Nara Itinerary: An Easy Day Trip from Kyoto

by Nov 24, 2018Itinerary, Japan

Nara makes an easy and relaxing day trip from Kyoto as well as an excellent day trip from Osaka. It’s got so much to see: deer, giant Buddhas, famous temples and shrines, and great food. In this Nara itinerary, I’m going to show you how to see and do all of these amazing things in Nara as a day trip from Kyoto or Osaka. I’ve also included how to get to Nara, how to get around Nara, and where to eat in Nara. 

If you do have more time, I recommend staying for 2 or 3 days in Nara as it is filled with more UNESCO World Heritage Sites than most cities and it is a great escape from the hustle and bustle of Kyoto or Osaka.

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Nara Itinerary Table of Contents

Click on any item below to jump to that location in this article.

Overview of the Nara Itinerary

Day 1 of Nara Itinerary / Nara Day Trip

  1. Kasuga Taisha and Wakamiya Shrines
  2. Todaiji Temple including Daibutsuden Hall to see the Great Buddha statue
  3. Lunch
  4. Kofukuji Temple

*If you still have time, walk around the Nakamachi area to see the old shophouses and storehouses.

Day 2 of Nara Itinerary

If you’re staying overnight

  1. Horyu-ji Temple
  2. Yakushiji Temple
  3. Toshodaiji Temple

Day 3 of Nara Itinerary

  1. Nara National Museum
  2. Heijo Palace Site
  3. Nakamachi Area
  4. Gango-ji Temple

Why visit Nara

There are five main reasons to do some Nara sightseeing.

UNESCO Heritage Sites

The first reason to make a trip to Nara is that it has 8 UNESCO World Heritage Sites:

  1. Todaiji Temple– Day 1
  2. Kofukuji Temple –  Day 1
  3. Kasuga-Taisha Shrine – Day 1
  4. Gangoji Temple – Day 3
  5. Toshodaiji Temple – Day 2
  6. Yakushiji Temple – Day 2
  7. Heijo Palace  – Day 3
  8. Kasugayama Primeval Forest – Day 3

History

The second reason to make a day trip to Nara is for its history. Nara is a paradise for us history nerds. It was the first permanent capital of Japan from 710 to 784. Before this, Japan used to move its capital after the death of each emperor (Lonely Planet, 2016). However, when Buddhism became popular, this belief died out.

Why was Nara the capital for only 74 years?

There is no clear answer. It could have been because the court wanted to limit the power of the Buddhist monks, who had become too powerful during the Nara period. It may also have been for economic or transportation reasons. Nara has no rivers, but Kyoto does.

 Buddhism

The other reason that Nara is an important destination is its central role in the onset of Buddhism in Japan. Buddhism began to spread throughout Japan while its capital was at Nara thanks to its patronage by the emperors and some powerful families at that time. During the Nara period, many of Japan’s most important Buddhist temples were built including the world’s largest wooden structure in the world, the Todaiji Temple, and Horyu-ji Temple, the most important Buddhist temple in Japan and the temple that marks the beginning of Japanese Buddhism.

Art

The fourth reason to add Nara to your Japan itinerary is that Nara has some of the best Buddhist works of art in Japan. The Nara period occurred during the height of Chinese civilization and Japan wanted to emulate China. Emperors sent emissaries to China to learn government, art, and Buddhism from the Chinese, and Chinese immigrants came to Japan to teach the Japanese. Japan imported not only ideas but also material objects, some of which are still in existence today but cannot be found anywhere in China, such as medicines, musical instruments, furniture, paper and many more. You can view these objects, called the treasures of Shoso-in Hall, at the Nara National Museum, but only from October to early November.

The National Treasure Museum at Kofukuji Temple has some terrific works of art to view as well. It’s fortunately open all year round. It’s a very small museum that makes for a quick but rewarding tour. Sangatsu Hall also has some beautiful Buddhist sculptures.

Deer

For the non-historian, Nara gives visitors the unique experience of romping around and feeding wild but incredibly friendly deer. You can buy deer food from multiple deer stands throughout the park for 150 yen.

I read a lot of books on the history of Japan. The one below, A History of Japan, was the easiest and most enjoyable to read. It covers the whole history of Japan from ancient to the modern day.

I also suggest listening to Isaac Meyer’s History of Japan podcasts. He’s been podcasting about Japan’s history since 2013. I think it’s lessons 3 or 4 that cover the Nara period. 

How long to spend in Nara

It makes for an excellent day trip if you want to see just the main sites at the Deer Park in the center of the town. If you want to see all of the 8 UNESCO Heritage sites, you’ll need to stay overnight and spend 2 to 3 days in Nara.

Unfortunately, I only did a day trip.

How to get to Nara

Nara is located around 45 to 75 minutes by train (depending on which train you catch) from Kyoto. There are several ways to get there, so it can be confusing trying to figure out the best way to travel. Not only that, Nara has 2 train stations!

However, whichever train you take, make sure to leave before 8:00 am to have enough time to see the important sites in your Nara itinerary.

⇒ To find out train times, click on this link to HyperDia.

⇒ To find out more information on routes to Nara, go to the Visit Nara website here.

How to travel from Kyoto to Nara

Japan Rail

If you have a Japan Rail Pass, you can use it to get to Nara. The express train with fewer stops takes 45 minutes, while the slower train that stops many, many, many times takes 75 minutes. I took the slow train to Nara and the express back to Kyoto.

There is at least one train leaving every hour.  For information on times, go to HyperDia.com. 

One downside is that the JR train stops at the JR train station, which is farther from the main sites than the other train station. It’s not a big deal, though, as you can easily take the tourist bus for a small fee, which takes around 10 minutes (see the section on How to get around Nara for details).

⇒You can read about how to purchase, activate, and use a Japan Rail Pass here. 

Private Rail

If you don’t have a JR pass and/or you’re really in a hurry, you can take the Kintetsu Line. This is supposed to take around 30 minutes, but I’ve also seen times of 60 minutes.

From Kyoto, the train leaves from Kintetsu Kyoto Station in Kyoto Station and arrives in Nara at Kintetsu Nara Station, which is about a 5-minute walk to the main sites.

⇒For information on taking this train from Kyoto, you can visit this website. 

How to travel to Nara from Osaka

Japan Rail

If you have he JR Pass, you can travel by JR train. The trip takes around 60 minutes and arrives at the JR Nara Train Station.

Private Rail

You can also take the Kintetsu Express from Osaka, which arrives at the Kintetsu Station.

What to do when you get to Nara

Before starting this Nara itinerary, head to the Nara Information Centre. When you get to Nara’s JR Station, exit the station on the east side and to your left where you’ll see the JR Nara Station Information Centre.

Click on this link for more information, services, and resources from the Nara Visitor Center and Inn.

Nara Station Information Center building during Nara itinerary

It opens at 9:00 am and closes at 9 pm, but I was able to go inside before that to pick up some brochures and maps. No one was at the information desk.

Inside you’ll find a plethora of maps and tourist information. There’s an information desk, a popular Starbucks (all the seats and tables were taken when I was there in the afternoon), free wifi, and a luggage storage facility.

If you’re taking the Kintetsu Train, you can also begin your Nara sightseeing trip at the tourist information centre at the train station as well.

While at either information center, make sure to pick up three guides: 

Better yet, you can download them here from the Official Nara Travel site and do some super crazy planning beforehand. Honestly, they’re better than the dribble that Lonely Planet gives you.

⇒ You can also find out lots of information about Nara from the Nara City Tourist Association by clicking this link.

How to get around Nara

Lonely Planet says that the sites are a 15-minute walk from the JR Nara Station. This is absolutely not true. It takes 45 minutes to walk from the train station to Todaiji Temple. The best way to get around on this Nara itinerary is by bus.

There are Bus Information Centers at the JR Station (2F near JR ticket gate; 8:00 am – 20:00; ) and at the Kintetsu Station (Nara Line House, 1F).

Outside of the Tourist Information Center of the JR Station is the city bus terminal.

From JR Nara Station to:

  1. Todaiji Temple (Great Buddha temple; in Nara Park) – take Bus #2 or Bus #77  (runs every 30 minutes)
  2. Kasuga Taisha Shrine  (Nara Park) – take Bus #2   or Bus #77
  3. Toshodaiji Temple – take Bus #78 or Bus #98
  4. Yakushiji Temple – take Bus #78 or Bus #98
  5. Horyuji Temple – take Bus #98 (runs every hour)

See the Nara City Bus Route map for more information. You can pick it up at the Nara Tourist Information Center.

If you’re using the bus, you can use your Pasmo and Suica cards. The bus fee is ¥210. You can also get day passes (1 day: ¥500 yen, 2 days: ¥1,500).

Day 1 of Nara Itinerary 

Nara Deer Park – Nara-koen Area

On your first day and perhaps only day of your Nara itinerary, you will spend it at the Nara Deer Park, also called Nara-Koen. All of the temples on your day trip to Nara are located inside the park.

1. Kasuga Taisha Shrine

Take bus #2 to stop at the Kasuga Taisha bus stop to get off to see the Kasuga Taisha Shrine.

The Kasuga Taisha Shrine is a vermilion colored Shinto shrine located in a beautiful forest. It was built in 768 and is the shrine of the Fujiwara clan, an important and powerful family at this time.

Make this shrine your first stop because at 9:00 am you can experience something special there. At 9:00 am, the monks and visitors meet at the Naoraiden Hall for morning prayers and chanting for world peace. Another traveler told me that the monks had been doing this ever since the tsunami hit Japan in 2012. Then the monks visit the Wakamiya Jinja Shrine. The prayers last 30 minutes.

When you get off at the bus stop, you’ll walk along a very long path where you’ll soon spot your first deer sighting of the day.

A lot of deer standing around food stand in Nara during my Nara itinerary

You’ll be able to buy deer food to feed the deer. When I was there, it cost ¥150.  

torii gate at Kasuga Taisha Shrine at first stop on Nara itinerary

You’ll eventually come to your first vermillion-colored torii gate. Pass through the gate and continue along the path. Now is when the path turns magical.

Water purification station with statue of bull at Kasuga Taisha shrine

You’ll come to a Chozuyua where you’ll need to purify yourself before continuing on to the shrine. You can watch a video here on how to do this from my Meiji Shrine article, but basically you’ll need to pour water over first your left hand, then your right, then rinse your mouth out (please spit the water out; don’t swallow it) and then rinse off the tool.

You’ll notice that the statue is that of a deer with a key in its mouth. When the shrine was established, the shrine’s deity rode in on a white deer and ever since then, deer have been venerated in Nara as messengers of the Shinto gods. I guess this is why you see so many deer around Nara.

a row of stone lanterns covered in moss at Kasuga Taisha Shrine

The path is littered with over 2,000 of these beautiful bright green moss-covered stone lanterns.

 During the Satsubun Festival on February 2 – 4 and the Obon Festival in mid-August, all of the stone lanterns are lit.

stairs lined with stone lanterns at Kasuga Taisha Shrine during Nara itinerary

Be prepared for steps. It is a long walk of about 20 or so minutes.

shrine entrance at Kasuga Taisha Shrine during Nara itinerary

Eventually you’ll come to the main shrine complex. You don’t have to pay to enter the outside buildings. Enter through the gate and if you’re there at 9:00 am, you should be able to hear the monks chanting. You should be allowed to enter and listen to the prayers. Just don’t take photos and don’t make noise.

You can then follow the monks up to the Wakamiya Shrine to complete the morning prayers.

bronze lanterns at Kasuga Shrine during Nara itinerary

The shrine is also known for these beautiful bronze lanterns.

vermillion hallway at Kasuga Taisha Shrine during Nara itinerary

You can walk around the complex.

deer at Deer Park in Nara
a deer at Deer Park in Nara, Japan
deer sitting down at Deer Park in Nara Japan
a bunch of deer at Deer Park in Nara, Japan

By the time you exit the shrine, the tourists will be entering and the deer will be out and about looking for handouts of food. You can pet the deer and feed them. 

Now make your way to the granddaddy of all religious structures in Nara, the Todaiji Temple.

2. Todaiji Temple

The next stop on your Nara itinerary is Todaiji Temple, one of the most important Buddhist temples in Japan. It’s within walking distance from Kasuga Taisha Shrine. Just follow the signs.

When you get to the road leading up to Todaiji, you’ll see tons of tourists and tons of deer with shops along the way selling people food, deer food, and souvenirs. Watch out for deer poop.

2.1 Isui-en Garden and Neiraku Art Museum

COST: ¥650 for garden and museum | TIME: 9:40-4:30

If you have time and need a rest before hitting another temple, visit the Isui-en Garden where you can drink tea while sitting on tatami mats overlooking a garden. Then visit the Neiraku Museum to look at some Chinese and Korean art.

2.2 Todaiji Nandiamon (Southern) Gate

COST: Free

people standing in front of Nandaemun Southern Gate at Todaiji Temple

Eventually, you and a hundred other tourists and some deer will make it to the first gate, Todaiji Nandaimon (southern gate). It’s a beautiful and grand old wooden structure.

Todaiji was originally built in the 8th Century on the orders of Emperor Shomu. It was so large that it used to take up 16 city blocks. The south gate was rebuilt in the 1200s, and I did not read of it being rebuilt after that, so what you’re seeing is around 800 years old.

front entrance of Todai ji on Nara itinerary

After you pass through the Southern Gate, you’ll come to Todaiji. You can see on the top of the building what looks like bull’s horns but are actually fishtails. These tails represent water and are a way to ward off fire. Wooden temples are very susceptible to fire.

Todaiji burnt down in 1180 and 1567 over the year. The present structure is from the Edo period during the 1500s.

2.3 Daibutsuden Hall

COST: ¥600 for adults and ¥300 for children | TIME: 7:30 am – 5:30 pm (April – October) and from 8:00 am – 5:00 pm (November to March)

Take a left when you come to this building to buy your ticket. You can also buy a temple and museum combination ticket for ¥900. However, when I was there the museum was closed from March to September.

Once you pay your ticket price, you’ll pass some souvenir stalls. You will also pass a table where you can get a free tour guide who will give you a short tour of the outside of the big hall. I got a nice Japanese retired Japanese businessman to be my guide.

Daibatsu

After that you’ll enter the inner part of Todai-ji, where you’ll come to the Daibutsu Hall (Big Buddha Hall). This building is the largest wooden structure in the world. The amazing thing is that it used to be even bigger.

Before entering the hall, make sure to purify yourself in the Chozuya, the water purification pavilion on the right hand side.

window on Daibatsu in Todai Ji on Nara itinerary

Once a year on New Year’s Day, the window where the Buddha’s eyes are located is opened. The eyes appear so that worshippers standing outside the hall can see the eyes and pray to the Buddha.

a statue of Buddha in Daibatsu Hall on Nara itinerary

Not only is the building impressive, but the large bronze Buddha statue is as well. In 737 there was a smallpox epidemic. To regain the favor of the gods, Emperor Shomu had this Buddha statue erected.  

model of Todaiji

You can walk around to the back of the Buddha statue where you’ll find a model of the temple complex. The temple burnt down twice. This current temple is 1/3 the size of the original temple. 

hole in a pillar inside Todaiji

As you make your way behind the Buddha statue, you’ll come to this hole in a pillar. Supposedly, if you’re able to crawl through, you will achieve enlightenment.

Pindola statue outside of Todaiji Temple in Nara on Nara itinerary

My last favorite thing about Daibutsu-den is the statue of Pindola, on the right hand side of the hall. Pindola was one of  the 16 of disciples of the Buddha. He was supposedly banished from the temple for becoming too powerful.

If you have a part of the body that aches or hurts, rub the corresponding part of the body on the statue, and that body part will feel better. Does it work? Try it and find out!

lantern outside of Todaiji Temple in Nara

One last thing to pay attention to is the Octagonal Lantern in front of the hall. It’s from the 8th Century, when the Todai-ji was first built.

2.4 Todaiji Museum

COST: Daibutsu and museum combination ticket: ¥900; TIME: 9:30 am – 4:30 pm

If you have time, visit the Todaiji Museum. It was closed when I was there.

2.5 Ngiatsu-do and Sangatsu-do Temples

COST: Free

Then visit the Nigatsu-do temple, which is located behind Daibutsu, and according to Lonely Planet, will provide you with a view of Nara.

Then make your way to Sangatsu-do temple, a place that contains some of the best Buddhist statues in Japan.

I wish I had taken the time to see these temples, but alas I didn’t. Hopefully, you will.

3. Lunch

My suggestion is to walk to the arcade complex near Kintetsu Train Station for lunch. I searched in vain for a restaurant near Todaiji Temple, but there weren’t any that looked appealing.

2 deer on sidewalk in Nara
deer on sidewalk in Nara Japan

It’s about a 30-minute walk to the arcade past a lot of deer and tourists.

Fujin name outside of Fujin restaurant in Nara

The arcade has tons of restaurants. I went to one called Fujin, on the left side as you enter the arcade. It had really wonderful and unique food.

ochazuke

I had a dish called chazuke. There was grilled eel, tempura, rice, pickled vegetables, tea pot with soup in it, and a seaweed salad. You put the eel on the rice and then pour the soup in a teapot over the eel and rice. The set meal cost ¥1500. There was an English menu and the staff was kind and welcoming. The manager spoke English quite well. 

4. Kofukuji Temple

The next UNESCO World Heritage site to visit on your Nara itinerary is Kofokuji Temple, a short walk from the arcade. Even though there aren’t that many buildings to see in this complex (one of them is under construction), it has an interesting history and some interesting structures so it makes it worth a visit.

The history is fascinating as the temple’s destiny was tied up with the rise and fall of the Fujiwara clan, the most powerful family in Japan for over 500 years.

The Fujiwara family was the patron of Kofuku-Ji. They had the temple moved from its original location where it was built in 672 to Nara in 710. Over the years, the Fujiwara family donated a lot of money to the temple, helping make it very rich and powerful. Then in 1597 when Toyotomi Hideyoshi became Shogun, he took away power and wealth from the temple. Eventually, in 1717 a fire swept through the complex burning down many of the buildings and having had its finances curtailed for so many years, the temple was unable to be rebuilt to its former glory.

The complex has several buildings. There are three buildings that require you to pay: the Central Golden Hall, the Eastern Golden Hall, and the National Treasure Museum.

4.1 Central Golden Hall

Central Golden Hall in Kofukuji during Nara itinerary

The Central Golden Hall is the main hall. When I was there, the hall was undergoing reconstructions.

4.2 Eastern Golden Hall

COST: ¥900 for the Eastern Hall and National Treasure Museum together

Eastern Gold Hall at Kofukuji in Nara on Nara itinerary

This hall costs ¥300 to enter but if you also go to the National Treasure Museum (and you should), you can pay ¥900 to cover the Eastern Golden Hall and the Museum.

It’s an interesting hall with some beautiful old statues from the 7th to 13th centuries ; unfortunately, you can’t take photos of them. The temple was built by Emperor Shomu to pray for a sick aunt. That’s probably why many of the statues including the main Buddha statue seemed to be related to medicine.

4.3 Kofukuji National Treasure Hall

COST: ¥900 for the Eastern Hall and National Treasure Museum

If you’re interested in history and art, this is a fabulous museum to visit. It’s small but has some valuable and amazing Buddhist sculptures. Unfortunately, you can’t take photos and all the statues are behind glass. There are so many guards around that you’re even scared to take out a pen and write something down. I actually did take out my notebook and pen and I felt like I had someone follow me around the whole time.

Make sure to look at the Thousand Armed Kannon and a series of reliefs with these Kabuki-like faces that come from the Eastern Golden Hall. There is also an interesting Buddha head with the facial features of a Japanese person.

4.4 Five-Story Pagoda

COST: Free

Five Story Pagoda at Kofukuji Temple during Nara itinerary

Supposedly, the five story pagoda is the 2nd tallest pagoda in Japan and a symbol of Nara. You can’t go inside. 

4.5 Southern and Northern Octagonal Halls

COST: Free

Southern and Northern Octagon Halls of Kofukuji Temple on Nara itinerary

These halls are interesting to look at with their bright vermillion color and one is from 1210 and the other from 1789

Back to Kyoto

If you still have energy and time left to see more of Nara, you can check out a traditional preserved neighborhood called the Naramachi and then visit another UNESCO temple called Gangoji Temple.

If you’re out of energy and time and a bit templed out, head back to the train station to catch your train back to Kyoto or Osaka.

If you’re staying over night to see more of Nara the day next day, good for you. You can then finish seeing the rest of the UNESCO structures as well as the important Buddhist temple, Horyuji.

exterior of Nara JR Train Station on a Nara itinerary

So that’s it for this one-day Nara itinerary. I hope you enjoy your time in Nara as much as I did. Nara is a wonderful place to escape from the hordes of tourists in Kyoto. Just make sure to see more than just Todaiji temple. 

Drop a comment or question in the Comment Section below. If you have found this article helpful, please share it with others on social media. Thank you! – Julie

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a deer behind a stone marker covered in moss during Nara itinerary
Todai-ji Temple, a deer behind a tree, and the Big Buddha in Nara, Japan

About the Bamboo Traveler

Julie Krolak

Hi! I’m Julie, the Bamboo Traveler!  This blog is devoted to helping the inquisitive traveler explore Asia’s history, heritage, and culture. Fun facts about me: I’m from a town so small that if you blink, you might miss it. I once owned my own language school in China.

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