital city would be located wherever the Emperor resided and ruled. In 710 however, Nara was declared as the first ‘permanent’ city of the capital – this only last until 794 when it moved to Kyoto. The city of Nara is located in the northern end of the Nara Prefecture and actually borders the Kyoto Prefecture. It is not a big city by Japanese standards and due to its cultural and historical attractions, it is now a very popular tourist spot. Much like Kyoto – but on a smaller scale, Nara has held tight to its historical and traditional roots. As we will discover, the bulk of the tourist areas are located to the east of the city and cluster around Nara Park. Although there is a significant cultural area in the city centre. The park and surrounding temple grounds nestle against forested foothills. What makes Nara a perfect tourist destination is its temperate climate, cultural and historical richness, local traditions and the fact that most of the attractions are within walking distance.
To access the tourist area, you can take a 20-minute walk east from the JR Nara Station or a 5-minute walk east from the Nara Kintetsu Station. From the JR Nara station, you will walk past lots of old and new shopping experiences that include food, traditional crafts and even smaller museums and galleries. Tea houses are commonly found in this area as are examples of timeless Japanese housing architecture. The Nara City Tourist Information Centre is only a minutes walk from the JR Station making it a perfect first stop to get your bearings and participate in some of the cultural activities. While in the area, I would check out the many street food shops and vendors. There is a famous Mochi shop called Nakatandou where they do a regular display of pounding the Mochi with giant wooden mallets. Another local favourite is the Kakinoha Sushi – Sushi individually wrapped in Persimmon leaves for a unique flavour.
As for main attractions, here are some of the best Nara has to offer:
Kofokuji Temple – this temple was founded in 710 and includes a Central Golden Hall, a gorgeous five-storey pagoda and the East Golden Hall – this one houses a giant Buddha statue. There is also the National Treasure Museum that contains a collection of Buddhist art and artifacts.
Todaiji Temple – This temple is monolithic and is no wonder that it is the most prominent temple in Nara. Until recently, it was the worlds largest timber building and houses a 15-meter tall bronze Buddha statue. The temple is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site and was originally built in the year 738. An important part of Todaiji are the Nigatsudo and Sangatsudo sub-temples – both incredible sites in their own right. A must-see site of the temple complex is the awe-inspiring Nandaimon Gate. This timber structure was constructed in 1203
Kasuga Taisha – This is a Shinto shrine that dates back to 768 and features thousands of bronze and steel lanterns that have been donated by worshippers over the centuries. It sounds very photogenic especially if they light lanterns at night or for festivals.
Isuien Garden – This and the adjoining Yoshikien Garden’s are classic Japanese gardens including decorative ponds and traditional tea houses.
Nara National Museum – this is a sprawling complex comprising a number of buildings set in gardens and pathways. The main museum building was constructed in 1889 and has an extensive collection of Buddhist art.
Nara Park – all of the above sites are clustered around the tourist hot-spot that is Nara Park. The part is most famous for the hundreds of deer that freely roam the park and the surrounding streets. They are considered to be sacred and historically were thought to be the messengers of God. The Nara Park deer are revered and are a national treasure protected by law and custom. They are relatively tame but will eat almost anything and if hungry enough will butt you for food.
Heijo Palace Remains – located more in central Nara is the site of the Heijo Palace remains. The site sits within a park and includes Nara Palace Site Museum. This was the location of the Emperors home and place of government during the 700s. The current buildings on this site are actually reconstructions of the original structures. There is also an associated museum on the site.
As you can see, there is a lot of history and cultural significance of Nara. While not necessarily a great destination for avoiding crowds, the large sprawling complexes and gardens more than makes up for it. Apparently, the best times to visit Nara is during the Cherry Blossom season in April or during the Autumn colours in November. Both are the most popular times to travel so being able to time a visit to Nara just outside of those busy times may be best.
As for how long to spend in Nara, most travel guides recommend a day trip. It is, after all, less than an hour from Osaka or Kyoto – both of which would make a great base-camp. However, it would be great to visit some of these sites first thing in the morning. Capturing the deer, gardens and buildings at sunrise (and with fewer people) would be magical. The same for sunset especially if temples light lanterns. Being able to visit these sites over two days give you the time to slowly explore and unpack all that Nara has to offer.
That brings me to the end of this chapter in my ongoing series Mapping Out Japan 20?? I love the idea of visiting Nara as I have regrets for not visiting it when I was so close back in 2016. I place Nara very high on my list of places to experience in Japan even though it is a typical tourist destination. It is easy to see why. Stay tuned for upcoming entries in this series as I explore other great destinations has to offer. Happy travels. G