Looking for the ultimate tour and travel guide for Nara? Then look no further, as we have selected ten of the best attractions for sightseeing, relaxing, and learning about this ancient capital. From UNESCO World Heritage Sites, to temples and museums, here are ten places for the perfect day trip:
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Mt. Yoshino which is a World Heritage site enshrining its cherry trees has a superb April scenery when it is covered in cherry blossoms. You can enjoy some elegant trekking while viewing the mountain, flowers and old temples. In spring, the mountain is covered in cherry blossoms just like a pale pink fog. Walking on the mountain trails, you can enjoy trekking while feeling some of that spring energy. A Mt. Yoshino spring overflows with flowers, and while walking on the mountain, it is the ultimate flower-viewing site of note where you can enjoy the superb scene of cherry blossoms.
The sakura of Mt. Yoshino have had a close relationship with mountain worship from ancient times. During the Heian Era 1300 years ago, the mountain was opened as a sacred place for Shugendo (asceticism) with images of Bodhisattva carved into the cherry trees and enshrined as the principal object of worship in the shrines, so that the belief of cherry trees as sacred trees developed. For that reason, numerous cherry trees have been planted as seedlings being offered during memorial services for the dead.
Mt. Yoshino which has been worshiped as a utopia for the gods has not only charmed the devotees to religious practice but also the powers-that-be. The military commander Hideyoshi Toyotomi of the Warring States Era brought over a total of 5000 people in 1594 to participate in flower viewing, and there are legends such as that of the tragic Yoshitsune Minamoto in the late Heian Era. Many valuable buildings remain from those times; Kinpusen-ji Zao Hall, Yoshimizu Shrine, Yoshino Mikumari Shrine and Kinpu Shrine have been registered as World Heritage sites, and all of the shrines and temples that are scattered throughout the natural mountain have a beautiful and ancient aroma. In tandem with the nature on the mountain, a trip where you can fully enjoy first-class works of ancient Japanese art is exceptional. It’s also fun to choose homespun local food and souvenirs along the paths to the shrines. April is the peak time to see the cherry blossoms on Mt. Yoshino. But with its reputation as a famous site for flowers from long ago, it can also be enjoyed during seasons other than spring. There is the fall foliage and the snowscapes during winter, and it’s especially during the quiet seasons that a certain mystique can be felt.
- Guidebook from Planetyze about Mt. Yoshino
- Reviews from TripAdvisor about Mt. Yoshino
- Tours of Mt. Yoshino
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Ever since the capital moved to Nara in the year 710, people have loved this location for the many historical cultural properties found here, and for the historical feel of the area and its climate. On the massive 660-hectare site of Nara Park in the center of Nara, you will find such World Heritage sites as Todaiji, Kofukiji, and Kasuga-taisha, as well as the Nara National Museum, which houses a number of National Treasures, including works of Buddhist art. The many ponds create a beautiful scene among the green landscape, across from which are the gentle slopes of Mount Wakakusa and the primeval forests of Mount Kasuga, which spread out magnificently. The historical buildings have long coexisted harmoniously alongside the nature of this city park, which is more beautiful than any other in the world.
Nara Park is also famous for deer. Deer crackers (shika-senbei) are sold inside the park so you can enjoy feeding the deer, which are raised not with artificial feeding but as wild deer that are a Nationally Protected Species. Deer have long been valued as messengers from the gods, so they have continued to coexist in this park without fear of man. (Please beware that the deer can become boisterous during mating season.)
Nara Park is full of nature, but the beauty of that nature is particularly outstanding during the cherry blossom season in early April. The sight of the 1700 cherry trees within the park in bloom was selected as one of the top 100 cherry blossom locations in Japan. We hope you will thoroughly enjoy playing with the deer, and the beauty of the temples that have coexisted alongside nature for 1300 years at Nara Park, which is stunning in every season.
- Guidebook from Planetyze about Nara Park
- Reviews from TripAdvisor about Nara Park
- Tours of Nara Park
People have always loved Todaiji, which was completed in the year 752 and continues to be a religious place down to this day. The essential sights include the buildings that were rebuilt after being destroyed in fires caused by wars, Daibutsu (the great Buddha), masterpieces from the geniuses Unkei and Kaikei, and the statues of the guardian deities.
Todaiji is a cultural property in Nara that is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site. It is home to countless works of art and structures that are designated National Treasures, and is full of objects of extremely significant cultural value. Here, you will experience the dynamic atmosphere of a history spanning the ages in such objects as the main temple building, which houses Japan’s largest temple, and Daibutsu (the great Buddha statue).
At a height of 8.4 meters, the huge wooden images of guardian deities (National Treasures) flanking Nandaimon on both sides are not to be missed. Records show that these figures were made by the genius Buddhist image sculptors Unkei and Kaikei and their 13 disciples in just 69 days during the Kamakura period in the year 1208. These vivid and powerful statues stand magnificently, captured in a moment with their clothes fluttering in the wind. They have an incredible realism so that even their blood vessels can be seen. The image of the powerful Rikishi is a masterpiece of art from the middle of the Kamakura period.
Admission: Adult: ¥ 500 / Child: ¥ 300
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For over 1,400 years, the beauty of Horyuji has continued to fascinate its visitors. Immerse yourself in the mysterious legends and intriguing historical facts of Japan’s oldest wooden temple.
The area with a group of buildings including Japan’s oldest wooden structure is collectively called Horyuji. Recognized for its exceptional historical and cultural value, Horyuji is Japan’s first World Heritage site.
On the 187,000 square meters premises of Horyuji stands the Saiin Garan (the Western Precinct) built in the Asuka Period (7th century) and an array of buildings built in subsequent years with the cutting-edge technology of the time they were constructed in. There are more than 2,300 buildings and treasures of which approx. 190 items have been designated as a National Treasure or an Important Cultural Property. This land has been vigorously protected since its establishment in 607 as the site where the first nation state of Japan was formed; it is a place of extreme historical and cultural value.
While Horyuji is full of intriguing historical facts and mysteries, it is not a place of extravagance. The lack of glittering decoration is more than compensated by the virtuous and serene atmosphere exuded by the simple, sophisticated beauty from the old times. The temple is of course beautiful during the cherry blossom season in spring and the fall foliage season, but there is also a subdued beauty to the sound of Horyuji’s bell when you listen to it in the cold air of late fall or winter. Visit Horyuji and immerse yourself in the wonders and splendors of the temple’s 1,400 years of history.
Admission: Adult: ¥ 1,500 / Child: ¥ 750
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The World Heritage site of Kasuga Taisha (Kasuga Grand Shrine) was established to enshrine the local deity at around the time of the transfer of the capital 1300 years ago. The brilliant vermilion shinden in the primeval forest is magnificent and mysterious.
Kasuga Shrine which is located inside Nara Park has continued on from ancient times with its brilliant red shinden, its beautiful cloisters and an overwhelming impression to its guests. Its red appearance among the lushly green cedar grove at the bottom of Kasugayama Primeval Forest evokes that mystery of a sacred country of the Far East. The gorgeous main building that has also been registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site has splendor and grace. It has an appearance as a sacred place that would be appropriate to enshrine a god.
There are more than 1000 events throughout the year at Kasuga Taisha, but since there are many events that can be generally visited, come and visit according to your schedule. Within those, during the special services known as the Chugen Mantoro held within the cloisters in February and August, 2000 stone lanterns and 1000 hanging lanterns are lit which create a wondrous atmosphere.
Admission: ¥ 500
- Guidebook from Planetyze about Kasuga Taisha
- Reviews from TripAdvisor about Kasuga Taisha
- Tours of Kasuga Taisha
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Shin-Yakushi-ji Temple was constructed in 745 by Empress Komyo in the hopes for Emperor’s Shomu’s recovery from illness with 7 statues of the Yakushi Nyorai enshrined within. At the time, more than 100 monks served in the huge grounds, and Kon-do Hall where the Buddhas were enshrined was even larger than the council hall at the Nara Imperial Palace. The temple was almost completely burned down due to a lightning strike in the year 780, and the hall that had been used as the refectory became the current Kon-do main hall. The Kon-do is a valuable building erected in the Nara Era which is simple yet strong, and it has the special characteristic of not having an attic, instead revealing the rafters for an open-ceiling appearance. The name of Shin-Yakushi-ji Temple does not refer to a “New Yakushi-ji Temple” but a “miraculous” temple enshrining the Yakushi Nyorai and has no connection with the Yakushi-ji Temple of Nishi-no-Kyo.
In the Nara Era, belief in the Yakushi Nyorai was at a peak as the Buddha overlooking the peoples’ physical and mental health, and the Buddha had in its left hand a medicine vase which contained a panacea of miracle medicines which could heal all disease. Surrounding the placid-faced Yakushi Nyorai are the brave Twelve Heavenly Generals with their steely-eyed expressions to protect the Buddha from all evil demons. Each of the generals is distinct from the others, with his own expression and stance. Challenging any demons who would disturb the penitent Yakushi Nyorai to battle, they are separated along the 12 points of the compass and command a total of 84,000 large armies, and even after chasing away them away, the generals eternally continue to stand vigilant so that the demons don’t come twice. Furthermore, according to current research, it has been discovered that the earth-colored Twelve Heavenly Generals had once been vividly painted in red, blue, green, gold and other colors. The Twelve Heavenly Generals, along with the Yakushi Nyorai, pray for a world without sorrow, and underneath their stern expressions, there is a benevolence to them, something that should not be missed.
Admission: Adult: ¥ 600 / Child: ¥ 150
- Guidebook from Planetyze about Shin-Yakushi-ji
- Reviews from TripAdvisor about Shin-Yakushi-ji
- Tours of Shin-Yakushi-ji
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Toshodai-ji is the head temple for Risshu, one of the six sects of Buddhism brought to Japan. In 759, Jianzhen began a place of Buddhist meditation that was for students to learn the mores and principles that needed to be protected in the religion. At the time, there had been no high priest to instruct these precepts in Japan, and there was a huge problem with a decrease in the quality of monks. It is at that point that Emperor Shoumu invited Jianzen from China to establish the correct Buddhist precepts. After 5 failed attempts to cross over to Japan, he finally reached the country after losing his sight in both eyes. This great achievement is known widely in both Japan and China.
Despite the many temples that were burned down during times of war, Toshodai-ji still remains as a remnant from the Tempyo Era. Inside, the Golden Hall has retained its appearance since its establishment in the late 8th century. In the center is the principal image of Rushanabutsu, on the right is the statue of Yakushi Nyorai and on the left is the statue of Senju Kannon. All of them are statues from around the 8th and 9th centuries and have been designated as National Treasures. In addition, you cannot miss the Kodo Lecture Hall with its open space. Originally, this was the Higashi Choushuuden Hall moved from Heijo Palace and then restored. Since no buildings remain of the Heijo Palace, the hall is an extremely valuable building at this time.
To prevent the decay of Buddhism in Japan, Jianzhen took more than 12 years to reach his goal of getting to Japan. His statue at Goei-do Hall can only be viewed annually for just three days in June, from the 5th to the 7th. Measuring 80.1cm in height, it is Japan’s oldest portrait sculpture and is a work that is representative of the Tempyo Era. The appearance of him with his eyes closed is exceptional as an example of a portrait sculpture. The realistic representation is remarkable up to the faithful re-creation of Jianzhen’s indomitable spirit.
Admission: Adult: ¥ 600 / Child: ¥ 200
- Guidebook from Planetyze about Toshodai-ji
- Reviews from TripAdvisor about Toshodai-ji
- Tours of Toshodai-ji
(image by flickr.com)
In Naramachi, an old town with vestiges of those times, there are World Heritage-designated temples, longhouses converted to restaurants, and souvenir shops for visitors to spend a leisurely time.
In 710, the capital was transferred to Heijo-kyo, and Naramachi was situated on the old temple grounds of Gango-ji Temple. Outside Heijo-kyo, the old town developed on the roads of that time. Developing from a town of shrines and temples to a town of commerce to a tourist town, the old streets retaining the nostalgia from remains of machiya longhouses from the last years of the Edo Era into the Meiji Era are exquisite. There are many famous tourist spots such as the shrines, and the cafes and restaurants converted from the longhouses are popular. Another attractive point is that Naramachi is within walking distance of Nara Park with its many wild deer and the World Heritage site of Kasuga-Taisha Shrine.
The World Heritage site of Gango-ji Temple was once on the site of Japan’s first Buddhist monastery, Hoko-ji Temple (Asuka Temple), before its buildings were moved to Heijo-kyo and established in 718. The roof of the Gokurakubo main hall has the characteristic of a gyoukibuki roof with its pattern of overlapping curved and flat tiles, and part of the roof still has the tiles that were used at the time of its construction. The Naramachi House of Lattice Windows was built on the model of a machiya longhouse and can be visited to experience the feeling of an old lifestyle. With its narrow width and long length, you can learn about the functionality of the building through ways such as stairs which had storage spaces to effectively use the tight space and lattices which served a role in the use of ventilation and light. Admission is free and the admission office will distribute information on the places to see as well as maps. The Nara Craft Museum also has free admission, and you can view traditional crafts such as lacquerware, brushes, textiles and works made from animal horns.
- Guidebook from Planetyze about Naramachi
- Reviews from TripAdvisor about Naramachi
- Tours of Naramachi
(image by upload.wikimedia.org)
Isuien Park is a Japanese garden that was created during a relatively modern era in the former capital of Nara. The two gardens that were built by different owners in the Edo and Meiji Eras still retain that serenity. Taking into consideration the many historically significant cultural assets and structures from over a thousand years ago, Isuien Park, which was built in the 17th century, may be thought of as being a more recent property.
With Mt. Wakakusa in the background, the park is a soothing world with features such as the pond and hills delicately positioned and the old teahouse that was moved there. After thoroughly enjoying the World Heritage cultural properties and gaining some tranquility, you will most likely treasure the time that you spend at Isuien Park. One feature at the traditional Japanese garden that is Isuien is that you are able to enjoy the front garden and rear garden that were built by two different people in two different eras.
The front garden that spreads out at the entrance of the garden proper was constructed in the early Edo Era in 1670 by Michikiyo Kiyosumi, a tanner from Nara. A thatched-roof house known as Sanshuu-tei was placed by the pond there as a place to enjoy sencha tea (a lighter tea than matcha). At the pond, stones representing a crane and tortoise, symbols of longevity, have been placed as small islands, and with the inclusion of stone lanterns, there is a feeling of an Edo Era garden. Currently, Sanshuu-tei has become a restaurant where you can enjoy a meal while viewing the garden.
The rear garden was constructed during the Meiji Era (around the late 19th century) by businessman Tojiro Seki as a place to enjoy the tea ceremony and poetry readings. It was built around a pond using the technique of shakkei (borrowed landscape) to bring alive the nature of Mt. Wakakusa and Mt. Kasuga in the background along with Nandaimon Gate of Todai-ji Temple and some man-made hills. The freely spreading landscape was deliberately and skillfully constructed as a scene to completely fill your eyes right up to the reflection on the pond’s surface. The sound and sensation of the waterfall built at the back of the pond are also wonderful, and the whole garden is something to enjoy the changing impressions of the scenery as you walk through it. Isuien Park is just that refined place for that serenity and peace of mind.
Admission: Adult: ¥ 900 / Child: ¥ 300
- Guidebook from Planetyze about Isuien Park
- Reviews from TripAdvisor about Isuien Park
- Tours of Isuien Park
Nara National Museum
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Numerous National Treasure-level masterpieces are exhibited centering on Buddhist art. It is also famous for the Shoso-in repository which is opened every autumn. You will want to see it during your tour of shrines and temples
The Nara Park area has plenty to see such as Todai-ji, Kofuku-ji and Kasuga Grand Shrine. Nearby is the Nara National Museum. Boasting the best in quality and quantity within Japan for Buddhist art, many Buddhist statues representing every era are exhibited. It is worth seeing these displays which cannot easily be seen at other museums of art. The museum consists of 4 galleries. There is the Nara Buddhist Statue Hall with its many exquisite Buddhist sculptures on display, the Ritual Bronzes Gallery which shows bronze artifacts from ancient China, and the East and West Wings for special exhibitions.
At the Nara Buddhist Statue Hall, many precious Buddhist statues ranging from the Asuka to Kamakura Eras are displayed. It has the reputation of having the most complete exhibit of Buddhist statues among the country’s museums. Also, it is notable for the fact the building itself has been designated as an Important Cultural Property. It is the very first genuine Western-style building to be constructed in Nara, completed in 1894. The design was by Toukuma Katayama who was also responsible for the Akasaka Detached Palace, and the building is in the style of the French Renaissance. The decorative ornamentation around the entrance is supremely elaborate and is representative of the European style from the middle of the Meiji Era.
The underground passageway that connects the Nara Buddhist Statue Hall and the East and West Wings is a zone that is also freely accessible for non-visitors. There are a museum shop and a restaurant where you can take a break. At the museum shop, there are plenty of original products starting from the exhibition catalog. The Uplifting Buddhist Statue series has charmingly designed statues placed on handkerchiefs, mirrors, and other items that cannot be obtained elsewhere. They are great as souvenirs.
Admission: ¥ 520
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