Nara—the oldest Japanese capital. This is where modern Japanese civilization began. With a history like that, how can you pass up visiting Nara? What is great about the prefecture is that many of the must-see attractions are bundled together in the same vicinity. So whether you are going for a day or a week, you can see everything important Nara has to offer.
The Fundamental Attractions
Nara Park – The park itself is a little underwhelming in both composition and historical relics. What you should go to Nara Park for is the chance to interact with the semi-domesticated deer. You can buy “shika sembei” crackers to feed to the deer and get some cool photographs to make everyone at home jealous.
Yoshikien – A hidden gem right beside the Nara Prefectural Office, this garden often gets overlooked by visitors, although it is a breath-taking step into nature. There is a lake, various cobbled paths, dozens of lizards and butterflies, and a traditional-styled building that you can enter. Entrance is free for foreigners.
Address: 630-8213 Nara Prefecture, Nara, Noboriojicho 60-1
Website: http://www.geocities.jp/general_sasaki/nara-yoshikien-ni.html (English available)
Todaiji Temple – Not only is the main temple an architectural marvel, the lovely compound has over 9000 national treasures. There are also two Daibutsu. The first was built in 743 and is comprised of wood. The other is a 15 meter tall bronze Buddha casted in 749.
Nigatsu-do Hall and Shoso-in Hall are two components of Todaiji Temple grounds that are worthy of adventures all their own. You will find yourself lost (in a good way) amongst the alleyways and buildings, revelling in the preserved spirit of ancient Japan.
Todaiji Temple Cultural Center is located on the grounds of the temple. You can learn a lot about the Nara culture here, which was actually quite different from modern day Japan.
Isui-en Garden – Close to Yoshikien, this garden is another patch of nirvana—although it costs 900 yen for foreigners to enter. The difference between the two gardens is that Isuien utilizes the “borrowed scenery” technique to complete the landscaping. Beyond the lakes and flowers is the rooftop of Todaiji Temple. You can also enjoy a cup of tea as you take in the serene scenery.
Nara National Museum – Leaving Nara without learning about the fascinating history would be a travesty. A primary location for art, archaeological treasures and relics from the Asuka, Nara, Heian and Kamakura eras are on display here. This museum also has the largest collection of Buddhist scriptures in the region. A must-see if you are interested in this time period and the spread of Buddhism.
Kasuga-Taisha Shrine – Aside from being a hugely important Shinto shrine, the Kasuga-Taisha shrine is a portal to a mystical realm. The grounds are immense. Get lost wandering the misty forest corridors, watch the deer and enjoy spiritual ambiance all around. There is also a Treasure Hall and the Manyo Botanical Garden to peruse. Each has separate admission.
Address: Nara Prefecture, Nara Kasugano-cho 160
Kofuku-ji Temple – A UNESCO Heritage Site. The temple is actually part of Nara Park and a short walk from the station. Founded in 669 by the Fujiwara family of the Heian period, the historical value of these grounds can’t be ignored. Plus, the five story pagoda and temple building grant great photo opportunities.
Harushika Brewery (春鹿) – Want sake for breakfast? At Harushika Brewery, you can start tasting various types of spirits as early as 8:30 am. You can learn all about the brewing process of this favorite alcohol, do taste-testing, eat pickled squash and sake-infused cake. The drinking cup you use during the tour is also gifted to you. Did I mention you get this all for less than 1000 yen?
Address: 630-8381 Nara Prefecture, Nara, Fukuchiincho 24-1
Getting here is a little difficult, but well worth it. You will need to take the No. 1 line bus from Nara Station to Fukuchiin-cho.
The Best Places to Eat in Nara Prefecture
Some of the best food you will find in this prefecture has to do with the fruits and vegetables. Nara is known for the Kaki persimmon, strawberries, spinach and eggplant. Buddhist vegetarian cuisine is also an easy find throughout Nara. Lastly, you can’t go without trying Narazuke, the customary Nara pickled dishes that can be comprised of cucumber, watermelon, ginger and gourd.
Mellow Café – This laidback café in Downtown Nara is great for getting a reprieve from all the Japanese fare you’ll be eating in Nara. Most of the menu is dominated by Italian. Pasta, pizza and kid-friendly are offered and fit right in with the casual settings.
Address: Nara-shi, Konishicho 1-8 axe unit 1F
Kura (蔵) – Though it doesn’t look like much on the outside, you will be greeted warmly and handed an English menu to help you settle in. This izakaya has fantastic Japanese cuisine, as well as excellent beer and sake.
Address: Nara-shi, Kyomincho 16
Kura is about an 8 minute walk from Kintetsu Nara Station.
Wakasa Curry Hompo (若狭カレー本舗) – As the name suggests, this is where you can get curry; but it’s not Indian curry. The Japanese have their own unique twist on the dish that is both pleasant and satisfying. Plus, lunch and dinner are both budget-friendly.
Address: Nara-shi, Hashimoto-cho 3-1-110
Look for a shopping arcade. The store is inside.
Mizutani-chaya (水谷茶屋) – Within Nara Park, this teahouse is a quaint stop between Kasuga-Taisa Shrine and Nigatsu-do. The outside is as pretty as the inside, and the building even has a thatched roof! While the teahouse serves tea and sweets, you can get noodles and lighter fare if you need something with a bit more substance.
Address: Nara-shi Kasugano-cho 30