Todaiji Temple, the Great Buddha and the scores of wild deer that roam Nara Park are well-established symbols of Nara and attract many visitors to the area. They represent the region’s long history and rich heritage, but amount to just a small selection of the spectacular sights and experiences on offer. The roots of Japan, Nara is a diverse destination, spiritually important and abound in nature. It is the perfect setting for a truly unique Japanese experience.
Introduction to Nara
The Birthplace of Japan
Beginning in Nara with Heijokyo, the nation’s first capital, Japan’s history as a unified state dates back 1300 years to the Nara Period. Around this time, Buddhism flourished and arts and architecture were at their peak. Nara’s rich heritage spans ancient monuments, sacred mountain trails and some of Japan’s oldest temples and shrines. Many of these are included in the three World Heritage sites that cover the region.
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In Harmony with Nature
From the deer that roam Nara Park, once believed to be messengers of the gods, to the ancient cedars that line the approach to Ohmiwa Jinja Shrine and the sacred trails through the mountains of Yoshino and Omine, history is inextricably linked with nature in Nara. The vast grounds of shrines and temples free from the crowds of Kyoto, offer scenic views and the chance to sightsee at a leisurely pace. A visit to Nara is to discover both the natural beauty and history of Japan.
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Japan’s Spiritual Heartland
Nara is located in the centre of the Kii Peninsula, between Wakayama and Mie, a short train ride from Kyoto and Osaka. Home to sacred sites such as Ise Jingu Shrine, the grand shrines of Kumano (Kumano Sanzan) and mountaintop temple complex Koyasan, the peninsula is considered the nation’s spiritual heartland. Nara boasts many of its own sacred sites and visit-worthy destinations and is the starting point of one of the World Heritage Kumano Trails.
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Inspirations for Your Nara Trip
Not sure what to do in Nara? Whether it's watching the sun set over Nara Park from Mt. Wakakusa or visiting one of the World Heritage attractions in Nara Park, this selection of Nara-defining articles will help inspire a truly unforgettable trip.
When to Visit
From soaking in hot springs in winter to joining lively festivals in summer, each season has its own unique draws. Explore what each season has to offer.
Renowned for having some of the country's most spectacular cherry blossom, Nara has always been a popular destination with the Japanese in spring. But it's not all cherry blossom: from late February through into early July, the parks, gardens and temple grounds see peonies, hydrangea, rhododendron and other seasonal flowers bloom in a profusion of colours.
Blessed with centuries-old forests, cedar ensconced shrines and lush green mountain areas, Nara provides plenty of opportunity to escape the often oppressive summer heat of Japan's built-up areas. It's an ideal time for hiking and camping, and an excellent opportunity to catch one of the local festivals or fireworks displays. Many temples and shrines also hold illuminations events lighting their grounds up with candles and lanterns.
In autumn the weather cools off making hiking a more comfortable experience. From mountains chosen among the country's top one hundred to World Heritage pilgrimage trails, there is no shortage of hiking options. As with spring, autumn is also known for its views: rice fields take on a golden colour and the leaves of trees, especially in Nara Park and the grounds of shrines and temples, appear ablaze in reds and yellows. Sake, rice, persimmons and many other foods are at their best in this season.
Traditionally the "off-season" for Japanese tourists, Nara is quietest in winter. With fewer visitors, museums, temples and World Heritage venues allow for more intimate experiences. Nara's Michelin-starred restaurants are easier to book and ryokan stays tend to be more affordable, also. Whether choosing to relax at a hot spring resort or explore the back streets of Naramachi and Imaicho, winter is about taking things slowly and interracting with the locals.
How Long to Stay
With easy access from Kyoto on the same train line as Fushimi Inari Jinja, Nara is an easy excursion from Japan's most well-established tourist mecca. But what many day trippers don't realise until arriving in Nara, is how refreshing a more leisurely pace and fewer crowds can be. A longer stay is rewarding.
Nara Park alone is worth a full day. To hike Mt. Wakakusa for views over the city, explore the charming narrow streets of Naramachi and hunt for local crafts and vintage kimono and visit a few blockbuster temples and shrines, two or even three days may be necessary. Consider heading off the beaten track: Dorogawa Onsen offers luxurious ryokan experiences and an insight into the cultural practices of Shugendo practitioners while Yoshino boasts unrivalled views of cherry blossom in spring and coloured leaves in autumn.
Travel to Nara
Located close to the major transport hubs of Kyoto and Osaka and with easy access to shinkansen lines, getting to Nara from Japan’s major cities is fast and uncomplicated.
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Getting Around Nara
Nara is well-served by rail and bus networks, with money-saving passes available for hop-on hop-off travel.
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To make your time in Nara as smooth and comfortable as possible, it's a good idea to get up to speed on Nara weather, the Wi-Fi situation and other practical matters. Click on the links below to pick up some tips and learn more.
Although certain hotels and guest houses accept same-day bookings, ryokan and shukubo, especially those serving elaborate dinners, tend only to offer accommodation on a reservation basis. In order to avoid disappointment, it is strongly recommended to book in advance.
For online bookings, it can be worthwhile checking domestic hotel booking sites which often have a wider range of options than large international sites. For accommodation in Nara's more remote destinations, telephone reservations remain the norm. Ask at Nara Visitor Center & Inn or any other tourist information center for help with reservations over the telephone.
Domestic Reservation Websites
Japanese hotel reservation sites tend to offer more options when it comes to finding accommodation. Two of the largest below also have pages in english.
Nara Visitor Center & Inn
One of the leading tourist information centres in Nara, Nara Visitor Center & Inn is able to provide the following accommodation-related support.
- Telephone reservation assistance
- Hotel recommendations and advice
- Online booking service (due for launch this year)