Whether you’re coming from Kyoto or Osaka, Nara is the perfect town for a day trip. With unparalleled temples and shrines, this beautiful town is a peaceful to get away and see a quieter side of Japan. And of course, you can’t miss the world famous Nara deer. But beware, they’re a bit more aggressive than they may seem!
How much time do I need in Nara?
Nara is famous for the historic shrines and temples that are mostly situated around Nara Deer Park. For adventurers to the Kansai (western) region of Japan, Nara is the perfect spot for a day trip. Fortunately both Kyoto and Osaka are only an hour away so for travelers staying there, it’s an easy journey. We recommend starting out early in the day to get to Nara a little bit before the crowds hit. After getting your fill of shrines and the deer, head back to either Kyoto or Osaka where there will be a little bit more to do at night.
Getting to Nara
It’s important to note that the Shinkansen does not have a stop in Nara. Travelers who are coming from Tokyo or points east should consider using the JR Rail Pass. These multi-day tickets allow for unlimited travel on JR lines and can be very cost effective for travelers doing multiple legs on the shinkansen.
However, if you’re already in Kyoto or Osaka and not using the JR Pass, we recommend taking the Kintetsu Line. This private railway line leaves from multiple departure stations in Kyoto and Osaka. An additional benefit is that the Kintetsu Nara Station is in the heart of the Nara Park area where the major points of interest are. JR Nara is only about a 10-minute walk away, but to maximize time we recommend taking the Kintestu Line if possible.
Can you walk around Nara?
Yes! Once you arrive at either JR Nara or Kintetsu Nara, the main attractions are all within walking distance. There’s even a chance that if you get off at Kintetsu Station you may see a rogue deer who came down from the park. It’s that close!
Our recommended course is to go from:
Nara Deer Park > Five Story Pagoda > Daibutsu > Todaiji Nigatsudo > Kasuga Taisha > Higashimuki Shopping Street
If you want to see all that Nara has to offer, we recommend wearing comfortable shoes. This route clocked in at about 25,000 steps and was well worth it but left our legs feeling a bit sore.
Warning! The Nara Deer are… aggressive!
The first thing you’ll notice when walking around Nara’s famous sights is just how many deer there are. While they may look docile in these pictures, and they are for the most part, you need to be alert when eating. While walking around I saw multiple deer get into folks’ backpacks, purses, and even pockets when they weren’t paying attention.
There are multiple vendors selling “shika senbei” (aka crackers) for the deer for 200 yen. The city asks that you do not feed the deer human food as it creates a variety of behavioral and environmental problems. If you want to get up close and personal with the deer, they’ll notice as soon as you start trying to buy the crackers from the vendors.
What I thought would be a cute experience turned a bit scary as I couldn’t feed the deer fast enough and when I ran out they kept nipping at me! Ultimately it’s a safe and fun activity and great for a photoshoot, but do be careful if you have kids who want to feed the deer.
Five-Story Pagoda: History under renovation
Goju-no-to (literally: Five Story Pagoda) is the oldest of its style in Japan, dating back to 600 AD. One thing that was a standout in Nara compared to other cities in Japan was how friendly and talkative the locals were. Multiple times I was approached by someone who genuinely wanted to explain Nara’s unique history and the importance of the sites. During one of these conversations, someone mentioned that the pagada was being prepared for a ~5 year renovation. Be warned, if you travel to Nara, you may not get a great view of Goju-no-to. However, the surrounding area has plenty of other temples!
“Daibutsu” (Large Buddah) in Nara
The next stop for day trippers to Nara is the amazing Daibutsu. Dating from 752 AD, this massive bronze Buddah is part of the long history of Buddhism in Japan. In order to get into the inner temple with the Buddah, there is a 500 yen admission fee and like most attractions in Nara, it closes around 4 or 5pm depending on the day and season.
Upon exiting Todaiji Temple where the large Buddah lives, I recommend taking a left and going up the hill to Todaiji Nigatsudo. Even in the early spring with cooler weather, it was a bit of a steep walk but it was so worth it. Upon arriving at the temple, we got to witness a procession of monks enter the temple and for the rest of the stay we could hear them tolling the bells and burning something. It felt like walking back in time!
Beyond the sites at the temple, the panoramic view over historic and modern Nara was a sight to behold. The modern city situated between the serene temple and the mountain range beyond offered a moment for contemplation (and to get off our feet!).
What is there to eat in Nara?
It was around the 13,000 step mark that I started to realize I was really, really hungry. If you’re walking around in the Todaiji Temple complex there are vendors and small restaurants. Even with the COVID 19 pandemic restrictions limiting tourism, most of the shops do have English menus to varying degrees of accuracy. If you’re looking for more western fare or a heartier meal, you may want to head back to the station area where there are a ton of restaurant options.
If you don’t need a full meal, then keep picking up snacks along your journeys. If caffeine is a necessity, I took a lovely thirty minutes at a Starbucks (I know!) next to the lake. It’s definitely a top 5 Starbucks with a view and the outdoor balcony
After Refueling, One More Stop: Kasuga Taisha
Let’s be honest, when traveling in Europe the cathedrals can get a bit old. It’s not unfair to say the same is true of Japan’s shrines and temples. While they are all very beautiful, they can also tend to be a little similar. But if you’re “templed-out” on your day trip to Nara, I still highly recommend checking out Kasuga Taisha. The iconic red color and torii gates are a bit reminiscent of Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto and Hie Shrine in Tokyo.
The Kasuga Taisha complex is dotted with so many shrines from large to incredibly small. The wooded area is the perfect place for a peaceful stroll and on the hotter summer days, it’s largely shaded to give you protection from the sun. There are still a good number of deer around but these deer tend to be more up in the woods and so you get a little bit more of a sense of them in their natural habitat.
Kasuga Taisha has a walking course of, wait for it… 15 shrines! If you’re a travel completionist, feel free to find and do the whole course. For us, the goal was just to get a feel and so we meandered through and it felt like the perfect capstone to our day.
Given the COVID 19 pandemic, many of the museums were still closed or operating under limited hours and so we largely stuck to adventuring outside and thought that was fine.
Wait! Before heading back to Kyoto or Osaka…
If you’re doing a day trip to Nara, you may be eager to head back to either Kyoto or Osaka. But if you set out early in the morning (~10am), you’ll likely have finished this itinerary by 3pm depending on how much you’ve done and your walking pace. At Navigating Japan, we always like to check out the craft beer scene whenever we head to a new place and Nara was no exception! If you’ve got the time before heading back, we recommend going to Yamato Craft Beer right on the Higashimuki Shopping Street.
Craft Beer in Nara
There are three main breweries right now in Nara. First and foremost is the Nara Brewing Company, which has taken on a bit of a national presence. Unfortunately it was closed on the day we went, but of the beers we’ve had of theirs in other places, it’s a great brewery. Another is a small tap room called Golden Rabbit (information in Japanese) which is near the Starbucks by the lake.
We stopped by Yamato Craft Beer, which has a location both on the shopping street and inside the Kintestsu Nara train station. Additionally, the “omiyage” (souvenir) shops near the station sell Yamato’s brews to go. They had a tasting flight of their four main beers and each was excellent in its own way!
In addition to the beers, they had brick oven pizza and it was so delicious. After hours of walking around Nara and in advance of an hour train ride back to Osaka, this was the perfect place to round out the adventure to Nara.
Should we stay overnight in Nara?
Here at Navigating Japan, we think that Nara is best served as a day trip. It’s a beautiful and fun destination, but most travelers to Japan have limited time and we want to help you maximize it! Given that most of the major sights are in close proximity and they tend to close by 5pm, you can definitely do it in a day. Additionally, the evening will be really quiet and there will be significantly more to do in Osaka or Kyoto. However, if you’re skipping Kyoto on this time to Kansai, then maybe a relaxing night in Nara will be a good way to decompress.
Hotel in Nara: JW Marriott!
Considering Nara is a bit quieter by night, we definitely recommend going bigger on your hotel selection should you choose to make your day trip to Nara a sleepover. To that end, we recommend the beautiful JW Marriott Nara. This high-end property is a bit on the expensive side, but after a long day of sightseeing it’s a great place to kick up your feet.
Map of Day Trip in Nara
This custom Google Maps shows the location of all the sights in the article. As you can see, everything is fairly close together which makes it easy to see what Nara has to offer in a day.
Daytrip from Osaka to Nara
Take either the JR Osaka Loop line from any station in Osaka to JR Nara. Alternatively, we recommend taking the Kintestu Line on the Express Train from Osaka Namba Station to Kintetsu Nara. Upon getting back to Osaka Namba, you’re right at Donotonbori Canal so there will be plenty of great options for dinner and nightlife.
Daytrip from Kyoto to Nara
Take the Kintetsu Line from Kyoto Station. Prioritize getting on an express train and transfer at Yamato-Saidaiji Station and then you’re two stops away from Kintetsu Nara Station.
Wrapping up Nara
For anyone with two+ weeks in Japan, we definitely recommend allocating a day to Nara. If your time is a bit shorter, then it might be a place that you can skip. Kyoto and even parts of Osaka have temples and shrines that are just as beautiful as what you can find in Nara. However, if history and religion are high on your points of interest for Japan, then Nara is a must-do. To maximize time, we think it can be done as a day trip, but feel free to reply in the comments! Do you need more time in Nara? Did we miss any must sees?