The first capital of Japan, before Kyoto then Tokyo. But you know your history, I’m sure.
Nara is world-famous for its… deers, wandering freely around the park, and actually all around town. I even read lately that, in order to control their population, they had to regularly shoot some of them and did so in another part of town. What a good way to start a post, huh?
Of course, the deers are not the only reason tourists come around, but also the many temples surrounding the city, and especially those inside the huge park, where, practically, you’ll find many, many deer.
Nara is less than an hour away from Kyoto, by train, that’s why many people go for a day trip. But we chose to stay two nights there, in order to have a full day with no rush, and we were pretty glad we did. We got the time to visit temples & gardens outside the park, following the advice from our guest house staff, which turned out very interesting. And went to a great restaurant. More on that further down.
Inside The Park
The main temple, hosting a freaking huge Buddha, several more behind him, and the usual guards. It is recognizable from far away with its two golden horns on top of the roof. And also the hoard of tourists going in that direction from the daimon (main gate).
Another big temple, red this time, following the Shinto color, famous for its many lanterns, donated by worshippers, hanging all around the inner area.
The sides of the path leading there have traditional lamp posts made out of rock all along the way, with deer coming out from between them, with the trees in the backgroun. Up at the entrance of the temple, a field of lamp posts appears as if the purpose was to overwhelm the visitor. And a big sakura covering them.
Once inside the temple itself, you’ll actually enter a sort of yard containing many different small jinjas (shrines), in order to worship many different gods. You’ll also find a thousand-year-old tree, sacred, of course, as well as a sacred (what a surprise) flat rock garden, very zen.
Kohfukuji Temple area
Once in the middle of the plazza, you’ll be able to see many buildings around you: two pagodas, one 5 storeys and the other three storeys, halls, and the Kohfukuji temple.
I must admit, the Kohfukuji was undergoing works when we were there, and we got a little ripped off as we went for the ‘exceptional’ exhibit offered instead, which turned out quite the bummer.
Outside The Park
For those who have a little more time in front of them, and I strongly advise you do so, you will be able to see other interesting places outside of the park.
Shin-Yakushiji & Gangoji Temples
Two temples our ryokan staff advised us to go to. We started our day by going to Gangoji, before hitting the park. A beautiful, laid back temple, especially impressive for its graveyard of many, many tombstones under the cherry trees.
To finish the day, after the park, we went to Shin-Yakushiji, and I must say at that point, we were a little beat up. Well, tell you what, this was my favorite temple of all! We had the place all to ourselves, and I was under the frightening charm of the twelve guard statues, posted in a big circle, each one of them representing an animal of the japanase/chinese zodiac calendar.
Isuien & Yohikien Gardens
Just on the side of the park, those two gardens, one next to the other, make a nice break from the temples. The Isuien is eater & tidier than the Yohikien, but the Yohikien and its green moss theme also makes for an interesting and different sight. And that one’s free of charge, so why skip it?
Getting there & around
As usual, there is a train station well served in the city center. We came from Koyasan, so we went back to Osaka and grabbed a train from there to Nara. Took us about 3 hours.
From Kyoto, well, just take the train from the station, what else can I say? Oh, I know, it’s less than an hour away.
Now, my main advice, cuz we had a real kick out of it and it turned out really, really useful: rent bikes!!! The long distances between the temples and the size of the park will mean nothing to you with a bicycle! Freedom will be your friend. You can park your bike anywhere around the park and the temples, so you’re good.
As for where to eat if you stay for the night, we went, once again on the advice of our ryokan’s staff, to Kara restaurant. Very friendly, the wooden place feels very traditional. You’ll be seated around the bar in the center of which the waiters will care upon you and even cook some of the food. We had a great time there.