Wondering what to do in Nara? Kyoto has its famous temples and was once the capital of Japan. However, less than an hour on the train, in fact, is Nara. Nara too has its famous temples and was also once the capital of Japan – but before Kyoto. Nara’s temples are big, bold and wooden, its Shinto shrines feel ancient, and its ‘old town’ is a virtually untrodden wonderland of old houses, cafes, and boutiques (compare and contrast to Kyoto’s super busy Gion).
There’s so much more than this though, so buckle up and prepare for a ride of sweet treats and fiery festivals with our guide on the best things to do in Nara.
The Best Things to do in Nara, Japan
1. Go see the Great Buddha at Tōdai-ji
Nara’s star architectural attraction is Tōdai-ji. Not only is this Buddhist temple quite literally the largest wooden building in the world, but it also dates back 728 AD – and that’s pretty old. What’s more is that the building itself was actually around two thirds bigger than it is now.
Like a lot of wooden buildings in Japan, it’s rare that you find one that’s original; that’s due to earthquakes and fires. The current Daibutsuden – or Great Buddha Hall – dates back to the early 18th century.
The centerpiece of the temple is the Daibutsu (Great Buddha) itself. Originally cast in 746 AD, it’s 16 meters tall and contains 437 tonnes of bronze and 130 kilograms of gold. No wonder they call it great.
- Location: Tōdai-ji
- Cost: ¥500
- Tips: Approach via the 13th-century Great South Gate with its dramatic twin statues
2. Climb Through Buddha’s Nostril
Tōdai-ji may be famous for the Great Buddha and, you know, for being a hugely impressive wooden building, but there’s a cool and quirky part of this temple that you need to know about.
One of the soaring wooden columns that holds the temple up has a square hole through the bottom of it. You might see a small crowd of people gathered around it. Nothing special, right?
Wrong. At just 30 x 37, the hole is said to be the same size as the Great Buddha’s nostril. Called hashirakuguri – literally “pillar passage” – the idea is to see if you can fit through the hole to the other side.
If you can make it, you get at least some enlightenment points. That’s because you’ve humbled yourself enough to try and squeeze through a tiny hole while a crowd of onlookers giggle.
- Location: Tōdai-ji
- Cost: Your dignity… Just kidding, it’s free (except for the ¥500 Tōdai-ji admission)
- Tips: Go hands first, like you’re diving
3. Get Great Views at Nigatsu-dō
Located uphill from Tōdai-ji, but basically part of the same temple complex, Nigatsu-dō (Hall of the Second Month) is a cool place to check out.
Originally built in 750 but dating back to 1669 in its current state, the Nigatsu-dō is a National Treasure of Japan, and for good reason: it’s pretty big and pretty impressive.
It stands up against a hill, on stilts for the most part, meaning that ascending to the hall itself results in some awesome views of Tōdai-ji – and parts of Nara – below.
Want more halls? Sangatsu-dō (Hall of the Third Month) is the oldest building of the Tōdai-ji complex, having been built between 740 and 747 AD.
- Location: Tōdai-ji
- Cost: Free (but Sangatsu-dō is ¥500 to enter)
- Tips: Go for sunset – you can thank us later
4. Meet the Friendly Deer at Nara Park
The top thing to do in Nara is go to Nara Deer Park. Deer are a big part of Nara. If you go to Nara, you will see deer – or at least the Japanese variety, shika. Long ago they were said to be messengers of the native Shinto gods.
There’s definitely some hype about them here; the mascot of Nara City itself is Sento-kun, an unsettling deer-Buddhist priest hybrid. It’s an apt mixture, though.
Because, yes, you will see deer. Mainly this will be at Nara Park, the green space encompassing Tōdai-ji and Kasuga Shrine. There are quite a lot of them, which can be overwhelming.
They love senbei (rice crackers), and there are shika-senbei made especially for the deer, so you can buy some and feed them, which is definitely a top thing to do in Nara. Please don’t feed the deer human food, their stomachs can’t digest it and some have even died as a result of human food. Pay for the deer crackers at the park and only feed them those.
- Location: Nara Park (or anywhere)
- Cost: Free
- Tips: They can be pretty forthcoming, so be wary. Seriously, one jumped on me like a dog!
5. Walk Amidst the Mossy Lanterns at Kasuga-Taisha
Another famous Nara attraction is Kasuga-taisha. Kasuga-taisha, or Kasuga Grand Shrine, is the principal Shinto shrine in Nara and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Founded in the 8th century, it’s a special place to wander around, especially in the early morning or early evening.
The hundreds and hundreds of moss-covered stone lanterns here – more than 3,000 of them, actually – and the serene, ancient forest setting make for a tranquil stroll, especially at the above times (when there are fewer tourists).
In the mornings, you can also go experience the chouhai chanting ceremony, whereby the Shinto priests pray for the safety of Japanese nature and people. Interestingly, this practice started up after the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake.
- Location: Kasuga-taisha
- Cost: Free (ski lift and rental are not free though)
- Tips: Go February 3 for Setsubun Mantoro, or mid-August for Chugen Mantoro, both beautiful lantern festivals
6. Discover Traditional Nara-machi
You may be thinking Kyoto when you think “traditional wooden Japanese houses” – which isn’t necessarily un-true – but Nara has its very own machi, or ‘town’ area, that makes for a charming wander around.
Machi conjures up more of a traditional part of town than anything else, and Nara-machi is that old, charming, wooden heart of the city. You’ll find old townhouses, old storehouses (kura), as well as many that have been converted into shops, cafes, and guesthouses.
The Nara-machi Koshi no Ie is an old merchant’s house that you can actually enter and explore. It’s literally like going back in time, complete with original kitchen. There’s a gallery that you can check out too: Nara-machi Monogatari-kan.
- Location: South of Sarauzawaike
- Cost: Free
- Tips: Take it slow and go for food in the evening
7. Take a Day Trip to Asuka
Complete with green hills, rice terraces, farmland, and historic buildings, Asuka might seem just like a friendly, laid-back town to the untrained eye… However, Asuka is in fact, where the Yamato people first took power in Japan, making the town the first capital of ‘Yamato.’
There’s a lot of evidence of pre-Buddhist burial here, with the burial mounds of many kofun (literally ‘ancient graves’) marking the landscape in and around the town itself. There’s even a tourist information center where you can start your trip.
Away from the ancient, Korean-influenced art of the tombs, there’s the charming Asuka-dera. This is Japan’s first full-scale Buddhist temple, featuring the country’s first and oldest Buddha statue: the 15-tonne Asuka Daibutsu (609 AD).
- Location: Around 1 hour by train from Kintetsu Nara station
- Cost: Around ¥500
- Tips: Get an Asuka Passport for ¥100 and save money on-site admissions
8. Admire the Pagodas at Kōfuku-ji
Moved to its current location from Kyoto in the 8th century AD, Kōfuku-ji is a temple complex that was once considered one of Japan’s ‘Seven Great Temples.’ One of the best things about this temple is its twin pagodas… well, not exactly twin.
One of the pagodas is the classic five-story type. It dates back to 1426 and is the tallest pagoda in Japan (actually, there’s one in Kyoto that’s taller than it by a couple of centimeters!). This one was originally built in 740. The other pagoda is three-story and was built in 1143.
Kōfuku-ji’s claim to fame is that it was one of the family temples of the powerful, imperially-related Fujiwara clan.
- Location: Kōfuku-ji
- Cost: Free
- Tips: Walk around in the site in the evening for extra serenity
9. Witness the Spectacular Omizutori
Held from March 1 to March 14 each year at Tōdai-ji Omizutori is a Buddhist extravaganza. It’s a collection of Buddhist repentance rituals that have been held there for over 1,200 years, which is a pretty long time.
During this time, every evening after sunset, torches of varying lengths are taken through the grounds and up to Nigatsu-do (one of the many halls at Tōdai-ji). The embers that shower the crowd are thought to bestow onlookers with good luck for the year.
That’s not all; it gets more and more impressive with each passing day, as the number of torches increases every night. On March 12, monks draw water from a well on-site, hence the name omizutori (literally ‘water drawing’).
- Location: Tōdai-ji
- Cost: Free
- Tips: Go early and maybe not on the weekends (super busy)
10. Sip Sake at Nara Izumi Yusai
A small standing bar that you can find nestled away in the depths of Nara-machi, this is basically a specialty store filled with a bunch of local brews of Japanese ‘rice wine’ – aka sake.
There are around 120 different types on offer in this cool, tiny bar, most of which you can try thanks to an easy-to-understand English language list.
You can learn all about the sake brewing process, what the different grades of sake are, the best way to drink sake – all things sake, in essence. The owner is super friendly and will gladly explain, probably even if you don’t ask. Locals are friendly too.
- Location: Nara-machi
- Cost: Tastings between ¥200-600
- Tips: Buy a bottle that you can’t get in regular stores
11. Hike Up Mt Wakakusa
At just 350m tall, you’d be hard-pressed to call Wakakusa a mountain next to some of Japan’s ‘real’ mountains, but once you’re climbing up the constant slopes of the grassy hill itself, you will be feeling it.
Located behind Nara Park (yes, with the deer), the plateau might only take 20 minutes to reach, but if you keep going for another 20 minutes or so, you’ll reach the top of the mountain. The treat here is unobstructed views of the city.
You’ll probably notice people arriving up the back way completely devoid of sweat. But what’s a view if you can simply drive to it, right?
- Location: Mt Wakakusa
- Cost: Free
- Tips: Go on the 4th Saturday of January to witness yamayaki – one of Japan’s many ‘mountain burning’ festivals in which the grassy hill is set ablaze; complete with fireworks display
12. Snack on Mochi at Nakatanidou
Mochi are rice cakes made from pounding cooked rice until it’s the consistency of a glutinous dough; various flavorings and sugars are added once this is done. Nakatanidou is the most famous mochi maker in Nara, and possibly one of the better-known ones in Japan.
You can actually view the mochi-making process (mochi-tsuki) if you get there at the right time. The guys that do it are so quick that they’ve actually won championships. No, really.
A particularly tasty mochi to try is flavored – and colored – with mugwort, turning it green. It’s called yomogi, comes dusted with roasted soybean flour (kinako), and is super tasty.
- Location: Nakatanidou
- Cost: ¥130 a pop
- Tips: Mochi pounding happens every 30 minutes. See a gathering crowd? Then it’s already begun
13. Explore Nara’s Lesser-Visited Temples
A little further afield, but easily in reach via the train or bus network that snakes through the city, are three temples that are well worth some time… if you have some to spare.
Firstly, there’s Hōryū-ji. With a pagoda that’s widely accepted as the oldest wooden building in the world, the temple was founded in 607 AD by Prince Shotoku (credited with introducing Buddhism to Japan).
Secondly, there’s Yakushi-ji. Established in 680 AD, this is one of the most famous imperial Buddhist temples in Japan. The pagoda here has been described dramatically as “frozen music” (it is pretty awesome, to be fair).
Thirdly, there’s Tōshōdai-ji, which was founded by Chinese monk Jianzhen in 759 AD. Walking around this temple’s various calming paths is a chilled experience.
- Location: Various
- Cost: Hōryū-ji ¥1000; Hōryū-ji ¥500; Tōshōdai-ji ¥600
- Tips: Volunteer English guides are well worth it
14. Grab a Coffee at a Kissaten
A slightly dying-out but definitely still existing facet of Japanese cafe culture is the kissaten. Originating in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these cafes, with their classical music soundtracks and ornate wooden furniture, are made to be Viennese in style. They’re great.
Nara has a good, very local kissaten called シャトードール (Chateau d’Or). There’s a bakery downstairs where you can get all manner of baked, deep-fried, and sweet and savory items. Upstairs is the cafe itself.
Arrive before 10:30 am for the very Japanese breakfast set: ham sandwiches with a hot drink of your choice. Munch away on your sando (sandwich, of course) to the sound of Beethoven and enjoy the ambiance.
- Location: シャトードール
- Cost: Whatever you feel like buying
- Tips: Definitely arrive for the breakfast set
15. Hit Up a Japanese Garden
Japanese gardens are famed throughout the world. Their beauty and neatness may be cool, and pretty iconic, but a lot of that is down to the principles of Japanese gardens in general; chiefly, the miniaturization of landscapes.
Sometimes, you have to fork out a lot of dough to see a garden in Japan, but thankfully, there’s one in Nara that’s 100% free for foreign visitors. It’s called Yoshiki-en.
Formerly the residence of the head priest of Tōdai-ji, the garden itself was laid out in 1918 and features all the facets you’d expect of a Japanese garden; sculpted trees, moss, and seasonal changes. Find a seat or sit in the pavilion, and reflect on the landscapes.
- Location: Yoshiki-en
- Cost: Free (bring your passport)
- Tips: Go in fall for awesomely fiery maple colors
Other Amazing Things to do in Nara
- Stroll around Isui-en Garden
- Visit Heijo-kyo Heritage Site
- Enjoy history and art at the Nara National Museum
- Ride on the Miyajima Ropeway
- Enjoy an onsen retreat at Dorogawa Onsen
Where to Stay in Nara?
Nara has some fabulous Airbnb’s to choose from. To feel more at home, we use Airbnb – you can check out some tips and read more about getting an Airbnb coupon code here. Or take this coupon for your first stay!
Onyado Nono Nara Natural Hot Spring
With raving reviews this Nara hotel is amazing. Featuring natural hot spring baths on site this place is just a 3-minute walk from JR Nara Station.
Nara Guesthouse Kamunabi
Another fantastic Japanese hotel in Nara is the Nara Guesthouse Kamunabi. It’s just 700 m from Kofuku-ji and has a great communal lounge area.
When is the Best Time to Visit Japan for Good Weather
It depends. If good weather for you is seriously hot, we’d recommend August. However, if good weather means no rain and clear skies, then that would be January or February (though it is cold).
The typical ‘best weather’ of Japan has to be spring, however, especially April and May. It’s not too hot, not too cold, and you don’t have to wear a coat anymore. That’s when we visited and had a lovely, and mostly comfortable time. See a month by month breakdown of Japanese weather here.
Quick Travel Tips for Japan
- Capital: Tokyo is Japan’s capital, while Sapporo is Hokkaido’s capital.
- Currency: The Japanese Yen(¥) is the currency of Japan. Many places in Japan do not accept credit cards, and it’s always advisable to have cash on you.
- Visa: Most visitors can enter Japan visa-free for 90 days – check with your embassy.
- What to Pack: It all depends on when you visit Japan. See our full Japan packing list here.
- Travel Insurance: We don’t travel without travel insurance, and neither should you. You never know what can happen while traveling, so it’s best to be prepared. HeyMondo provides excellent short-term and long-term travel insurance plans.
- Travel Adapter: Japan mainly uses the Type A plug like North America, but there is generally no socket for the grounded portion.
- Guide Book: Sometimes it’s nice just to have a real book in your hands when traveling. We recommend picking up a Lonely Planet to get you through the wireless nights.
What to Pack for Japan?
Wondering what to wear in Japan? You aren’t alone. Japan can be a very tricky country to pack for as there are so many styles you can go with, and of course, every season is different.
We’ve traveled to Japan during all their four seasons. Most of Japan is a four-season country and winter travel is vastly different than summer. Here are the essential Japan packing list items to bring with you depending on the season you visit!
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