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One of the very first things we added to our Japan bucket list, years ago, were Nara deer park and Todaiji temple. So when we finally managed to fly over there, we specifically planned to stay a few days in Kyoto so we could finally go on a day trip to Nara and visit the amazing Fushimi Inari Shrine. The area is so beautiful that, in hindsight, we would’ve probably liked to spend more time there. Yet if it’s your first time visiting Japan, one day in Nara will be probably good enough to explore all the best sights. If you are a bit like us, chances are that you’ll have to schedule yet another future trip over there!
Ok, we got it. You’re not here for just a Nara itinerary… you want the cute deer! Here you go!
Nara-Koen and the bowing deer
While people commonly refer to it as simply “Nara“, Nara-Koen is a public park located in Nara (the city), next to Mount Wakakusa. It was established in 1880, so it’s one of the oldest ones in Japan. Inside the park you will find many of the Nara attractions you will read about in this article, and that you can explore in just one day.
The Japanese Sika deer are sacred animals. The legends state that when the god Takemikazuchi-no-mikoto visited, invited by Kashima Shrine (Ibaraki Prefecture), he appeared riding a white deer. Until 1637 killing a deer was a capital offense punishable by death!
In modern times Nara deer have been designated as national treasures and are protected by the law. According to Wikipedia there are over 1200 roaming the area.
You might have read about the “bowing deer“. Well, because Sika deer have lived with humans for centuries, they have learned how to take advantage of their “divine” status. Not only they basically stalk the tourists, asking for food, but they have learned that bowing their head to humans will earn them deer snacks.
The fact that they have grown bold with humans led to many accidents, with lots of tourists injured by deer in the past few years. When we discussed the Japanese Sika deer on our Facebook page, we received messages from a few of our readers stating that they had been bitten!
This is the reason why there are signs everywhere in the area, warning people to be very careful. As cute as they look, they are still wild animals and bound to bit or kick if they feel threatened or… if they want food.
We have found them to be pretty cheeky. During our trip of one day in Nara, they basically ate our map. I was holding it next to me and I wouldn’t have expected the cute deer to snatch it from my hands! We also had to always make sure to keep our phones hidden and to check our hands. They try to see if you have snacks with you so they basically try to bite, and they might get your fingers. But then again, whose fault is this? Aren’t humans guilty of having taught them that if they ask for food we will give it to them?
As we already mentioned, there are a lot of these nice fella all over the area. If you are worried that you’ll plan a Nara day trip but you won’t be lucky enough to see the bowing deer, you’re in for a surprise. They tend to walk freely everywhere they want, we even found some not too far away from the JR Nara station! Some of the deer sleep in the area immediately surrounding Todaiji temple, so it’s basically impossible to go there and not see them. Even early in the morning, which is a wise strategy to avoid the crowds.
Planning a budget trip to Japan? No worries! The Nara Park entrance fee is… zero. You can come and go as you like, which is amazing if you considering all the things you can explore in this area!
How to go from Nara station to Nara park
Getting from Nara station to Nara park depends from what station you’re using. If you don’t have a Japan Rail Pass, hop down at Kintetsu Nara station. From there to the park entrance there’s just a five minute walk, in the company of the cute deer.
If you are using your JRP you’ll probably get down at JR Nara Station. Unless you really like to walk, we wouldn’t suggest you to walk half an hour to the park entrance. Save it for Nara park! As you walk outside of the JR station, you’ll see two yellow buses. Take the tour bus number 2 on platform 2 (it’s right outside the station exit). You can buy a ticket on the bus, it costs 210 yen per person and in 10 minutes you’ll be at the park entrance. Remember that they only accept cash!
If you’re unsure of where to go, there will be a lot of people from the staff near the JR Nara station. Just ask them, they’ll be glad to help!
Nara day trip from Kyoto
If you intend to commute from Kyoto to Nara using a JR Pass you will need to hop on a train on the JR Nara line, included in your JRP. It takes about 1 hour to get to the JR Nara station and from there you will have to get the tour bus number 2 as mentioned in the previous paragraph.
The whole trip to Nara from Kyoto should take no more than one hour and half (including the bus ride to the park entrance). Of course much of it will depend on when you’ll be able to hop on the tour bus near JR Nara station.
To get back from Nara to Kyoto you will simply have to hop again on the yellow bus (remember, you can buy the ticket on the bus but you’ll need to pay cash!) and return to the train station. The tour bus operates many stops in the area and each one of them is clearly marked so you can’t be wrong. As usual, if you’re in doubt just ask to one of the bus drivers. They will give you all the information you need.
Nara day trip from Osaka
In case you are spending a few days in Osaka and would like to add a day trip to Nara, you can definitely use your Japan Rail Pass to save on the train tickets. Just reach Osaka station and hop on a JR Osaka Loop Line Regional Rapid train for Nishikujo, Tennoji. There’s a direct connection in Shinimamiya: stay on the same train! You will be warned that the train is now on the JR Kansai Main Line (Yamatoji line) to Nara. The whole trip to Nara from Osaka should take no more than 1 hour.
Once you’re at Nara station, just walk to the yellow tour bus n. 2 on platform n. 2 to get from Nara station to Nara park.
The entrance to Todaiji temple (also wrongly known as “Nara temple”) is not too far away from the bus stop. We just walked for about 10 minutes, but we have to admit we’ve been quite slow also because we were kept busy… by the cute Nara deer! If you have the whole day ahead there’s definitely no hurry, especially if you manage to get to Nara quite early in the morning.
The walk is easy and offers nice views on little streams and large meadows that will be probably full of deer.
The entrance fee to the Daibutsuden Hall (Big Buddha Hall) is 600 yen. The temple is open every day of the year. From April to October it is open from 7:30 am to 5:30 pm. From November to March the temple opens from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm.
Todaiji is one of Japan’s most famous temples and our favorite one among the Nara attractions.
Built in 752, it was the head temple of all provincial Buddhist temples of Japan. It grew so powerful that its power scared many leaders, to the point that the capital was moved from Nara to Nagaoka in 784. They were hoping to lower the temple’s influence on politics.
The Daibutsuden in particular is absolutely impressive. It is the world’s largest wooden building. Nowadays you can see a reconstruction that dates back to 1692 and it’s only two thirds of the original size!
The first thing you’ll see as you step inside is a huge Buddha (Daibutsu) bronze statue. It is 15 meters tall, one of the largest Buddha statues in Japan, and it represents Vairocana. It is flanked by two Bodhisattvas.
In the Daibutsuden we also had the chance to see a few more religious statues and a miniature of the temple. You will find quite a few little shops inside, selling interesting souvenirs from Japan. The prices are quite competitive and you can ask for your own Tsuko-tegata here!
Top Nara attractions
Still planning your Nara itinerary?
While the Japanese sika deer are very cute and instagrammable, you’ll probably also want to see something else. After all, there are many things to do in Nara!
Here are the things that, in our opinion, could definitely make a good 1 day Nara itinerary. According to the season and the day of the week there will be more or less people. So we think it’s better not to add too many things to your itinerary, because you have to calculate the crowds, the bus routes and of course the time it’ll take you to get back to where you are lodging. Make sure you note down the train times for the return trip, so you will have a rough idea on when you have to wrap things up!
- Isuien Garden: This Japanese garden is located near Todaiji. It is divided into two parts, a front garden and a rear garden, with a few tea houses scattered here and there. The garden is open from 9:30 am to 4:30 pm (you can enter until 4:00 pm) and the entrance fee is 900 yen.
- Kasuga Taisha: Nara’s most famous shrine. Dedicated to the deity that protects the city, it’s ancient and has been periodically rebuilt every 20 years until the end of the Edo period. The shrine’s offering hall can be visited for free. If you want to visit the inner area, the ticket costs 500 yen. The shrine is always open, from 6:00 am to 6:00 pm from April to September, and from 6:30 am to 5:00 pm from October to March. The inner area is only open from 8:30 am to 4:00 pm.
- Naramachi: the merchant district in Nara is packed with interesting sights. There are temples, historical buildings open to the public, like merchant houses or temple staff houses, and even a craft museum.
- Nara National Museum: Open from 9:30 am to 5:00 pm (extended hours on Fridays, Saturdays and selected days. Check their official website for more information) and closed on Mondays. The admission fee is 520 yen for both wings of the museum. It is located in Nara Park, and it primarily displays Japanese Buddhist art. In Autumn they usually house a temporary exhibition with the treasures from Todaiji Temple. There are English explanations throughout the museum.
Special Events in Nara
- Omizutori: This series of events is held annually from March 1 to 14 at Todaiji Temple. The Buddhist repentance rituals are the oldest recurring Buddhist events in Japan. The most spectacular one is Otaimatsu. After sunset giant torches are carried up to Nigatsudo’s balcony and held over the crowd. The burning embers are thought to bestow the viewers with a safe year. When all the torches are lit, it looks like fire is raining from Nigatsudo building: it’s spectacular!
- Wakakusa Yamayaki: It’s an annual festival: the grass on the hillside of Mount Wakakusayama is set on fire. When it’s all lit up it can be seen clearly from Nara and Nara park. There are fireworks and it has been celebrated for hundreds of years. The origins of this festival are still unclear, but you can attend for free. It takes place on the 4th Saturday of January (it might be delayed due to bad weather conditions) and we suggest you bring your camera with you!
Did you enjoy reading this post? Have you found some cool spots you want to share with us? Let us know in the comments!
While our trip to Japan was kindly sponsored by JNTO, we have given your our honest opinion as usual. So yes, let us proudly state that all opinions are our own and they don’t necessarily reflect those of JNTO.
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