If you are traveling with kids, then you absolutely do not want to miss a trip to Nara. Even if you are not traveling with kids, Nara is an excellent day trip from Kyoto.
Nara was established in 710 and was Japan’s first permanent capital. This has resulted in a beautifully preserved city with plenty of historical buildings and monuments to explore. But I have to admit, the historic buildings and gardens were not the reason that we visited Nara. Our reason for visiting was the deer.
Getting to Nara
We visited Nara on a day trip from Kyoto. There are several ways to get to Nara. We had Japan rail passes, so we took the JR Nara line train from Kyoto station. The journey took about an hour. Nara is located about a one hour train trip from both Kyoto and Osaka, and is easy to reach from either of these cities.
What to do in Nara
When you arrive at Nara train station, you will exit into a large plaza. There is a tourist information office here, but most of the main attractions are within an easy walking distance. Start your visit by walking down Sanjo Dori towards Nara park. This street caters mostly to tourists and you will find lots of food vendors, souvenir shops, and cafes along this street.
Our main reason for visiting Nara was Nara park. But not really the park itself – our main reason for visiting was to see the semi tame deer that live in the park. The deer of Nara are semi wild, and are considered to be messengers of the Gods. There are several hundred deer who freely roam the park, and you are absolutely guaranteed to see deer if you visit Nara. There are several street vendors around the park who sell packs of “deer crackers” and the deer have learned to congregate around these spots as they are more likely to score an easy snack.
A word of caution – these deer are still wild animals, and as such, their behavior is unpredictable. The deer have been known to butt, bite and kick, so be aware whenever you are around the deer.
Once you are done with visiting the deer, there are several other fantastic attractions within the park itself and within an easy walking distance.
Within the park, you will find the shrines and temples of Todaiji, Kasuga Taisha, and Kofukuji. The park is also home of the Nara National Museum. The Nara National Museum is an art museum housing primarily Buddhist art as well as rotating temporary exhibitions. The museum is well sign posted in English.
After visiting the museum, it is only a short walk to the beautiful and highly recommended Isuien Garden. The gardens are incredibly tranquil and wind their way around various ponds and water features. There are also several small tea houses scattered throughout the garden, which offer a nice quiet spot to stop and enjoy the view and ambiance. This was my favorite Japanese garden.
When you are done visiting Nara, head back to the station to catch one of the many connections either back to Kyoto or Osaka, or onward to your next destination.