With some 1,600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines in Kyoto alone (here’s how to visit one), the city has enough religious monuments to occupy you for a lifetime. Those looking for a short trip outside the city, however, may want to consider the 45 minute voyage to nearby Nara. Within the city itself, six temples, one shrine, and one palace form a UNESCO World Heritage site. Read on to find out how and why Nara is worth a visit.
Nara is an easy day trip from Kyoto, with trains running direct every 30 minutes from Kyoto station and arriving in Nara 45 minutes later. Tickets cost ¥760, but if you buy a JR (Japan Rail) Pass, it can be used for trip at no extra cost. From Nara station, it’s a 30-minute walk or 10-minute cab ride to Nara Park. Read more about our half-day Nara excursion here.
When to go:
Nara has a relatively temperate climate, and winter temperatures falling below 0°C. In summer, temperatures top out at a toasty 35°C, although the shade at Nara Park provides some relief.
Why you should go:
Nara was the capital of Japan from 710 to 794; this is known in Japanese history as the Nara Period. Its temples are known collectively as Nanto Shichi Daiji (literally the “seven great temples of Nanto,” Nanto being a synonym of Nara). Together, these temples form a UNESCO World Heritage site. Not all the temples are grouped together, but on a day-trip to Nara you can easily visit the three sites inside Nara Park—Todai-ji, Kofuku-ji, and Kasuga Shrine.
Todai-ji, a Buddhist temple dating back to 750, is home to the world’s largest Bronze Buddha Vairocana (a celestial Buddha). In Japanese, this Buddha is known simply as “Giant Buddha” (Daibutsu). It’s believed that more than 350,000 people worked on the Great Buddha’s construction. During the Nara Period, Buddhism was State-regulated, with six established Buddhist schools in Japan; Todai-ji was the central administrative temple for these schools’ provincial outposts. While the Buddha is Todai-ji’s most famous remaining legacy, its Shuni-e ceremony is equally important. This is annual ceremony held at certain Buddhist temples in Japan; at Todai-ji it takes place during the first half of March and dates back to 752. Shuni-e is about repenting to Buddha and praying for society and involves both a water and fire ceremony, and these are open to the public.
Temple Kofuku-ji has two pagodas, three and five storeys tall, and four great halls, inside one of which is a gleaming gilded Buddha. Although Kofuku-ji dates back to 669—when it was built by a woman hoping her husband would recover from illness—the temple was built in Kyoto and then moved to Nara in 710. The temple that you see today is not the original Kofuku-ji; war and fire destroyed two of the three golden halls and two of the gates, and they have not been replaced.
At Kasuga-taisha (shrine), is a Shinto shrine dedicated to protecting the city of Nara. The shrine has thousands of stone lanterns lining its entry pathway and within are hundreds of bronze lanterns, donated by worshippers. Anyone who has visited Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto will immediately recognize Kasuga shrine’s orange torii gates. Around Kasuga Shrine are smaller shrines, 12 of which are dedicated to 12 lucky gods. These shrines include Meoto Daikokusha, which is believed to offer good luck for matchmaking and marriage.
Within Nara Park some 1,200 deer roam free. Practitioners of Shintoism, Japan’s indigenous religion, believe in kami, sacred spirits that are elements in nature—animals, plants, and bodies of water. The deer in Nara Park are believed to be messengers of the gods. Docent and former Zen monk Casper Wits says, “In Shinto you will find that spirit animals serve as messengers of the gods, with each god associated with one specific animal. For example, the fox is connected to the god Inari, famous for the Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto. The deer that roam Nara are connected to the Kasuga deity to whom the Kasuga shrine in Nara is dedicated.”
Where to eat:
Within Nara Park, just north of the pond, is a lovely old restaurant called Uma no Me. Inside a 1920s farmhouse, Uma no Me’s kitchen serves up prix-fixe lunches and dinners, so ordering is easy. Most popular is the lunch set with seasonal vegetables, tofu, and fried fish, served with local green tea.