Getting Away in Japan: Nara

ByBert Wishart
Oct 24, 2022

Getting Away in Japan: Nara

A trip to the capital doesn’t have to mean Tokyo’s bright lights and bustle. Nara, in south-central Japan, was established as the nation’s first permanent capital in 710 CE and, as such, remains an area of great historical interest. But Nara is not just a spot for history buffs as, thanks to it retaining much of its old-world charm, it is also an area of outstanding beauty.

With temples, shrines, delicious restaurants, a giant Buddha, and wild deer roaming the grounds, Nara is a great place for a day trip and perhaps even longer.


Reflecting its former capital status, Nara has temples of national importance galore, but if you were to see just one on your visit, it would have to be Todaiji. Constructed in 752 as the head temple of all of Japan’s provincial Buddhist temples, until recently, its main hall, Daibutsuden, held the world record as the largest wooden building despite its 1692 reconstruction being only two-thirds of its original size.

It is staggering to imagine its original state, but it has to be so large to accommodate one of Japan’s largest bronze Daibutsu [giant Buddha] statues. Standing – well, sitting – at 15 meters tall and flanked by two Bodhisattvas, there is a pillar with a hole in its base the same size as the Daibutsu’s nostril. It is said that whoever can squeeze through this opening will be granted enlightenment in their next life, so it is definitely worth giving it a try.


Nara is an area of spellbinding natural beauty, with hills, mountains, and waterfalls, and crisscrossing them all are hiking courses for all levels of ability and fitness. But these are no ordinary trails, for they are some of Japan’s oldest byways, along which, for over 1200 years, pilgrims have traveled to sacred areas throughout the region.

Some routes, such as the challenging mountaintop Kohechi Michi, connect with the shrines of Kumano in neighboring Wakayama Prefecture, while others take you along paths to local sites of importance. No matter the trail you take, you will discover waterfalls, smaller shrines and temples, Buddhas, and spectacular views along the way.

Kasuga Taisha

Established at the same time as the capital and dedicated to the deity responsible for Nara’s protection, Kasuga Taisha is the city’s most celebrated Shinto shrine. Like the shrines of Ise, Kasuga Taisha was rebuilt every 20 years, but this practice stopped at the end of the Tokugawa era, and the shrine retains a historical grandeur.

Famed for its lanterns, Kasuga Taisha has hundreds of bronze and stone lanterns donated by worshipers. They are only lit twice a year during festivals in February and August, but at all other times of the year, they exude a spiritual splendor. Outside of the main shrine itself, numerous auxiliary shrines are dedicated to various gods, including Wakamiya Shrine, which is known for its dance festival.

Nara Park

Located in central Nara, slap bang between the big attractions of Kasuga Taisha, Todaiji, Kofukuji, and the Nara National Museum, Nara Park is a great place to relax if you need a little respite from all the sightseeing.

More than that, however, it is home to the more than 1000 deer that wander the area and have become a city symbol. Though they are wild in the sense that they live in the park and are free to roam, they are relatively tame and are known to bow to visitors in the hope of being fed crackers sold in vending machines around the park.


Author Naoya Shiga once said, “There is no delicious food in Nara,” but that could not be further from the truth. The city is well stocked with fantastic restaurants serving some mouthwatering local delicacies. The local rice cakes, kuzumochi, are particularly delicious thanks to the natural spring water in nearby Yoshino. One site you must not miss is the expert mochi makers of Nakatandiou pounding up a storm in their workshop.

Other local dishes include Chagayu, a rice porridge cooked with roasted green tea that the Todaiji monks ate in 1200 CE, and Miwa somen, eaten cold in summer or with a light broth in winter with mountain vegetables. Unmissable, however, is the kakinohazushi, a lightly picked salmon or mackerel sushi wrapped in a persimmon leaf with roots to the Yoshino River in the Edo era.

Getting Away in Japan

This article is part of a Japan Info Swap series about traveling around Japan. Check out the others in the series here.

Image by Kimon Berlin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via (modified)
Image by Molly Des Jardin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via (modified)
Image by Gilbert Sopakuwa (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via (modified)
Image by clio1789 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via (modified)
Image by ajay_suresh (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via (modified)

About the author

Bert Wishart editor

Novelist, copywriter and graduate from the most prestigious university in Sunderland, Bert whiles away his precious time on this Earth by writing about popular culture, travel, food and pretty much anything else that is likely to win him the Pulitzer he desperately craves.

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