Unfortunately, most overseas visitors to Japan only ever experience Nara as a day-long excursion from Osaka or Kyoto. As soon as these travelers arrive in the city, they make a beeline for attractions like Todai-ji’s Daibutsu and the venerable Kasuga Taisha. While these locales are indeed great and I do encourage you to check them out, there’s so much more to Nara than just these iconic destinations. Alas, seeing more than the mainstream allures will require that you budget for additional time in Nara. Of course, the best way to do this is to book your accommodations in the city itself.
Below, you’ll find five reasons why you really ought to spend a night in Nara. Even if you just head down in the early evening after exploring Osaka or Kyoto, being able to start the day already in Nara will give you a lot more leeway when it comes to sampling what else the city has to offer. Moreover, if you want to explore more of the prefecture than just the capital city, the following advice will also be of use. In either case though, just remember that there’s so much more in this part of Japan than what most tourists usually see.
1. ) Nara Park’s Shika Yose
These days, it’s no secret that Nara Park is home to some incredibly adorable, albeit mischievous, deer. In fact, this is one of the primary reasons that people travel to Nara to begin with. That said, a lot of people miss out on what is known in Japanese as the Shika Yose (lit. “Deer Gathering”). Beginning in the morning on various days throughout the year, a horde of deer will descend upon the open space near the Nara National Museum. Since it starts so early in the morning, the Shika Yose is easier to enjoy if you’re already starting your day off in Nara. Otherwise, you’ll need to catch an extremely early train down to the city.
Note that since the borders are still somewhat closed, you can catch a livestream of the Shika Yose on Nara City Tourism’s official Instagram account. It’s a great way to temporarily put the wanderlust demons back in their cages. Should you happen to be in Japan, you can see when the Shika Yose will be happening either online or by inquiring at the visitor centers at either of Nara’s two train stations.
2.) Spend a Night at a Temple
Unlike with a locale such as Wakayama’s Mt. Koya, Nara is not known for its shukubo (meaning “temple lodgings”). Truth be told, despite being a former capital that’s also home to some of Japan’s oldest temples, the city has only a few sites where you can spend the night. One of these is known as Ryosen-ji, this temple compound can be found in the western reaches of the city. Since it does welcome those who wish to experience an authentic temple stay, Ryosen-ji is a great option for those who otherwise would not be able to experience shukubo elsewhere.
Just be sure not to sleep through the morning “tsutome” rituals…
3.) Learn from an Artisan
Unbeknownst to many of the tourists who make a beeline for Nara’s mainstream attractions, the city is also home to a host of talented craftsmen. What’s more, many of these individuals offer hands-on experiences at their workshops. Assuming you can overcome the language barrier, you can learn about the charcoal used calligraphy from a master producer, make your own brush tip out of real animal hair or marvel at the works from one of Nara’s kilns. During my few days in Nara, I was able to sneak in the following…
- Learned how calligraphy ink was made at Kinko-en
- Was taught Akahada pottery making at Gyozo Furuse
- Made a calligraphy brush alongside Tanaka-san
- Enjoyed the tea ceremony with a monk at Jurin-in
All in all, this is a side of Nara prefecture that most visitors to Japan never get to see. I wonder what kind of experience you’ll uncover during your journey. Oh, and if you’re wondering why a temple town has so many craftsmen, know that this is largely due to Nara’s historical legacy as one of Japan’s capitals. During its time in the limelight, a lot of crafts flourished in Nara after coming over from the mainland with Buddhism.
4.) Catch the Sunset
Since most visitors only come to Nara for the day, they miss out on one of the most picturesque attractions in the city. As can be seen in the epic shot above, the sunset from the top of Mt. Wakakusa is absolutely to die for. If you’re blessed with having your own set of wheels, you can snake your way up to a parking lot near the summit. Otherwise, you’ll need to hoof it to the top of Mt. Wakakusa from Nara Park. Luckily, the peak isn’t all too challenging coming in at only 342 meters in height. Unless you have major mobility issues, the hike should be doable by all.
If you happen to be visiting in winter like I did recently, you’ll want to bring a wind proof jacket as the gusts can get pretty chilly. While things look warm in my shot pictured here, my hands were so cold that I could barely hit the shutter button!
5.) Nara at Night
While Nara isn’t a city that is known for its nightlife, there are some great local eateries to checkout. Though I’ve yet to visit them in person, there are also a fair number of sake breweries in Nara and you can sample their concoctions at many of the restaurants in the city. Alternatively, Nara is always doing some sort of evening event. While the timing of these happenings is highly dependent on the season, Nara’s many events are just another reason to consider staying overnight nearby.
You can check out the city’s official site to get a better understanding of what will be happening during your visit to Japan. As noted, there’s always something going on!
There’s Still More to Nara Prefecture
Honestly, the above suggestions as to why you ought to stay overnight in Nara are just beginning to scratch the surface. Whether it’s just the capital city itself or the whole of Nara Prefecture, this section of Japan has several weeks’ worth of attractions to enjoy. If you’re interested in learning more, I suggest you check out my definitive guide to all of Nara Prefecture. Though a relatively long read, it will provide you with all you need to know when planning something longer than a day trip.
Since the focus of this article is largely only on Nara City, allow me to end this piece with one final recommendation for my fellow Kimetsu-no-Yaiba fans out there. This one is known as Yagyu Village and is actually located within the confines of the city. The hamlet’s Itto-seki was the inspiration for the scene where Tanjiro finally cleaves the boulder in two at the end of his training with Urokodaki Sakonji. Additionally, Yagyu Village was also the birthplace of one of Japan’s most prodigious schools of swordsmanship, Yagyu Shinkage-Ryu. It’s definitely a wonderful hidden gem to add to the list!
Until next time travelers…