5 reasons to visit Nara, Japan

Home to eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites, traditional gardens and some of the friendliest inhabitants in all of Japan, here’s why the ancient city of Nara is not one to be missed…

8 mins

1. The amazing Tōdai-ji Temple

Nara's Tōdai-ji Temple (Shutterstock)

Nara's Tōdai-ji Temple (Shutterstock)

Originally constructed in 752AD, Tōdai-ji Temple is now an icon of Nara, protected by UNESCO and one of the most historically significant temples in Japan.

Behind the Nandaimon Gate and the two fierce Nao figures guarding it lies the Great Hall. In this space sits the greatest prize of all: a 15m bronze Daibutsu (Great Buddha) which holds the record as the world’s largest Bronze statue of Buddha Vairocana.

Unusually, visitors can clamber their way through Daibutsu’s nostril. It's said that those fortunate enough to fit through the small hole in the base of a pillar (resembling the Buddha’s nostril) will be granted enlightenment in the next life.

The Great Hall is also home to a cavern of additional smaller Buddhist statues and models of the original temple, constructed by Emperor Shōmu during the Tenpyō era.

2. The friendly locals

Nara's friendliest local (Lucy Bairstow)

Nara's friendliest local (Lucy Bairstow)

Well, hello there! (Lucy Bairstow)

Well, hello there! (Lucy Bairstow)

Love wildlife? Nara Park is home to over 1,000 deer, who you'll find roaming freely around the grounds. Incredibly inquisitive and surprisingly tame, the deer will give the warmest welcome to all visitors. It’s hard not to fall in love.

These inhabitants have become synonymous with the city and are reason enough themselves to plan a visit. If you do, purchase shika senbi (deer crackers) from one of the street vendors, and the deer will quickly become your new best friend.

It'll allow some precious one-on-one time away from the other visitors to get the perfect photograph.

3. Forest bathing in Isui-en Garden

Isui-en Garden, Nara, Japan (Shutterstock)

Isui-en Garden, Nara, Japan (Shutterstock)

Situated in between two of Japan’s largest cities, Nara offers some welcome down time from the hustle and bustle. The Isui-en Garden is a perfect opportunity to focus on the natural world.

Isui-en is the perfect place to practice forest bathing. Opt for a later afternoon visit to avoid the crowds and make the most of the space. Keep your phone on silent and enjoy meandering around the park's lakes, until you reach the centre pond. 

Here, you will spot two sculptures - a crane and a tortoise - both of which are said to represent longevity in Japanese culture.

Isui-en is also a fantastic place to witness Nara’s changing seasons, from the blush-adorned blossoms of spring to the distinguished reds of autumn. Each season brings with it a dazzling colour palette. 

4. The delicious street food

A popular street food vendor in Nara, Japan (Shutterstock)

A popular street food vendor in Nara, Japan (Shutterstock)

You won't go hungry in Nara. It's street food heaven, and like many cities in Japan, it's the ideal destination for anyone with a sweet tooth, too.

Don't be put off by a small crowd, head to popular sweet shop Nakatanidou to witness the chefs prepare a traditional Nara speciality: yomogi mochi.

The type of mochi (a warm, soft Japanese cake made with sticky rice) found in Nara is a variation on the Japanese classic, flavoured with mugwort, filled with anko (a sweet red bean paste) and finished with kinako (a sweetened soybean flour).

The show which accompanies the snack is the true treat. Owner Mitsuo Nakatani has been using the same technique of pounding the sticky rice with a wooden hammer to form the stretchy paste for 25 years.

To drink, grab some sake (Japanese rice wine). Rumour has it that Nara is the home of this traditional alcoholic drink, so there's no better place to enjoy a tipple. Enthusiasts with a thirst for more knowledge should head to the Harushika Brewery for regular tours and tasting sessions.

5. The ancient history

The Great Buddha in Tōdai-ji Temple (Shutterstock)

The Great Buddha in Tōdai-ji Temple (Shutterstock)

Although sometimes overshadowed by its neighbours in size, Nara’s history is rich and expansive.

During the Nara period (710AD to 794AD) in Japan's history, Empress Genmei established Nara as the country's capital, until Emperor Kanmu moved it to Kyoto in 794.

Today, the city preserves Japan’s ancient history in several world-class museums and galleries, with visitors arriving from around the globe to learn about Japan's religious and cultural development from ancient times to the modern day. 

Nara’s National Museum, in particular, displays an impressive collection of traditional Buddhist art ranging from statues and paintings to scrolls and ceremonial objects. Here, these permanent artefacts sit beside a rotation of temporary exhibitions, including an annual exhibition every autumn of treasure from Tōdai-ji Temple.

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