Best things to do in Nara
Find out more about those top places in Nara
Before Kyoto rose to become the capital of Japan, the title was held by the city of Nara, which is known as the cradle of Japanese civilization. In the city’s 7th and 8th century heyday, the growth of Buddhism in Japan bestowed upon the capital a breathtaking array of temples, most of which have survived until now. Nara’s star attraction is Tōdai-ji, which is the largest wooden building in the world and also houses the largest bronze statue in the world. The statue, known as Daibutsu, was first unveiled in 752 and remains jaw dropping impressive. Beyond this, the ornate temple of Hōryū-ji claims to be the oldest surviving wooden building in the world while many smaller temples have fine examples early Japanese statuary. What is more, Nara has scarcely changed since the Middle Ages leaving it a perfectly preserved hidden gem that lets visitors experience the glories of early Japan.
Prince Shotoku, who is often called the patron saint of Japanese Buddhism, founded Nara’s Horyu-ji temple in 607 AD. Today, it is one of the oldest extant temple complexes remaining in the country and gives visitors a remarkable introduction to the rich history and traditions of Japanese Buddhism. Divided into East and West temples, the complex houses some of Japan’s most impressive sculptural art and is best explored as part of a guided walking tour.
The Todai-ji is the largest wooden building in the world and was constructed in 752 AD to house Nara’s most iconic piece of art, the Daibutsu (Great Buddha), which is also the largest bronze statue in the world. The statue rises to nearly 20 meters in height and consists of nearly 500 tonnes of bronze and roughly 100 kilograms of gold. For the best experience, arrive early before the crowds to make the most of this unforgettable attraction.
With origins dating back 1300 years Kasuga Taisha is another of Nara’s most historic sites. Erected as a shrine to protect the city, which at the time was Japan’s first permanent capital, it was ritually rebuilt every 20 years maintaining Shinto tradition. While the structure that stands today has been in place since the 19th century, it is well-maintained and the interiors are bedecked in thousands of atmospheric lanterns.
If you have ever seen pictures of small Japanese sika deer approaching tourists for food and pets it is more likely than not that they were taken in Nara Park. Considered sacred until the mid-17th century, the killing of these deers was punishable by death and today they still live a fairly luxurious life roaming the immaculately manicured park. The park is one of Japan’s oldest and has numerous age-old chaya (tea houses) where you can stop for a refreshment and marvel at the gorgeous setting.
The Kofuku-ji temple complex was moved from Kyoto to Nara in 710 AD and was once the largest in the city. Initially it would have had close to 150 wooden buildings but through countless fires and Shogunate warfare what remains today is more modest. Of particular note are the temple’s towering pagodas, one of which is Japan’s second tallest, and the Tokondo, which contains some of the country’s most priceless sculptures.
Established by a Chinese Buddhist priest brought to Japan to reform Buddhism, Toshodai-ji is the perfect place to experience what Nara would have been like in its royal heyday. Containing the only surviving parts of the former imperial palace, the temple is a must visit for those who are in Nara for a few days.
Built in the 19th century Japanese imperial style and remodeled extensively in 2016, Nara’s National Museum is one of the country’s finest collections of Buddhist art. With sculptures dating from as far back as the 15th century BC, the collection is simply breathtaking. To best experience this mammoth assortment of historic art take a guided tour that will show you the collection’s highlights.