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Japan is such a fascinating country that is surprisingly easy to get around, which makes it hard to decide which cities to spend your time in as a first-time tourist. Osaka and Kyoto are very popular home bases for Japanese vacations, but the smaller city of Nara is also a top destination in Japan. As an ancient capital of Japan, Nara is ideal for history buffs, but also for foodies, animal lovers, and travelers seeking authentic local experiences. Here are the top things to see and do in Nara.
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If you only have time to see one thing in Nara, make it the Todai-ji Temple. This iconic temple is where the Great Buddha lives, which is enormous in size and truly impressive to see. This is a very spiritual place that draws in crowds of tourists every day, so take your time to walk around the inside of the temple and the grounds. One interesting feature inside the temple is a pillar that has a hole in the middle. This is where children often try to squeeze through because this is believed to bring good luck and enlightenment. The temple is about a 20-minute walk from the Kintetsu Nara train station. If you have time, other temples to visit in the area include the Horyu-ji Temple, Toshodai-ji Temple, and Yakushi-ji Temple.
While you’re at the Todai-ji Temple, browse the offerings of the vendors set up inside of it selling small Japanese amulets, or lucky charms. The booths inside of shrines offer small charms that serve as a form of protection or provide good luck. They are important in Buddhism and Shintoism traditions and feature a silky cloth stamped with the temple name and a little prayer inside. You’re not supposed to open the amulet to actually read the blessing though because that is considered to be bad luck. Choose the amulet that is most relevant and meaningful to you and tie it to the outside of your bag as you go on with the rest of your journey. Popular themes include traffic safety, good health, pregnancy, and financial prosperity.
The most iconic thing about modern-day Nara is the free-roaming resident deer that hang out in the parks and among the historic sites. The best place to see and interact the deer is Nara Park, where you’ll find countless tourists photographing them walking around and looking for handouts of food. This park also connects top sightseeing spots in Nara, including the Isui-en Garden, Kasuga-Taisha Shrine, and Todai-ji Temple. You’ll often find vendors in the park selling crackers that you can hold in your hand to feed these beautiful creatures.
There are lots of amazing places to grab a bite to eat in Nara but don’t miss out on trying a special kind of sushi here. In Nara, you can enjoy a lunch of sushi wrapped in persimmon leaves, which is called kakinoha sushi. Izasa offers a traditional type of sushi in Nara that has deep roots in the region and is truly as beautiful as a work of art. It has a significantly different look and feel from sushi that you may be more familiar with at other Japanese restaurants. Choose a lunch that has multiple options so that you get to try a bit of everything –sushi wrapped in bamboo leaves, tempura, and miso soup. From here, you can also enjoy views of Nara Park on the upper level or even pick up packaged sushi to go on the first floor.
To experience the pure and natural beauty of the Nara region, head to the Isui-en Garden. Here you’ll find lots of flowers and trees with paths that meander through the garden. This is a convenient garden to walk to as you head from the train station to the Todai-ji Temple.
Museums are a great way to learn about the local history and culture in Nara, and they’re also ideal if the day you plan to visit Nara is a rainy one. The Nara National Museum is a great choice for international tourists because all of the exhibits feature both Japanese and English languages. One building is home to a huge permanent collection of Buddha sculptures, and the other building has temporary exhibits that rotate throughout the year. Photography is not allowed inside the museum, so take your time to soak in all of the information as you’re reading it. There’s an on-site café and gift shop on the lower level of the museum as well.
There are also many excellent opportunities to shop for souvenirs, traditional Japanese clothing, and delicious food while you’re walking through Nara. You’ll pass by busy shopping streets, as well as ones that are covered and perfect for a rainy day, as you make your way from the train station to Nara Park and other top sightseeing spots.
With an abundance of ornate temples and shrines in Japan, it can be difficult to choose which ones to check out. But one that’s not to be missed in the Nara area is the Kasuga-Taisha Shrine. Here you’ll find beautiful lanterns along the pathways and still plenty of deer to keep you company. It’ll take about 25 minutes to walk to here from the Kintetsu Nara train station.
At the end of a long day of sightseeing, there’s nothing better than taking a dip in a traditional Japanese onsen. These hot springs baths are available for both public and private use, but there’s a certain etiquette involved in using one. Onsens should be visited in the nude, not in a bathing suit, and tattoos are not allowed. Some hotels in Nara have an on-site onsen, such as the Super Hotel Lohas JR Nara Eki, will provide you with flesh-colored tape to cover your tattoos though so you don’t miss out on these soothing natural waters.