Greetings readers! I hope you’re all safe and staying sane. As I write this, most of the world is currently on lockdown. Legally, Japan cannot mandate that everyone stay home yet the governor of Tokyo has requested all to refrain from any unnecessary outings. Furthermore, voiding any such request in place, my unfamiliar foreign visage would likely terrify anyone in rural regions. After all, foreign visitors to Japan were down as much as 94 percent in March 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. It’s a dark time indeed for the tourism industry and my heart breaks when I think of all the local vendors whose income is entirely dependent on travelers.
Tragically, there’s little I can do for the time being to help the market other than continue to produce content for when we can all hit the road once again. So, on that note, we’ll be attempting to cover ALL of Nara Prefecture in the following paragraphs. While typically a tad ambitious for a single article, I am stuck at home just like you with ample time to kill. Given the recent increase in articles calling for “virtual tourism,” it seems like we could all use a bit of escapism. That said, this is going to be a real doozy of a piece. Do yourself a favor and pour a cup of your favorite liquid addiction (mine’s strong black coffee) now before continuing on.
OK, so… Nara. Not exactly what you’d call an off the beaten path destination right? Well, yes and no. You see, most visitors to the prefecture make a beeline only for the ever-popular Nara Park. Famous for its bowing deer and awe-inspiring Daibutsu (lit. “massive Buddha”), this is not an attraction I’d ever suggest you skip out on. In fact, one of my favorite Shinto shrines of all time, the venerable Kasuga Taisha, can be found within Nara Park. Alas, there is much more to Nara than simply its iconic esplanade but sadly, few overseas guests ever experience the prefecture’s other treasures.
As a long time fan of Nara, I feel compelled to heed the call of getting more attention on its lesser known allures. At the same time though, I cannot deny that many of the prefecture’s charms reside within the confines of Nara Park. With this in mind, I am going to opt to recommend a two day itinerary. This will function a bit like a “choose-your-own-adventure” guide. On day one, I’ll encourage you to spend dawn-to-dark exploring all that Nara Park has to offer. Then, on day two, you can pick from any of the attractions I’ll introduce to compliment your time playing with the deer.
How to Get There
Before getting too far into the weeds on this one, let’s take a quick break to cover some critical logistics. For those not already in the know, understand that Nara can be found adjacent to both Kyoto and Osaka Prefectures. As such, it combines well with a visit to Japan’s central Kansai region. As hinted before, most foreign tourists explore Nara as a day trip adventure from either of these major destinations. Regardless of which of the two you’re hailing from, access to Nara is quite convenient. Truth be told, the trains are quite easy to navigate even for first time visitors to Japan.
Given there are multiple ways to skin this proverbial cat, it’s a challenge for me to provide a recommended route. At the end of the day, the best way for you to get to Nara will depend on where you’re coming from. Luckily, Japan has several services such as Hyperdia that will do the heavy lifting for you when it comes to calculating train connections. Just enter your closest train station and let the application do its thing. Note that Nara Park is best serviced by the Kintetsu-Nara Station but you can also opt for the JR Nara Station too if that’s easier.
Day One: Nara Park
As previously noted, you simply cannot miss Nara Park despite the fact that it is the quintessential definition of a mainstream destination. Simply put, this green space is home to many of Nara’s preeminent attractions. Moreover, the deer are just too adorable to pass up. In addition, when taking into account the ancillary draws nearby, Nara Park has enough content to ensure a delightful day trip. What’s more, the nearby Nara-machi affords an authentic glimpse into what life would have been like for merchants across many centuries of Japanese history.
Now, you’re free to explore Nara Park and enjoy its attractions in any order you see fit. That said, I’ve found the route I’ll introduce next to be the most efficient. Regardless of whether or not you elect to heed my advice, be certain to get an early start on your adventures in Nara. Many of the points of interest start to close around 5:00 PM. If you sleep in and don’t make it to the park until noon or so, you’re not going to be able to see everything. So, with that said, let’s cover my recommended course.
To begin, I highly suggest that visitors first head to Kasuga Taisha. This shrine is the prefecture’s most celebrated and was initially founded back in the Nara period (710–794). During the comparatively short epoch, Nara was actually the capital of the early Japanese empire. Further adding to its pedigree, know that Kasuga Taisha is also the tutelary shrine of the Fujiwara clan. This family famously married its daughters into the imperial family as a means of establishing control over the throne. Their privileged position can be felt all throughout Kasuga Taisha’s sprawling grounds.
While the shrine’s premises are indeed lovely, my favorite attribute about Kasuga Taisha is the lengthy approach to the main areas. This boulevard cuts through a tranquil wood and is lined on both sides by solemn stone lanterns. Oftentimes, you’ll find the frisky deer of Nara Park slyly poking their heads out from behind these rock pillars. In addition to the picturesque approach, one other standout of Kasuga Taisha is the hall of lanterns. Here, you’ll find hundreds of illuminated bronze brazier hanging amidst total darkness. It is indeed as surreal an experience as it sounds.
As impressive as Kasuga Taisha remains, what places it toward the top of my list is its backstory. You see, this shrine served an integral role in the establishment of Nara as the capital of Japan. When Empress Genmei moved the capital from its former site, the priesthood beseeched the mighty Takemikazuchi of Kashima Jingu. Somehow, they convinced the deity to relocate to Kasuga Taisha. According to folktales, he rode across Japan on the back of a white stag, bringing along with him the deer that now roam Nara Park. For this reason, the deer are considered to be the messengers of Takemikazuchi.
Once you’ve thoroughly savored the charm of Kasuga Taisha, the next stop on my recommended itinerary will be the eminent Todai-ji. This massive temple is home to an extremely well-known Daibutsu. Towering at a height of 15 meters while seated, this Buddhist effigy will leave you breathless. Rather than head straight to Todai-ji from Kasuga Taisha though, I suggest you opt for the backroads which will take you through Kasuga Taisha’s surrounding woods. As you meander your way along the paths, you’ll encounter a number of sub-shrines as well as more of the omnipresent deer.
While en route to Todai-ji, one spot to keep an eye out for will be the grass covered mountain towering behind Nara Park. Known as Mt. Wakakusa, this 350 meter-tall hill sits between Kasuga Taisha and Todai-ji. Every year on the fourth Saturday of January, Mt. Wakakusa’s slopes are set ablaze in a spectacle known as the Wakakusa Yamayaki. If you’re visiting in winter, I highly suggest that you plan to witness the burning of this bluff. By the way, if you don’t mind the rather short (but painful) ascent up the deer-covered hillside, you’ll be rewarded with a killer view of the city of Nara down below.
OK, let’s now move on to discussing Todai-ji itself. Put frankly, this temple is one of the most famous in all of Japan, let alone Nara. Originally erected in the year 752, this bastion of Buddhism was formerly the head honcho of all of the provincial temples. In fact, at the zenith of its power, Todai-ji and its clergy held so much influence that the imperial family felt compelled to move the capital from Nara to Nagaoka in 784. Apparently, the emperor was so exasperated by Todai-ji and its adherents meddling in his affairs that he had to up and move his seat of power. That should serve as a hint as to the dominance this temple once held!
Anyway, the main allure of visiting Todai-ji is the humongous statue of a Buddha. Gargantuan in its proportions, Todai-ju’s Daibutsu depicts an ancient figure known as Dainichi Nyorai. Though I’ll only confuse you by delving too far into Buddhist theology, appreciate that Dainichi Nyorai essentially can be considered to be the Primordial Buddha in East Asian orthodoxy. His colossal likeness at Todai-ji is flanked by two similarly sized Bodhisattvas busts. Combined, this heavenly trio of Buddhist masterpieces will leave you literally speechless.
Sadly, the Daibutsu that resides in Todai-ji is not the original. Though the buildings themselves do hold hundreds of years of history between them, the initial structures unfortunately burned down. Sometime thereafter, Todai-ji was rebuilt, albeit at only two-thirds of the original size. The present temple dates from the early Edo period (1603–1868) and was considered to be the world’s largest wooden buildings until recently. Note that Todai-ji is actually part of a much larger complex. While most visitors only really pay attention to the main hall with the Daibutsu statue, the temple offers a number of additional elements for one to explore as well.
Once you’ve crossed Kasuga Taisha and Todai-ji off your list, you’ll have a bit more leeway when considering what to do next. Honestly, after checking out the two premiere attractions, many visitors elect to simply play with the deer roaming Nara Park. While this isn’t such a bad idea at all, please do keep in mind that these are wild critters. Though the deer are accustomed to human visitors, and will even bow to you in hopes of receiving a treat, they are by no means domesticated animals.This warning rings especially true when it comes to the males; be weary not to irk them else you find yourself feeling from an irate stag!
Alternatively, should you prefer to check out some of the other draws within the vicinity of Nara Park, the following list contains my recommendations…
This Buddhist establishment has roots dating back to the early 700’s and once stood as the family temple of the aristocratic Fujiwara clan. Today Kofuku-ji has a number of historic buildings to explore. Of these, the five-storied pagoda is perhaps the most iconic. Standing at an impressive 50 meters high, this structure is the second tallest of its kind in Japan and is an icon of Nara. If you have time, definitely check it out!
Nara National Museum
This facility curates a wide selection of Buddhist art. First established in 1889, today the museum is comprised of the original century-old building as well as a newer annex. Spread across both wings, you’ll find a wide collection of statues, paintings, scrolls, and ceremonial objects. Admission will run you 700 yen. You’ll find the Nara National Museum not too far away from Todai-ji in the center of the park.
In the days of yore when Nara was the capital, this section of the city used to be completely consumed by Gango-ji. Originally a temple from the former capital of Asuka (we’ll get there in a second…), today only a few buildings remain. In their place, are a number of merchant homes that date from a few hundred years ago. Many of these traditional townhouses are now museums that you can pop into.
And with that, let’s move on to day two…
Day Two: Heijo Palace
From here on out, this article is going to devolve into a “choose-your-own-adventure” style catalog of the spots that caught my eye around Nara. After giving them a read, consider which spots you’d like to add onto your short stint in the prefecture. To kick things off, I want to commence by featuring the former location of the Heijo palace. Back when Nara was the capital of the early Japanese empire, this site is where the chrysanthemum throne once sat. During the Nara period (710–794), the sprawling dimensions of Heijo palace measured about one kilometer by one kilometer. For the time period, that was considered huge!
Regrettably, all of the original buildings from Heijo palace have fallen victim to the forces of entropy over the years. Despite being lauded as one of the many UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Nara, not a single structure remains on the premises of the Heijo palace. The only surviving part of the original buildings are paradoxically found at a nearby temple called Toshodai-ji. Much like Kawagoe’s Kita-in, a portion of the palace was donated to the temple. When the capital moved away from Nara, Heijo palace fell into disarray, nevertheless Toshodai-ji continued to take care of the hall it had been gifted.
Luckily, these days, there’s been a bit of a resurgence in interest regarding Nara’s historical legacy. Since the 1950’s, archaeologists have been studying the Heijo palace; thanks to their research, visitors these days are bombarded with placards depicting the site’s legacy. Moreover, three major structures from the former royal residence have been rebuilt. Of these, the largest is the audience hall which was restored in 2010 in honor of Nara’s 1300th anniversary as Japan’s capital.
Day Two: More Temples
Though Todai-ji is by far Nara’s most well known temple, there are actually several other noteworthy Buddhist compounds within the prefecture. Here are just a few to consider for your adventures in Nara…
Not to be confused with its sister temple in Kamakura, Nara’s Hase-dera is located in the mountains to the east of Asuka. Originally founded in 686, Hase-dera has a long history to its name. Today, the complex comprises approximately thirty structures that are built into the hillside. The grounds are particularly beautiful during autumn (as pictured above) as well as during the cherry blossom season.
Situated even further to the east of Asuka than Hase-dera, Muro-ji is a rather remote Buddhist collective. Located deep within a dense forest, many of Muro-ji’s buildings are hundreds of years old. This feature blends well with the surrounding trees to give one the feeling of being at peace with nature. Note that due to its proximity, Muro-ji is best combined with a visit to neighboring Hase-dera.
This illustrious temple was founded by Prince Shotoku in the year 607. Many of Horyu-ji’s wooden edifices are considered to be among the oldest in the world. Because of this, the temple was registered as Japan’s very first UNESCO World Heritage site under the name of Buddhist Monuments in the Horyu-ji Area. If you love old architecture, this is definitely one to consider visiting!
Considered to be one of the top temples in Nara, Yakushi-ji has also been inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site under the aforementioned Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara listing. Yakushi-ji venerates Yakushi Nyorai, the medicine Buddha and has a rather unique layout. The temple sports dual main halls which each have their own three-story pagodas.
Lastly, we have the temple Toshodai-ji which maintains the sole remaining fragments of Heijo palace. Found but a mere stone’s throw away from Yakushi-ji, this Buddhist establishment is also over a millennium years old. The temple was originally founded in the year 759 by a Chinese monk named Ganji who was instrumental in the introduction of Buddhism to Japan. As with nearby Yakushi-ji, Toshodai-ji is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Day Two: Asuka
Prior to the city of Nara being the capital of Japan, the chrysanthemum throne resided in Asuka. Now, this gets a bit confusing because Asuka is also within the confines of Nara Prefecture. To make things as simple as can be, just note that back then, the imperial court had a habit of up and moving everything following the death of an emperor. With that said, the location was apt to bounce around until the powers that were finally settled on an area that later became modern day Kyoto. The reasoning behind the shifting relocation was attributed to early Shinto beliefs about death being impure; the passing of an emperor was considered the ultimate impurity.
Anyway, from 538–710, Asuka, located a short distance south of Nara Park, was the capital of the early Japanese empire. Here, in the very early mists of history, the powers that were began to coalesce into a single group known as the Yamato polity. From this collective, the current imperial line emerged and subsequently asserted dominance over the rest of Japan. If you visit Asuka today, you can still discover all sorts of historical references to this critical turning point in Japanese history. Moreover, the area is also home to the seeds of Buddhism in Japan.
If you’re on the hunt for a good rural adventure, I suggest checking out my in-depth area guide on the Asuka region. To keep this article on Nara Prefecture from further devolving into a never-ending rant, I’ll just opt to defer to my prior writing on this one rather than reinvent the wheel.
Day Two: Omiwa Shrine
Situated at the base of Nara’s Mt. Miwa, Omiwa Shrine is considered by many to be one of Japan’s very first shrines. Seeing as shrines such as Mie Prefecture’s Ise Jingu quite literally predates history itself, this is quite the claim. Like with other truly antediluvian sepulchres in Japan, Omiwa Shrine is devoid of any influence from Buddhism. As such, the architecture here has little influence from mainland China. Rather than having the typical haiden (prayer hall) and honden (main hall) layout, Omiwa Shrine instead uses Mt. Miwa itself as the location where the deity is enshrined.
As outlined in my standalone guide, the proper way to visit Mt. Miwa and Omiwa Shrine is as a pilgrim. Given that this peak is considered to be one of the most consecrated sites in all of Japan, it’s important to remember that scaling this mountain is not in keeping with a recreational hike. In fact, there are very strict guidelines and rules that one must obey when on Mt. Miwa such as refraining from eating (no problem for me), no smoking. and no snapping pictures for the Gram. Before being granted permission to ascend Mt. Miwa, you’ll need to attend a lecture hosted the priests and complete an application form. Oh, and by the way, all of this information is shared in Japanese…
Assuming you can navigate the language barrier, you’ll thereafter be granted official sanction to scale the holy Mt. Miwa. Though I’ve yet to scale the peak myself, I’ve read that it can be quite steep in some areas. That said, ascending the mountain does not require the need for professional mountaineering gear and some people even do it barefoot to absorb the crag’s power. Oh yeah, and before I forget, know also that you’ll receive a white sash to wear during your climb. In Japanese, this sash is known as a tatsuki and must be worn at all times during your quest to the summit. The color white has a very important symbolism in Shinto as it implies purity.
In addition to Omiwa Shrine and Mt. Miwa, there are two other noteworthy nearby draws. These are the Yamanobe-no-Michi and Tanzan Shrine. Now, the Yamanobe-no-michi is likely the oldest road in all of the country and predates all written records. The path’s most commonly walked sections stretch approximately eleven kilometers from Omiwa Shrine to the neighboring Isonokami Shrine in Tenri city. As for Tanzan Shrine, know that this formerly syncretic sanctuary boasts a unique thirteen story pagoda and enshrines the oligarch Fujiwara Kamatari. This man famously founded the illustrious Fujiwara clan that we discussed above when looking at Kasuga Taisha.
Day Two: Mt. Yoshino
Did you know that Japan’s premier spot for cherry blossoms actually resides within the confines of Nara Prefecture? Known as Mt. Yoshino, this slice of heaven is blanketed by cherry trees. Every year in the middle of March, the whole hillside comes alive with vivid shades of pink as can be seen above. Though Japan’s cherry blossoms are magical wherever you view them, there is just something otherworldly about the 30,000 tree spectacle on display at Mt. Yoshino. It’s truly a shame that the Covid-19 pandemic smashed any opportunity to witness 2020’s short lived extravaganza. Hopefully, by next year, all worldly matters will return to normal once again.
Anyway, there’s a lot more to Mt. Yoshino than just its abbreviated cherry blossom season. You see, this area is also home to numerous religious and historical attractions. For example, Mt. Yoshino was most notably the site of the southern imperial court following an internal rift during the 14th century. Seeing as I’ve covered all of Mt. Yoshino’s charms at great length in this stand-alone article, I’ll again opt to defer to my previous writing here. Just note that a visit to Mt. Yoshino combines quite well with a trip to the aforementioned Asuka area. Though it was a bit hurried, I managed to do them both in a single day.
But wait, there’s more! Not to sound like every infomercial ever but there’s actually a far more hardcore side to the area surrounding Mt. Yoshino that I’ve left out. Briefly put, this section of Nara prefecture has also long been an enclave for Shugendo and mountain asceticism. In fact, many claim that this hub is the birthplace of Yamabushi culture. Seeing as this phenomenon spread up as far as the Dewa Sanzan in Yamagata, that’s quite the achievement. Though off limits to female readers, most of this Yamabushi culture is centered around a neighboring 1,719 meter-high mountain called Mt. Omine.
Sadly, due to the very complicated logistics involved, I have not had a chance to get down to Mt. Omine and visit its sacred establishments yet. The pilgrimage route traditionally commences from Mt. Yoshino but is more easily accessed from Dokawa Onsen. From there, it’s a many hour-long expedition into the mountains. While I haven’t had enough time yet to properly do Mt. Omine, you can bet your bottom dollar that I am going to be doing a piece of content in the very near future. In the meantime, I’ll encourage any of the lads interested to do some digging in Google.
Until next time travelers…