One of the former Imperial Capitals of Japan
Nara, the first day trip from Kyoto, our second base in this Japanese tour after Tokyo and many other cities in between. A fascinating ancient city like no other in Japan, a close approach and feel on how the old and imperial Japan might have looked like with its many temples, shrines and constructions all around, where it seems time stood still. This is one of the former Imperial Capitals of Japan, from 710 to 794, and although very small, it is in the other hand a lengthily sightseeing time what it requires. I’ve also included in the title for this guide Horyu-ji, which is very near Nara and another of the masterpiece cities from old Japan; and while I am not sure if we would be having time to do both in the same day, I stick in creating the guide for both places. I know that if this would be me on my own doing this trip, or with some friends I know who are like me, then it would be definitely viable since we are very agile and speed things up, however, I will not consider doing this with my family this time, therefore time will tell if we can manage or not.
While reaching the important sights is easy, majority are just east from the train station, possibly your point of arrival into the city; you need to be prepared for long walks in between the temples and inside them. Some are really large, big complexes of buildings and structures immaculately preserved, spotless to perfection and care which in turn makes this city special. The only “downside” are the hordes of tourists with the same idea, visiting them of course. Notably in the early morning with the hundreds of tours arriving by bus, but getting quieter towards the afternoon. Yet again, careful with the afternoon. Remember you are in Japan and here the life starts very early, not later than 8.00am and everything is already opened, with closing times in between 16.30pm to 17.30pm, rarely later therefore plan your day accordingly. This is the same situation when you visit Kyoto or Nikko, to name the other major cities with plenty of sights but same timings.
An added joy in Nara are the deer in the wild. They have been regarded as heavenly animals, protecting the city and the country. They generally come in the mornings and early afternoon in search for food, and they are totally used to humans. For a little money you can buy sika senbei (deer crackers) from the street vendors and feed them. Bear in mind you should not feed them with other food, and of course, let them be in peace. They are “sacred” animals and can lead you to prosecution for misbehaving.
Nara contains some of the finest shrines and temples in the country, all of which UNESCO World Heritage Site listed and national treasures of Japan, while Horyu-ji is home to the world’s oldest wooden structure: the grandest and oldest Buddhist temple in Japan, an unique place full of history also included in the UNESCO list. While one city will require quite a lot of time, the other is only a temple complex. Including both in your plans as mentioned before is great, however, is it physically possible to do? It only depends on your pace and in starting your day as early as possible, unless of course, time and days are not your limitation. The bright side is the transport in between Nara and Horyu-ji, just 12 minutes by JR trains! You can simply consider it as another temple of Nara.
For more information about Nara check Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. For Horyu-ji here is a good Wikipedia article. Japan’s currency is the Yen (JPY, ¥). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Nara
In a sense order for visiting one after another sight, leaving the less important for the last should you have time or even want to get there (these are the ones west of the train station); the list below contains everything you need to know and see, with all the temples listed UNESCO World Heritage Sites. All is easy and straightforward for touring, with a starting point the train station which is the place you are most likely going to arrive to Nara:
- Nara Station Your highly likely starting point for touring the city. Easy to reach from Kyoto by train in very short time.
- Sanjo-dori The main thoroughfare west to east crossing the heart of the city and passing the train station. Along its eastern way you will reach the main historic UNESCO area.
- Gangō-ji Temple One of the Seven Great Temples of Nara, it is one of the smallest today after much destruction through wars and fires compared to the others. Built originally in the city of Asuka, was dismantled and moved in 718 to Nara to its current location. Open from 09.00am until 17.00pm, entrance fee ¥600.
- Kofuku-ji Temple Once one of the powerful Seven Great Temples in Nara. Originally built in 669 in Yamashina (present name Kyoto), then moved in 672 to the first ever orthogonal street grid Japanese capital, Fujiwara-kyō; and lastly in 710 moved here to Nara. Destroyed by war and fires, rebuilt many times, it is almost complete to this date. Open from 08.00am until 17.00pm, entrance fee ¥300 for the Eastern Golden Hall, or ¥600 for the National Treasure Museum.
- Nara National Museum Just east from the Kofuku-ji, by the very end of Sanjo-dori which is marked by the Ichi-no-Torii. Established in 1899 in a western style building of the Meiji period, houses a great collection from the Buddhist history of the city and its temples. Don’t miss the Buddhist Art Library, the architecture of the building is superb. Open from 09.00am until 17.00pm, closed Mondays, entrance fee ¥500.
- Kasuga-taisha The Grand Shrine, another of the great Seven Temples in Nara. Continuing east after the National Museum, entering through a deer park where deer roam freely, even around the temple structures without any fear of the people. Pay attention to the many bronze and stone lanterns leading up to the main shrine building. The Kasugayama Primeval Forest which lies behind is also listed an UNESCO site together with the shrine. Entrance fee to the grounds is free, inside of shrine ¥500, and for the treasure hall ¥400.
- Tōdai-ji The Eastern Great Temple, the masterpiece and sight number one in Nara. Among its buildings and treasures is The Great Buddha Hall, the largest wooden building in the world home to the giant bronze statue (also largest in the world) of the Buddha Vairocana, known in Japanese as the Daibutsu. The Great South Gate dates from the 13th century, one of the largest in the world. Open from 08.00am until 16.30pm in winter and 17.30pm summer months. Entrance fee of ¥500 for the museum and ¥800 for the entire complex.
- Yakushi-ji Temple Southwest of the city, even though not easy along your route you should plan to come here as it’s one of the most famous sites in Nara. Another of the Great Seven Temples. It’s home to the Yakushi Nyorai (The Medicine Buddha) which was one of the first Buddhist Deities to arrive in Japan from China in 680. As we saw in the other temples, here is the same, built in 680 for the city of Asuka, then moved to Nara in 718. The East Pagoda is the only structure intact from the 8th century. ¥800 per person, ¥720 if presenting a day bus pass.
- Tōshōdai-ji North from Yakushi-ji, of smaller proportions than the other with generally 1 floor structures, was founded in 759. The Golden Hall is considered the archetype of the classical style.
- Imperial Palace The last of the UNESCO sites in Nara, it is actually very few remains other than the entire shape and space in the original grounds. The Suzakumon main gate was reconstructed in full and opened in 1998. For tourists without any further time in the city this is nothing important to make all the way here. You can skip it perfectly.
What to see and do in Horyu-ji
Compared to Nara, this is a much simpler visit resumed to the grandest and oldest Buddhist temple in Japan. It is for this reason that if time permitting, coupling your day tour for visiting both cities could be the most appropriate way for getting as much of Japan as possible in your already tight agenda. If I could suggest anything here, it is wiser not spending the time in reaching the western sites in Nara on behalf of coming to this noteworthy place. Unfortunately from our experience, we could not manage to make it in time here. That will have to be in another trip in the future.
- Horyu-ji The Learning Temple of the Flourishing Law as it is known, is home to the world’s oldest wooden structure, the main pagoda among the huge complex of structures, buildings, pagodas, gardens and ponds. Once one of the powerful Seven Great Temples, with majority of the others completing the list in Nara. Open from 08.00am until 16.30pm, entrance fee ¥1500.
Neither Nara nor Horyu-ji have an airport, this is instead at the “nearby” and larger Osaka which serves the air traffic for the entire region and not just these small cities, but Osaka and Kyoto too. Plenty of international routes are served from all continents therefore it’s the most direct and faster way to get here. Osaka Kansai is the huge international airport, while the nearer Osaka Itami Airport serves internal traffic. From the airport (Kansai) which lies in an island off the bay, there are trains and buses to downtown Osaka where frequent Shinkansen bullet trains do connect on the Tokaido mainland west to east of Japan. There are no bullet trains to Horyu-ji nor Nara, but instead direct local trains from Osaka and Kyoto taking approximately 1 hour. Among the local train companies are the Japan Rail trains which you can use for free if you have a JR Pass.
Once in the city of Nara, your point of arrival is likely to be the railway station you have two options from where you can star your sightseeing tour. Either on foot since majority of the sites are located east and along one after another, however from the easternmost point, the Tōdai-ji (Eastern Great Temple) if you plan to reach the western temples such as Yakushi-ji, for sure you will need to find a bus or directly get on a taxi. Alternatively, and as I strongly advice you, get a day bus pass then you can get on the first bus that comes to bring you to the temples and in between them. Honestly, we could have not done so much in Nara if we did not take the bus pass. It costs ¥500 per person.
The smaller city of Horyu-Ji is even easier, with much smaller distances and much less sites to see all concentrated in the Temple of the Flourishing Law. The most important to know here is the transport in between to Nara (and/or vice-versa), and here are great news. The Horyu-ji station is on the Yamatoji Line, just 12 minutes from Nara and from the station is barely 20 minutes on foot to the temple. If you need to head later towards Osaka, this same line gets you there, or if heading toward Kyoto, then do the opposite way to Nara and get the train to Kyoto from there. Altogether is around 1 hour journey to either end city.
Nara and Horyu-Ji are small cities where hotel choice is also much more limited than nearby larger Kyoto and Osaka. It is also for majority of the tourists a day trip from either of these large cities, and so it was our case where we came from our base Kyoto. A good starting point is running a search across some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, Ebookers or LateRooms. If Kyoto is your main base and you are coming here as a day trip then check the respective guide with all the information about accommodation and which hotel we stayed and can recommend here.