Top things to do in Nara – Without a doubt, if you did a bit of digging into Japan or just a simple Google search on the top cities visited in Japan, Nara is one of them. Older than its neighbour counterpart, the ancient capital of Kyoto, Nara is a harmonious collection of nature, spirituality and historical sites that would make you not want to leave.
Relatively small, Nara can be explored by foot but is recommended to rent a bike and cover more ground in a shorter period of time. From shrines, temples, parks and amazing views to legendary sushi spots, delicious local eateries and good ol’ sake, Nara is definitely a city not to leave out of your itinerary. Here are some activities that you’d like to consider before embarking on your once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
1. Meet the deer in Nara Park
What’s a visit to Nara without visiting the friendly and extremely adorable deer in Nara Park? Even with so many people already writing and posting about these cute creatures, it’s still a popular, must-do activity. There are about 1,500 wild deer roaming around Nara itself, and they’re seen as natural treasures by the locals.
Buy some deer crackers from the vendors and experience the magical feeling of feeding them. If you bow your head down, chances are they might just bow back! Always stay alert and take precautions. Even though these deer seem harmless, they too have their “off days” and act out aggressively.
2. Forest bathing in Kasugayama Primeval Forest
Just walking distance from the Nara Park, the Kasugayama Primeval Forest is the most ideal spot if you’re thinking of being one with nature and appreciate its beauty. An activity that can only be experienced in Japan, sign up for a “forest bathing” experience in this forest to witness the magnificence of mountain and forest right at Nara’s doorstep.
With a qualified guide, be prepared for a three to four hour guide through the woods. With occasional stops to inspect insects and plants up close with a magnifying glass, and explanations on the forest bathing benefits, it’s definitely a unique and enticing activity. Lay down on the soft, carpet-like moss and let yourself drown into the ground, be silenced by the insect noises and inhale in the moist, dense scent of the forest.
3. Explore Kasuga-Taisha Shrine
One of the biggest attractions in Nara is the Kasuga-Taisha Shrine. It is said that the deity that is enshrined here, Takemi Kajichi no Mikono, rode to Nara on a mystical white deer from Kashima Shrine in Ibaraki prefecture. Because of this legend, the deer were considered divine and sacred.
Roam around this historical shrine and admire the rows and rows of stone and bronze lanterns. Over thousands of them decorate the Kasuga-Taisha Shrine, and they were donated by the worshippers long ago. Take a look around the botanical gardens there, as well as visit the museum on site.
4. Stay in a temple
Live through the most authentic experience you’ll ever get by staying in an actual temple in Nara! Regardless if you’re a religious person or not, this is definitely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity not to be missed and highly recommended. There are various ones you can browse through to consider, but one of the more popular ones would be the Gyukuzoin Temple and Koyasan.
Stay in an authentic Japanese room, from tatami mats and futons to sliding doors and wooden dividers. One thing’s for sure, the view from any room out on the balcony is guaranteed to be amazing. Relish in the temple’s local food for dinner, which is almost certain Japanese-styled, and attend morning prayers and ceremonies that the temple holds everyday. Without a doubt a priceless experience.
5. Shop in Higashimuki
A city is not complete without its own bustling, lively shopping district. Higashimuki Shopping Street is Nara’s very own Takeshita Street of Tokyo, complete with high energetic atmosphere and local buys you can only get in Nara. Even if you’re not a shopper, a peek down this iconic area wouldn’t hurt. You wouldn’t want to miss all the buzz, and window shopping can also be considered a cardio.
From handmade crafts to basic souvenirs, there are dozens of shops that line the pathways. Admire locals making traditional rice sweets if you come across a store like that, or don a traditional Kimono if you happen to see a costume rental store.
6. Wander Naramachi streets
A former merchant district in Nara, which explains why there are tons of beautiful and exquisite buildings, wander along the streets of Naramachi and let yourself feel like you’ve travelled back in time. As you pass by people in traditional dress, extremely detailed and decorated shop fronts, tiny temples and sweets shops with pretty red lanterns hanging outside the store, they’re nothing short of a Japan dream.
If you fancy a ‘guided tour’ of the area, try the hand-pulled rickshaw experience as they guide you down these very streets with explanations at every corner. Not only is this a luxury of a time, it’s also definitely a good photo opportunity!
7. Witness Buddha’s nostrils at Todaiji Temple
The Todaji homes a number of indescribable and record-winning structures. The buildings were destroyed twice by fire, but was rebuilt in the Edo Period. The temple is the headquarters of the Kegon school of Buddhism and is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Buddha statue within is the Vairocana Budhha, the Buddha of Light and Compassion. Fun fact: it is said to be the largest bronze Buddha statue in the world!
When you find yourself here, don’t miss out on the highlight event, which is to slither through the nostrils of a 14.8 meters tall statue. If you succeed, it is said that you’ll be granted a long life of happiness — well worth the claustrophobia and bruises.
8. Explore Dorogawa Onsen
What’s an activity list without some adventure? Dorogawa Onsen is a unique and special place to spend a day or two exploring (stealthily and quietly) down the lit up streets decorated with strings of lantern connecting one lamp post to the other. The brightly-painted bridges criss-crossing the river adds a pop of colour and life to an already visually lively area.
Clearly filled with nature, you can also hike up the suspension bridge nearby — which is also one of the largest in Japan — that crosses the beautiful Mitarai Valley. Surrounding mountains have mining trekking paths, stunning waterfalls and rivers that are best explored during warmer seasons. But if you do find yourself here in the winter, why not take advantage of the situation and stay in an onsen ryokan?
9. Take a stroll at Isui-en Garden
Located conveniently on the way from the train stations to the Todaiji Temple, Isui-en Garden is one of the most highly recommended gardens in all of Kansai. Spacious, lively and full of life, there are plenty of blooming flowers and trees surrounding the pond, and pathways running all the way to the deepest edges of the garden.
Blooming a different colour all year round, take a peaceful stroll down Nara’s well-preserved natural beauty with a cup of matcha in hand. Although there’s an entrance fee to this garden, it only goes to show how popular it is. And at the end of the day, it’s well worth every penny.
10. Try the Asuka Nabe
A famous Japanese dish that originates in the Nara Prefecture is the Asuka Nabe. Some may call it a hot pot due to its resemblance, but go a little crazy with chicken as the choice of meat and you’ll have the delicious Asuka Nabe. It’s often eaten during winter as a warm, soothing dish, but it’s not cancelled out during other times of the year.
Conclusion – Top things to do in Nara
Clearly proud of their world records and historical status, Nara sure is the best place for anyone who’s interested in history and heritage, adventurous in nature or just wants something new and exciting to experience. With limitless activities to do and an attraction at every corner you turn, there is no excuse to not give this city with a rich story a visit, or maybe two.
Usually tucked away in a cafe anywhere she goes, Azra Syakirah is a fashion designer and entrepreneur living in Tokyo, Japan. Born and bred in Singapore, her heart belongs to the world. Also a language enthusiast, she virtually scribbles her thoughts on a blog as well as freelances as a writer.