Nara is a short train ride away from both Kyoto and Osaka, making it an easy day trip. Chock-full of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Nara is a popular destination for its charm, history and cultural importance. Read on for the best things to do in Nara on your next visit.
Before we jump into what to do in Nara, though, here’s a bit of background to inform your itinerary. Established in 710, the city of Nara is famous for being Japan’s first permanent capital. Prior to that, the capital had moved depending on where the emperor of the time lived. Then called Heijo-kyo, Nara reigned until 794, when the capital was changed to Kyoto (now, of course, it's Tokyo). During Nara’s years of power, many important cultural and historical sites were built, with many still standing. Today, Nara is a small but thriving city, with lots of sightseeing opportunities!
22 Unforgettable Things to Do in Nara
Some of the best things to do in Nara include:
- Meet the famous deer in Nara Park
- Gaze at the Big Buddha of Todaiji Temple
- Make your own bento box
- See Kofuku-ji Temple and its famous five-story pagoda
- Stroll through the old Naramachi District
- Go temple and shrine hopping
- View Japanese Buddhist artworks at the Nara National Museum
- Slow down with a farm stay
- See the three gardens of Yoshikien
- Admire the "borrowed scenery" of Isuien Garden
- Check out the hanging lanterns at Kasuga Taisha Shrine
- Explore Heijo Palace
- Watch a mochi-making demonstration (and try some)
- Rent bikes and cycle around quaint Asuka
- Step out into Kasugayama Primeval Forest
- Taste local sweets with a cup of matcha green tea
- Take in Omizutori, the festival of fire and water (March)
- Watch a masked Noh performance (May)
- Eat as many persimmons as possible (plus persimmon-leaf sushi)
- "Hike" up Mount Wakakusayama
- See Mount Wakakusayama get set on fire (late January)
- Climb Mount Yoshino for thousands of cherry blossoms (March - April)
1. Make Friends with the Deer Roaming Around Nara Park
Stretching over 500 hectares, Nara Koen, or Nara Park, is an enormous green area in the center of Nara. The grounds were established in 1880 and house many of Nara’s attractions. Nara National Museum, Todaiji Temple, Kofukuji Temple and Kasuga Taisha Shrine are some of the main sightseeing spots in the area.
While you’ll definitely see Nara’s resident deer cruising around the city, Nara Park is their "headquarters", with hundreds of them roaming freely around the open grass area. You can buy deer crackers, or “shika senbei”, to try and befriend some with a snack. Bow and see what they do in response! Just watch out for the more "eager" ones!
2. Gaze at the Big Buddha of Todaiji Temple
Making the pilgrimage to see the famous Big Buddha in all its glory is one of the most important things to do in Nara. You’ll find the Big Buddha, or “Daibutsu”, inside Todaiji Temple. With its name translating to “Great Eastern Temple,” Todaiji is one of the most famous temples in Japan, with immense cultural and historical significance. It was originally built in 752 to act as the head temple of all provincial Buddhist temples in Japan.
Today, Todaiji’s main hall (the Daibutsuen, or “Big Buddha Hall”) houses the Big Buddha, which is made of bronze and stands at a whopping 15 meters. The Big Buddha is one of the largest bronze Buddha statues in Japan, and is quite a sight inside one of the world's largest wooden buildings.
3. Make Your Own Bento Box (Vegan Options Available)
For something that's both fun and sustainable, learn how to make a Japanese bento (a lunchbox) in the calm Nara countryside. Choose from a classic bento with chicken meatballs and Japanese-style omelette, or a colorful vegan bento that scores high in wabi-sabi points.
The teacher was born and raised in Nara, and is passionate about sharing her knowledge of local foods (and life). You can take home the bento box itself to use again and again, and your host will throw in a furoshiki cloth to wrap it in, too.
4. Visit Kofuku-ji Temple and its Famous Five-story Pagoda
Named as one of Nara’s most famous UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Kofukuji is best known for its five-story pagoda. A symbol that’s recognised throughout Japan, the temple was first built by the Fujiwara family clan in 669, with the latest reconstruction dating back to 1426.
Originally, Kofukuji stood in Kyoto, but was relocated to its permanent location in Nara Park, where you’ll see it today. However, only two pagodas remain out of the original temple complex. Tip: Visit the National Treasure House called “Kokuhokan” to see an array of antique statues.
5. Step Back in Time: Stroll Through the Naramachi District
What is cool about Nara is that it’s a compact city with modernity and traditional elements together. Established during the Edo period and named after the long “machiya” townhouses that make up the narrow lanes of the neighborhood, Naramachi is known as Nara’s former merchant district.
Many of the residential buildings and warehouses have been preserved and converted into museums, shops and restaurants. You can wander through them to find cozy cafes and tiny shopfronts, or even sample some sake.
6. Go Temple and Shrine Hopping
Besides Todaiji and the other big-ticket locations, key Nara temples to visit include Toshodaiji and Yakushiji on the west side of the city, and Shin Yakushiji, which was dedicated to medicine in Japanese Buddhism and now features many statues of deities in the main hall. There’s also Horyuji, which is famous for having some of the oldest wooden buildings in the world.
7. View Japanese Buddhist Artworks at the Nara National Museum
The Nara National Museum (Nara Kokuritsu Hakubutsukan) is home to a collection of traditional Japanese Buddhist artworks. Ranging from traditional paintings, statues and scrolls to ceremonial objects and artifacts, you can spend a morning in awe. Other than the permanent collection, the museum also offers temporary exhibitions, such as treasures from Todaiji Temple, which are on display every August.
8. Experience a Farm Stay in Nara
Want to do something different? Consider a farm stay in Nara, where you can spend three days in a local home. Over the course of your stay, you'll learn all about Japanese culture and how to cook traditional Japanese dishes using a variety of local ingredients. It’s also a great opportunity to explore the surrounding landscape, including Nara’s ancient Yamanobe Trail.
9. Explore the Three Gardens of Yoshikien
Located on the west edge of Nara Park, Yoshikien is a traditional Japanese garden in Nara that’s free to enter. Named after the small river that winds through the park, this garden is known for its three separate areas.
The first garden area showcases beautiful examples of moss, another features tranquil ponds, and the third incorporates many glorious flowers. These are intended to enhance the ritual and experience of a Japanese tea ceremony. Just on the other side of Yoshikigawa River lies the neighboring Isuien Garden precinct.
10. Admire the "Borrowed Scenery" Within Isuien Garden
A beautiful Japanese garden in Nara, Isuien gets its name from being the “garden founded on water". This is because the waters of Yoshikigawa River flow into the area and create the garden’s many ponds spread across its two parts.
Purposefully included in its design, you can wander through and take in the “borrowed scenery” of Mount Wakakusayama and the Nandaimon Gate of Todaiji Temple, which are both featured as a backdrop of the garden.
11. See the Hanging Lanterns at Nara’s Most Celebrated Shrine, Kasuga Taisha
Built during Nara’s time as the country’s capital city and now a cultural icon, Kasuga Taisha is the most celebrated shrine in Nara. It’s dedicated to the deity who protects the city, and was also the shrine for the Fujiwara clan, which was one of the most powerful families in Japan during the Nara and Heian periods. The shrine’s offering hall can be visited for free; however, there is a fee to explore the inner area.
Hundreds of bronze lanterns have been donated by worshippers over time, making them iconic, along with the shrine’s characteristic sloping roof overhanging the front of the buildings. These famous lanterns are only lit during festivals held twice a year in February and August.
You can also check out Kasuga Taisha Shinen Manyo Botanical Garden and Kasuga Taisha Museum, which are both located on site. If you arrive early, by 9am, you might even be able to catch the morning prayers at the shrine.
12. Explore Heijo Palace, the World Heritage Listed Home to Japan’s Historical Leaders
Nara served as the capital of Japan during the Nara Period from 710 to 794, and was then called “Heijo-kyo.” Heijo Palace once stood as the center of the city, and the palace grounds are included as one of Nara’s many World Heritage Sites, for their historical and cultural importance as the former emperors’ residence.
On the palace’s one-square-kilometer plot, there were also government offices and other original buildings, which were since lost or moved when the new capital was decided. Several historical reconstructions and museums tell the story of Heijo Palace over time, making it worth a wander for history buffs.
13. Watch a Mochi-making Demonstration and Munch on Fresh Mochi
With a deep understanding of the importance of craftsmanship, Nara is the perfect place to try top-quality mochi. These pounded rice cakes can be eaten as a savory snack, such as with salty seaweed and a splash of soy sauce, or enjoyed in many different forms of sweets, like daifuku mochi or kinako mochi. With plenty of savory and sweet options, you can spend the day strolling through Nara and tasting different types of mochi from all kinds of local vendors.
If you want to check out a mochi-pounding demonstration, visit Nakatanidou, one of the most famous mochi makers in Nara. This shop in the heart of Nara City is famous for making yomogi mochi, which is green and made of Japanese mugwort. You can see a mochi-making demonstration, and taste some of the freshest mochi you’ll ever encounter. Kuzu mochi is also a regional specialty you should try, one that’s ideal for vegans in Nara as well.
14. Rent Bikes and Cycle Around Asuka
Asuka is a quaint village in Nara that’s known for being the home of the first emperor of Japan. Just a short day trip away from Nara City, it's also associated with the start of Buddhism in Japan, although many of its original temples and palaces are long gone. Despite this, there are plenty of things to do.
It’s best to explore this relaxing place by bicycle; you can easily hire one to peddle through Asuka’s rolling rice paddies, pay your respects at Akusadera Temple, and visit one the town’s many resident megaliths, the Kameshi Tortoise Stone.
15. Bathe in the Natural Glory of Kasugayama Primeval Forest
The concept of “forest bathing” is big in Japan, where immersing yourself in nature is believed to reinvigorate the soul and cleanse the mind. This forest, located close to Nara Park, can take 3 to 4 hours to hike through. But you can always just spend a little time wandering around and checking out the indigenous trees and insects. Make sure you follow the path, though.
16. Taste Local Sweets Made in Nara, with a Cup of Matcha Green Tea
More than just mochi, we recommend making the most of other sweets made in Nara. A range of traditional Japanese sweets (wagashi) are made in the region, which match perfectly with a bitter cup of matcha tea. You’ll find many tea houses and specialty sweet stores to try them.
One of Nara’s traditional sweets, kuzu-kiri, is made of kuzu (arrowroot) starch. It's a refined specialty composed of jiggling translucent strips served with kinako (soybean powder) and kuromitsu (black sugar syrup). Eating kuzu-kiri with chopsticks is a must-try experience in Nara.
17. Take in Omizutori, the Festival of Fire and Water (March)
Omizutori is a fire and water festival held in Nara during March, which is the second month of the lunar calendar. Over the first two weeks of the month, several events and Buddhist rituals are held at Todaiji Temple and together are commonly called “Shunie.”
The main event of Omizutori is when Buddhist monks carry fiery torches across Todaiji’s Nigatsu Hall (“the Second Hall”, which refers to the second lunar month) located on a sloping hill in the temple grounds. It is one of the oldest Buddhist events in Japan, and has been held for over 1250 years!
18. Watch a Masked Noh Performance (May)
Every May, Kofukiji Temple holds an outdoor Noh performance called “Takigi Noh.” This traditional Japanese type of dance sees its performers behind special masks, portraying different characters in a kind of stylized storytelling of Japanese culture and folklore. This event is said to be particularly dramatic, as the backdrop features flickering bonfires.
19. Eat as Many Persimmons as Possible (And Try Persimmon-leaf Sushi)
With Nara being the second largest producer in the country, persimmons are a local specialty. Enjoyed pickled and in sweets or other local cuisine, persimmons, or “kaki”, can be found all over town.
One of the most important things to do in Nara, for foodies, is trying kakinohazushi or kakinoha sushi. This is sushi wrapped inside a persimmon leaf, and can be found throughout the Kansai region, but is native to Nara.
Eaten since the Edo period, the persimmon leaves were a great way to preserve the sushi, especially on long trips. Typically, persimmon-leaf sushi is made of bite-sized pieces of rice with salted mackerel slices, wrapped in the leaf as packaging (don't eat it!).
20. "Hike" up Mount Wakakusayama
Positioned between Kasuga Shrine and Todaiji Temple, Nara Park backs onto Mount Wakakusayama, a small but iconic mountain. Mount Wakakusayama is covered in grass and stands at just 350 meters high.
It takes about 20 minutes to climb halfway up via a steep trail, which leads to a plateau and lookout point. You can stop and enjoy an unobstructed view out onto the city from here, before continuing for another 30 minutes to the summit.
21. Watch Mount Wakakusayama Get Set on Fire During the Wakakusa Yamayaki Festival (late January)
In a spectacular blaze, Nara’s annual Wakakusa Yamayaki fire festival sees the grassy slopes of Mount Wakakusa burned away on the fourth Saturday of January each year. You can see it from different points across the city of Nara. There’s a festival held throughout the day, starting at midday, including ceremonies at Nara’s temples and shrines, a procession, and a giant senbei cracker throwing competition!
While its origins are unclear, this festival has been going on in Nara for hundreds of years. Some suggest it’s to drive away wild boars or historically to draw boundaries between rival temple grounds. The hillside burning is typically followed by a fireworks display.
22. Climb Mount Yoshino and See Thousands of Cherry Blossom Trees (March - April)
For the best view in Nara, it’s worth visiting Mount Yoshino. Particularly spectacular in spring (if you can handle the crowds), you’ll find over 30,000 cherry blossom trees in the area. This makes it the most famous cherry-blossom viewing spot in all of Japan, with the trees coloring the mountain’s slopes. You can enjoy their beauty as you make your ascent. In fact, the phrase “hitome setsubon” , which means “a thousand trees at a glance”, originated from Mount Yoshino.
Offering gorgeous scenery throughout the year, Mount Yoshino makes for a great side trip in Nara. Along with Kumano and Mount Koya, Mount Yoshino is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site as a historical pilgrimage destination.
Bonus Thing to Do in Nara: Take a Short Trip to Dorogawa Onsen
If you love the outdoors, then Dorogawa Onsen is worth an extra trip—head down to the southern mountains of Nara Prefecture for a bit of rest and relaxation. Think nature, hiking, barbecuing and camping in this beautiful area that’s famous for its hot springs.
You can stay at an onsen hotel and soak up the pure mountain waters from Mount Omine in the small town—Dorogawa Onsen is a popular pilgrimage location for locals in the warmer seasons. You can also go swimming and fishing in summer, see the leaves changing color in fall at Mitarai Valley, or check out the limestone caves at Goyomatsu.
How Many Days Do I Need in Nara?
Wondering how many days you need in Nara? With the train journey taking less than an hour, many visitors travel from Kyoto or Osaka for an easy Nara day trip. For anyone who wants to explore more, you might consider staying the night at a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn), homestay, rental home or regular hotel. This will give you a chance to see another side of Nara at night, and meander through Nara’s monuments and neighborhoods at your own pace.