Nara (奈良) is an ancient capital city in Nara Prefecture, Kansai region of Japan. It is currently holding it's 1300th aniversary celebration throughout 2010.
Overshadowed by its more famous neighbor Kyoto, Nara is omitted from many a time-pressed tourist's itinerary. However, Nara is home to many important scenic and historical sites, and today preserves its main sights much more attractively than Kyoto within Nara Park and neighborhoods like Naramachi.
Along with the development of Heijyōkyō (平城京), the capital of Japan between 710-784 AD, Nara flourished under the influence of Buddhism, leading to the creation of an enormous number of cultural assets, buildings and books, many of which are preserved today. Nara has the largest number of buildings designated National Treasures in Japan.
While the Heijyōkyū Palace (平城宮) site turned into plain fields after the capital was moved to Kyoto, the shrines and temples were left on the east side of the palace (called Gekyo (外京)), and Buddhism remained influential throughout the following centuries. Another part of the area developed as a merchant town, notably in the Edo period, known as Naramachi (奈良町) today.
Nara does not have its own airport; most visitors arrive via either Kansai International Airport or Osaka's Itami Airport.
From Kansai Airport, Airport Limousine buses run to the two Nara train stations every hour (¥1800, 1 1/2 hours). More frequent service is available by rail: If you have a Japan Rail Pass, you can take the Haruka limited express to Tennoji station and then transfer to the Yamatoji line for the run to Nara (¥2900, no charge with rail pass). Otherwise, it's cheaper to take the Nankai Railway's Kūkō-Kyūkō (空港急行) express train to Shin-Imamiya, and then take the JR Yamatoji line from there (¥1430). With good connections, both trips take around 1 1/4 hours and 1 1/2 hours, respectively.
Limousine buses connect Itami Airport to the two Nara train stations for ¥1440; the ride takes about one hour.
From Kyoto station, both the JR Nara Line and the private Kintetsu Kyoto Line will get you to Nara quickly. The Kintetsu Nara station is better located than the JR Nara station, and all-reserved Tokkyū (特急) trains leave Kyoto twice an hour, making the run to Nara in 35 minutes. On slower but more-frequent Kyūkō (急行) services, the trip takes about 50 minutes and you may need to change trains at Yamato-Saidaiji station. The trip will cost ¥610, plus an extra ¥500 on the Tokkyū. For Japan Rail Pass holders, JR's Miyakoji Kaisoku (みやこ路快速) runs during mid-day hours from Kyoto to Nara in 45 minutes (¥690, no charge with rail pass).
The fastest route from Osaka is to take the private Kintetsu Nara Line from Namba station. Kaisoku-Kyūkō (快速急行) trains run three times per hour to Kintetsu Nara (40 minutes, ¥540). For Japan Rail Pass holders, JR runs up to three Yamatoji Kaisoku (大和路快速) trains each hour from Osaka, Tennōji, and intermediate stations on the Osaka Loop Line. The run to Nara is 45 minutes from Osaka Station and 30 minutes from Tennōji (¥780 and ¥450 respectively, no charge with rail pass).
Hanshin offers services from Kobe's Sannomiya station to Kintetsu Nara via the Hanshin Namba line for ¥940. Direct Kaisoku-Kyūkō services leave three times per hour during most of the day, otherwise you will have to change trains at Amagasaki. The trip takes about 90 minutes.
If travelling between Kyoto, Nara and Osaka consider purchasing the Kansai thru-pass which enables unlimited travel for 2 or 3 days on private railways, buses and subways (not-JR) within the Kansai area.
As Nara is a major tourist attraction, there are a good number of buses that run between Nara and other locations throughout Japan, which can result in significant savings when compared to train fares.
The JR Bus Group (Japanese Website) is a major operator of the routes from the Tokyo area to Kansai. Buses operate via the Tomei Expressway to and from Tokyo Station, and make a stop at Kyoto Station en-route.
Seat reservations for JR Buses can be made in train stations at the same "Midori-no-Madoguchi" ticket windows used to reserve seats on trains.
The following overnight services are available: (Current as of January, 2009)
The Seishun Dream Nara departs from Tokyo Station every night at 21:50, with the returning service leaving Nara at 21:10. ¥5000 each way. The bus offers 4-across seating (2x2) with limited amenities.
The Dream Nara departs nightly from Ueno Station (21:20) and Tokyo Station (22:00), with the returning service leaving Nara at 20:50. ¥8400 each way; ¥1000 discount on most departures if ticket is purchased 5 days in advance. The bus offers wider, comfortable 3-across seating (1x1x1) and offers more amenities such as blankets.
Both of these services reach Nara in about 9 1/2 hours.
The Japan Rail Pass is not valid on the Tokyo-Nara bus route. However, you can take a bus into Kyoto Station (daytime or overnight), which is covered under the pass, and change there for rail service on the JR Nara Line for the final part of the journey.
Once within Nara Park, you can simply walk to almost all the other major sites. The conventional round course (from Kintetsu Nara Station to Kōfuku-ji, Nara National Museum, Tōdai-ji, Kasuga Taisha and back to Kintetsu Nara Station) is about 6km long, usually a quite pleasant walk for a tourist.
Fare to Tōshōdai-ji (E-8) from JR and Kintetsu Nara stations (E-6, E-7) is ¥240.
Fare to Yakushi-ji (E-10) from JR and Kintetsu Nara stations (E-6, E-7) is ¥320.
Fare to Hōryu-ji (E-15) from JR and Kintetsu Nara stations (E-6, E-7) is ¥760.
See also World Heritage Tour in Nara
If you only have one day to spend in Nara, focus on Nara Park. With more time, though, there's more to see. Three days in Nara provides suggestions for longer trips to the area.
Most of Nara's sights, including temples, shrines and famously mercenary deer, are concentrated in Nara Park (奈良公園 Nara-kōen), a wide, pleasant space of greenery. According to legend, the god of the Kasuga Taisha came riding a white deer in the old days, so the deer enjoy protected status as envoys of the god; however, based on their current behavior, either the deer have lost the job, or the god has taken an extremely passionate interest in biscuits from tourists (¥150), empty food wrappers and harassing shopkeepers.
Tōdai-ji (東大寺), 8AM-4:30PM Nov-Feb, to 5PM Mar / Oct, 7:30AM-5:30PM Apr-Sep, Home to the famous *Daibutsu* (大仏), the largest Buddha statue in Japan and one of the largest in the world, appropriately, the Daibutsu-den, which houses it, is said to be the largest wooden building in the world. It's listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The giant front gate, *Nandai-mon*, is guarded by two fierce, awe-inspiring protectors. (It's also swarmed by deer, who know this is the best place to come looking for a hand-out.) Through the gate is a stone path leading to the outer walls surrounding the Daibutsu-den. Follow the signs to the left to enter the inner courtyard; if you happen to have a stick of incense with you, join the crowd around the incense offerings before you head onward.
The *Daibutsu-den* also contains four other giant statues. Once you've taken in the Daibutsu itself, walk around it to the left to see the other statues, as well as a few old tiles and leftover relics. There's a stand inviting you to sponsor a tile in order to help with the upkeep of the temple, and English-language fortune scrolls (**omikuji**) are on sale year-round. Take a final look at the Daibutsu as you leave; don't let the souvenir stand be your last memory of this incredible sight.
Just before the souvenir area, behind and to the right of the Daibutsu, is a wooden column with a small hole carved through the bottom. Enlightenment is reportedly promised to anyone who can squeeze through this hole. In practice, this means a lot of kids have enlightenment in store (thanks in part to other kids who kick their feet to
Kōfuku-ji (興福寺) , 9AM-5PM, This temple has a three-story and a five-story pagoda; historically, the latter has contended with Kyoto's Toji for the title of Tallest Pagoda in Japan, although Kofuku-ji seems to have surrendered for now.
Sarusawa Pond (猿沢の池), This small pond at the east end of Sanjō-dōri with Nara Park behind or Naramachi to its south is a very popular viewing spot for Kōfukuji.
Nara National Museum (奈良国立博物館) , 9:30AM to 5 PM, 50 Noborioji-cho, This museum has one of the world's best collections of Buddhist art and changing exhibitions. The National Treasure Hall has an impressive collection of statues. There are
Himuro Shrine (氷室神社) , 7AM-5PM, 10-minute walk from the Kintetsu Nara station. Across the street from the Nara National Museum , A shrine dating from 1217 and home to several fine cherry trees. Although the architecture is unremarkable, the trees in front of the shrine explode into beautiful clouds of pale pink and white blossoms during the spring blooming period (late March-early April).
Ukimidō (浮見堂), A hexagonal building built on Sagi-ike (鷺池) Pond in Nara Park so that it appears to float on water.
Kasuga Taisha (春日大社), Worth a visit for the beautiful approach, through the Kasuga-yama Primeval Forest (see below), more than the temple itself. What Kyoto's Fushimi Inari Taisha is for **torii**, Kasuga Taisha is for stone lanterns. Notice the giant rack of sake barrels near the front gate and the fountain-statue of a giant buck. The temple is occasionally closed for services, but a walk around the outside is likely to be no less rewarding.
Kasuga-yama Hill Primeval Forest (春日山原生林), A gorgeous hill of wild, undeveloped forest leading to Kasuga Taisha and some of the other sights in Nara Koen. The path is clearly marked, though, so don't worry about getting lost. It's a magical, quiet walk at any time of day. If you're determined to feed some deer, save your biscuits for the ones out here instead of the loafers by Todai-ji.
Shin-Yakushi-ji (新薬師寺), 9AM-5PM, Can be reached through the primeval forest; follow the signs from Kasuga Taisha, It's a single hall with twelve ferocious warrior statues (each with his own collection plate) standing guard by a Buddha of healing. The statues are quite impressive; this is as well-protected a Buddha as you're likely to find.
Nara City Museum of Photography (奈良市写真美術館) , 0742-22-9811, 9:30AM-5PM, 600-1 Takabatake-chō, Near Shin-Yakushi-ji, a couple blocks outside Nara Park, The steel-and-glass building sits as if reflected upon the linear pond that surrounds it. Inside, there are reasonably interesting exhibits of photography on local subjects like the Mount Wakakusa Fire Festival (see below).
Yakushi-ji (薬師寺) , 074-233-6001, 8:30AM-5PM, 457 Nishinokyo-chō, A short walk from Nishinokyo Station and Toshodai-ji, Although most of the temple was reconstructed in the 1970s after a fire, Yakushi-ji is still worth the visit. The Buddhist Yakushi trinity housed in the **hondo** is a great work, and the the two pagodas on each side of the temple make it a unique and recognizable complex. The east pagoda has survived and dates back to 730 AD. Like Gango-ji, Yakushi-ji was one of the seven top temples in the city during the Nara Period.
Gangō-ji (元興寺) , 074-223-1377, 9AM-5PM, 11 Chuin-chō, In Nara-machi, near Kofuku-ji, It was considered to be one of the seven most important temples in Nara back in the days when Nara was the nation's capital. The original temple burned down in the 18th century, but the architectural style remains true to the original, with its unique Korean-style roof. The mandala within the temple is one of the most famous in the nation. Around the outside of the temple there are many Buddhist statues, but perhaps more interesting are the various demon statues scattered about among them. While the Buddhist statues are quite typical and obviously religious, the demon statues are comical and seem out-of-place. Some even appear sacrilegious, with a demon doing Zen meditation among the Buddhist statues and another in a rather erotic centerfold-like pose. There is a story that supposedly associates the demons with the temple. For visitors, it is fun to try to spot them all.
Heijōkyū Palace Site (平城宮跡) , 074-230-6752, 2-9-1 Nijo-chō, The *Suzaku Gate* (朱雀門) is a replica, along with the newly built *Daigoku-den* (大極殿). In the center of this large expanse of land you'll find the best preserved excavation area, with some foundation structures on the site. On the rest of the grounds, you can still see where structures once stood by looking at the elevated and sunken areas. On opposite ends of the site there are museums where you can learn about the history of the palace, see artifacts recovered from the excavation, and learn about the excavation process.
Tōshōdai-ji (唐招提寺), 074-233-7900, 8:30AM-5PM, 13-46 Gojo-chō,, A short walk from Nishinokyo Station and Yakushi-ji, A temple that was important in helping to spread Buddhist teachings in Japan, Toshodai-ji is where the great Chinese priest Ganjin preached. His grave is within the precints of the temple.
Naramachi is ten minutes on foot south of Kintetsu Nara station. The neighborhood, originally founded in the 8th Century when Heijōkyō was the capital of Japan, today contains several small museums, machiya (町家) (traditional Japanese merchant houses from Edo Period), unique cafes and restaurants and much more. (David Bowie is rumored to have owned a house here.) It's well worth the time to stop and do a tasting at Harushika (春鹿), Naramachi's fabulous Nihon-shu (sake) brewery.
Mount Wakakusa Fire Festival (Wakakusa-yamayaki), Nara Park - Wakakusayama. Night before second Monday on New Year (but it is good to call before going, because they sometimes change the date, mainly due to weather reasons). Great fireworks and the dry grass on the slopes of this mountain is set on fire by two temples. The size of the burn depends on how dry the grass is.
Shuni-e (Omizu-tori) (修二会 (お水取り)), Nigatsu-dō of Todai-ji Temple (東大寺二月堂.) At nights every 1-14 Mar. An annual Buddhist memorial service that has been carried out first in 752 AD and continues today without one single break. Priests will run around the Nigatsu-dō carrying 1m large fire torches.
Nara Tōka-e (なら燈火会) is a light festival held 6-15 Aug every year. 10,000 candles illuminate the area around Nara Park and major temples.
Deer-horn Cutting Ceremony, at Roku-en (鹿苑) inside Nara Park. Every Oct. The deer have their horns cut to prevent people from being injured.
A local specialty is kaki-no-hazushi (柿の葉ずし), or sushi (usually mackerel and/or salmon) wrapped in persimmon leaves, which actually originates from nearby Yoshino. Kudzu from Yoshino too is a very renowned product of Nara, which is used for making various food ranging from kudzu noodles (葛切り kuzu-kiri) to Japanese sweets (和菓子 wagashi). The thin wheat noodles (somen) from Miwa region (三輪そうめん Miwa sōmen) has a long history as old as Nara; the noodles are served either hot or cold. Note that closing times are generally as early as 10 PM in Nara.
Another well-known culinary product is shika-senbei, a rice cracker sold around Nara Park. Don't try eating it yourself though — it's meant for the deer!
Okaru (おかる), 0742-24-3686, 11AM-9PM Closed on W except if Holiday, 13 Higashimuki-Minamimachi, inside Higashimuki Shopping Street arcade, A restaurant specialized in ***okonomiyaki*** (お好み焼き), the pan-fried cabbage cake with selection of meat. **Okonomiyaki** is definitely shortlisted on Kansai people's most beloved dishes. ¥530-1400. English menu available. Samples displayed at front.
Yatagarasu (やたがらす), 0742-20-0808, Daily 5PM-midnight, 13-1 Hayashi-kōji-cho, Fresh poultry from local farms cooked and served in many different ways (eg. grilled, fried, even raw) with a variety of either local or other regional sake available.
Nara Shōya (奈良庄屋), 0742-24-2151, Daily 11:30AM-2PM, 4:30PM-11PM, 48-5 Takama-cho (Keiwa building B1F), A branch of large chain pub restaurant with traditional food like raw fish (さしみ **sashimi**), sushi, tempura, yakitori available. Though little (except for sake) is Nara local, quality of food is excellent for a chain type of restaurant. The restaurant is always filled with a dynamic, yet agreeable mood.
Maguro Koya (まぐろ小屋), Exit Kintetsu Nara station, and you'll see a fountain of a Buddhist monk. Cross the lights to the other side of the big street there, and go into the small street that runs perpendicular to the big street. Walk a couple hundred meters, passing an am/pm convenience store on your right, and you will see an Asahi beer sign on the road, with the words まぐろ小屋 written on it on your left side., A tiny hole-in-the-wall place that specializes in tuna. Tekka don (rice bowl with raw slices of tuna and thinly sliced nori), tuna karaage (breaded deep fried pieces of tuna), tataki (seared on the outside, raw on the inside slices of tuna), and many other methods of preparations. For most meals you can choose a maguro (tuna), honmaguro toro (Japanese fatty tuna), or chuutoro (fatty tuna) version of the dish. The proprietor is an ojiisan (elderly gentleman) who seems to really like what he's doing, is friendly and welcoming. An English menu is available.
Alternatively, you can take out kaki-no-hazushi, the persimmon leaf wrapped sushi, which is actually very popular for domestic travellers. There are three kaki-no-hazushi stores that can be easily spotted around Kintetsu Nara Station. Packages of various size and combination are available.
Hiraso (the same brand as mentioned above), close to the north entrance of Higashimuki Shopping arcade, next to a bakery called Douce.
Nakatani Honpo (中谷本舗), inside the Kintetsu Station concourse.
Honpo Tanaka (本舗たなか), in front of Bus terminal & Taxi zone above Kintetsu Nara Station.
Otherwise, a take-out sushi store, again in the Kintetsu Nara Station concourse named Maruchū (丸忠) has a selection of prepared packages ranging ¥400-1000 with good quality.
Yamato-cha (大和茶) is the locally produced Japanese green tea which is healthy and tasty. There are also numerous sake brands, among which is Harushika brand, produced by one of the oldest existing sake breweries in Japan.
Kuramoto Hoshuku (蔵元 豊祝), 0742-26-2625, Daily 11:30AM-2PM, 4PM-9PM, 28 Higashimuki (Nara Kintetsu building B1F), in the Kintetsu Nara Station concourse, Directly operated by a local brewery Nara Toyosawa.
Wembley Crown (ザ・ウェンブリー・クラウン) , 0742-26-7741, 5PM-11PM, Nishimura bldg, 14 Mochiidonochou, a 3-min. walk from the north entrance of Mochiidono Center Arcade, on the east side, A British pub with local and import beers, pub food and naturally premier league, rugby and other English sports on the telly
House of the Rising Sun (大和茶 蔵祝), 0742-32-405, 299 Namibashi-Kudo 2 chome, Popular foreigner Bar - the best place for a pint in Nara
Ryokan Seikansō (静観荘), 0742-22-2670, 0742-22-2670, 29 Higashi-Kitsuji-cho, 15 minutes south of Nara Kintetsu station, along Mochiidono Street, Tatami mats, classical architecture, and a well-kept inner garden feature in this traōditional ryokan. The rooms are showing their age, but each features a samovar for tea and a small room with a table overlooking the garden. The shared bathrooms have been recently remodeled. Japanese/Western breakfast for ¥700/450 is served in the tatami dining room. The manager speaks limited (but sufficient) English.
Ryokan Matsumae , 0742-22-3686, 0742-22-3686, 28-1 Higashi-Terabayashi-cho, Nara, Nara Pref. 630-8362, Located off Sanjo-dori, close to Sarusawa Pond and Gango-ji, about 7 minutes from Kintetsu Nara station or 15 minutes from JR Nara. The owners profess to be
Guesthouse Yougendo (涌玄堂) , 0745-32-0514, 0745-32-0514, 13-25 Kudo 2 chome, Oji Cho, 15 min by train from JR Nara, A stately, budget-style home/BnB/hostel in the Nara area, run by an international couple.
Nara Washington Hotel Plaza (奈良ワシントンホテルプラザ) , 0742-27-0410, 31-1 Shimosanjō-cho, on Sanjō Avenue, nationwide chain hotel of modern western style. Convenient location. All rooms equipped with free Internet access.
Kikusuirō (菊水楼), 0742-23-2001, 1130 Takabatake-cho, Typical Japanese-style deluxe **ryokan** inn.
Narazuke (奈良漬). A local specialty pickle made of various vegetables and fruit, traditionally melon cucumber (瓜 uri). The distinctive strong flavor comes from the use of sakekasu, the sediment of sake fermentation, and the pickle also has some residual alcohol. Shops are found on any of the shopping areas listed below.
Handmade writing brushes (fude,筆) and ink (sumi,墨). Nara is famous for its calligraphy brushes called Narafude (奈良筆), which are available in the specialist stores on Sanjō-dōri Avenue. However, as these brushes are made with a special kind of animal hair, they are expensive and rare, and customers will need to make a specific request for them. Other brushes sold in the specialist stores will be less expensive than Narafude, but still generally of reputable quality.
Nara Sarashi (奈良晒), or Nara fabrics, is another traditionally artisanal product of Nara. Originally made of boehmeria variation plants in the older ages, cotton has become the major material since Edo Period, mainly due to availability and cost. Towels, handkerchiefs, blankets, blinds and many other cloth material products can be found in stores located on Mochiidono Shopping street or in Naramachi area.
Higashimuki Shopping Street (東向き商店街), a covered shopping arcade of about 250m stretching south from Kintetsu Nara Station, where many souvenir shops as well as restaurants can be found
Mochiidono Shopping Street (もちいどの商店街), nother covered arcade further into south, connecting from Higashimuki Shopping Street, is the main street leading to the center of Naramachi.
Sanjō-dōri Avenue (三条通り), most shops are located within the apporx. 800m zone, between JR Nara Station and sounth end of Higashimuki Shopping Street, of this Avenue. Many souvenir shops, traditional writing brush (**fude**,筆) and ink (**sumi**,墨) stores, **narazuke** stores as well as various bars and restaurants are located on this avenue. Most of the major banks are found on this Avenue, too.
The deer in Nara Park tend to be friendly and perhaps overly eager to eat shika-senbei (¥150) biscuits from the hands of tourists. Small children may be frightened to have the suddenly manic deer coming after them, so it may be best to feed the deer yourself and let the kids watch. While in the Kasuga-yama forest, steer clear of any deer which still have their antlers. They can be aggressive and their antlers can injure you.
If you are allergic to pollen, beware: the heaviest cedar pollen fluctuation in this area is usually from mid-February to April.
Three organizations offer free tours in English:
Nara YMCA Goodwill Guides 0742-45-5920
Nara Student Guide 0742-26-4753.
Nara S.G.G. Club 0742-22-5595.
Tour with Professional Guides in English:
No reservation needed for their daily tour.
Tour covers major tourist destinations around Nara Park: The Great Buddha and Todaiji Temple, Kofukuji Temple, Deer Park and Kasuga Shrine
Tour also available in French (need reservation)
Can arrange a private tour (need prior arrangements)
Nara features the typical range of English conversation schools near the Kintetsu station.
Tourist information centers operate in Nara:
Nara City Tourist Information Center (on Sanjo-dori) 0742-22-3900. 9 AM to 9 PM
JR Nara Station 0742-22-9821. 9 AM to 5 PM.
Kintetsu Nara Station 0742-24-4858. 9 AM to 5 PM.
Sarusawa Pond 0742-26-1991. 9 AM to 5 PM.
As the center of a plain dense with history, Nara makes a good hub for exploring the vicinity.
3 days World Heritage Tour in Nara
Asuka (飛鳥) — the homeground of Japan's earliest historical capital city, Asukakyo (飛鳥京)
Hōryūji (法隆寺) — A World Heritage site with an ancient temple complex housing some of the oldest existing wooden buildings in the world
Yoshino (吉野) — the mountain area which comprises a part of another UNESCO World Heritage, and possibly Japan's most famous cherry blossom viewing spots
Kashihara (橿原) — the site of Japan's capital city, Fujiwarakyo (藤原京), before Nara.
Imai (今井町) — part of contemporary Kashihara City, preserving full of old merchant houses dating back from Edo period.
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