Nara’s hidden treasures: A 1-3 day itinerary for the offbeat traveller

Kasuga-taisha in Nara by Patricia Haller Anguela on Unsplash

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Usually overlooked in favour of its more famous neighbours Kyoto and Osaka, people who do visit Nara usually come to see just the attractions around Nara Park – including its famous deer. But there is so much more to see and do in Japan’s ancient capital. From the oldest wooden temples in the world to hiking trails through sacred primaeval forests, our one- to three-day itinerary is designed for those who want to experience the lesser-known wonders of beautiful Nara.

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Why should you include Nara on your Japan itinerary?

If you are a history buff and a nature lover, including Nara in your itinerary is a must. As the first imperial capital of Japan (from 710 to 794), Nara is a living museum with over 1,200 years of history and rich cultural heritage.

The city is home to numerous Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, and the remains of the Imperial Palace, all of which offer fascinating insights into Japan’s ancient past. Another highlight is Nara’s sacred forest, which has been preserved for over 1,100 years. This unique combination of historical sites and natural beauty led to the UNESCO World Heritage Site designation of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara in 1998.

daibutsuden in nara by jennie ryken

As the first imperial capital of Japan, Nara is a living museum with over 1,200 years of history | Photo by Jennie Ryken

When is the best time to visit Nara?

While the Cherry Blossom season may be the most popular tourist draw, if you want to avoid the crowds, consider visiting Nara

  • in February to mid-March (the blooming plum trees in March are just as beautiful as Sakura),
  • between mid-May and mid-June (after Golden Week and before it gets too hot and humid), or
  • in the first half of November respectively the first half of December (to experience the autumn foliage but avoid the worst of the crowds from mid to end November).

Map of Accommodation, Points of Interest, Eateries and Transport

Below is a map of the recommended accommodation, points of interest, eateries and transport terminals/stops mentioned in this article.

nara scenery in spring by kanenori on pixabay

Spring is a great time to visit Nara as long as you avoid Sakura and Golden Week | Photo by Kanenori on Pixabay

Nara also hosts unique festivals throughout the year that are worth planning your visit around:

  • During Setsubun in early February, you can experience Kasuga Mantoro, the lighting of all the lanterns at Kasuga-Taisha Shrine [Official website, Google Maps location].
  • Omizutori in the first half of March is a Buddhist festival marking the start of Spring. During the festival, at 1900h every night, you can witness Buddhist monks run along Nigatsudo’s balcony [Google Maps location] carrying six-metre-long torches. The embers raining on the crowds below are believed to bring good health.
  • Visiting in the first half of June allows you to observe baby deer at the Roku-en Park nursery [Google Maps location].
burning hillside during nara fire festival by kanenori on pixabay

Nara hosts unique festivals throughout the year that are worth planning a visit around | Photo by Kanenori on Pixabay

How much time should you spend in Nara?

If you have a limited amount of time, it is possible to visit Nara on a day trip (from Kyoto or Osaka). However, to really appreciate what Nara has to offer, we recommend to spend at least two nights in the city – the more the better.

How to get to Nara

Getting to Nara from both Kyoto and Osaka is easy:

  • From Kyoto Station, take the JR Nara line (Rapid Express) – the train takes approximately 50 minutes.
  • If you’re coming from Osaka, take the Osaka Loop Line from Osaka Station or the Osaka East Line from Shin-Osaka Station to reach Nara in about an hour.

All of these are covered by the JR Pass.

The Kintetsu Railway also services Nara from Kyoto and Osaka. While it’s not part of Japan Railways (and thus not covered by the JR Pass), you can buy a 1- or 2-day pass that is valid on all Kintetsu lines and Nara Kotsu buses between Nara Park, Tōshōdai-ji and Hōryū-ji Temples.

jr train to nara by sharon ang on pixabay

From Kyoto to Nara, the JR Nara Rapid Express only takes 50 minutes | Photo by Sharon Ang on Pixabay

How to get around Nara

Nara’s sights, as we found out the hard way, are quite spread out. Even just visiting the sights in and around Nara Park will see you clock up the miles quickly.

To make it easier to get around, we recommend renting a(n) (electric) bicycle from Nara Rent A Cycle. This allows you to move at your own pace. And with Nara being relatively flat, riding a bike is not strenuous.

Alternatively, and especially if you don’t get the Kintetsu Rail Pass, consider purchasing a 1- or 2-Day Bus Pass. A 1-Day pass already pays for itself if you travel by bus to and from Tōshōdai-ji Temple (see Day 2 of our itinerary).

nara street scene by mohamad ilham fauzan on unsplash

Nara's sights are surprisingly spread out, so hire a bicycle or use public transport to get around town | Photo by Mohamad Ilham Fauzan on Unsplash

Special Tip #1

The city of Nara offers free wifi between the JR Station and Mt Wakakusa, making it easy to find your bearings even if you don’t have a data SIM card.

How to experience Nara beyond the tourist hotspots

Day 1 – The touristy experience: Nara Park

Arrive by train from Kyoto or Osaka in the morning. Grab some provisions from Vie de France [Google Maps location] (at Nara Station) to fuel your exploration. Then drop your luggage at your accommodation.

Hire a bicycle [Google Maps location] and start your exploration with a visit to the Kōfuku-ji temple complex [Google Maps location]. Its Five-Storied Pagoda (Gojunoto) was originally built in the 8th century, with the current structure dating from the year 1426. Its Northern Round Hall (Hokuendo) is more than 800 years old.

kōfuku ji gojunoto in nara

Originally built in 730, Kōfuku-ji Gojunoto's current structure dates from the year 1426

Don’t miss out on Yoshiki-en Garden [Google Maps location], a tranquil oasis with three different styles of traditional Japanese gardens. The entrance is free for foreign visitors.

Next, head to the Tōdai-ji temple complex [Google Maps location], which is home to

great buddha at tōdai ji in nara by jennie ryken

The great Buddha at the Tōdai-ji Daibutsuden is magnificient | Photo by Jennie Ryken

Afterwards, head to Kasuga-taisha [Google Maps location] to marvel at the thousands of lanterns donated by worshippers that give the shrine its magical atmosphere.

As you pass through Nara Park, watch out for the deer that freely roam the area.

deer in nara park

The deer in Nara are wild animals - give them space and don't feed them

Return your bicycle and head back to your accommodation to relax and savour a delicious dinner. Wrap up your day with a stroll around the narrow streets and alleyways of Naramachi, the old merchant town neighbourhood.

Nara Park Deer

Images of Nara almost always include the deer that freely roam Nara Park and the sacred forest. These are Japanese Sika Deer, the same type of deer you’ll find on Miyajima Island. Considered divine messengers, the deer are a national natural monument.

It may not seem so, but the deer are wild animals. So, please give them space, don’t touch them and we strongly recommend not feeding them (no matter how cute they’ll look in your Instagram post). Yes, even the deer crackers that are being sold are not their natural food source, and feeding these deer alters their natural behaviour.

Be extra vigilant

  • in October/November when male deer can be aggressive during mating season, and
  • in May/June when female deer are especially vulnerable during pregnancy and birth.

Don’t litter and store any paper or plastic securely in your daypack.

baby deer in nara by willian justen de vasconcellos on unsplash

Be extra mindful if visiting Nara in June when the baby deer are born | Photo by Willian Justen de Vasconcellos on Unsplash

Day 2 – The off-the-beaten-path experience

Today, we’ve got two more treasures for the history buffs among you:

First, take the bus and visit Tōshōdai-ji [Google Maps location]. The Lecture Hall (Kodo) is the sole survivor of the Imperial complex of ancient Nara, where it was relocated over 1,200 years ago.

tōshōdai ji kodo in nara

Tōshōdai-ji Kodo is the sole survivor of the Imperial complex of ancient Nara, where it was relocated from over 1,200 years ago

After lunch, head further south to the temple complex of Hōryū-ji, reachable by train (Kintetsu-Kashihara Line) and bus in approximately 1 hour.

Hōryū-ji pre-dates the ancient capital Nara, and thus, its historical value is even more astounding:

  • Its Main Hall (Kondo) is the world’s oldest extant wooden structure. Originally completed in 607, it was destroyed by fire in 670 and faithfully rebuilt shortly after.
  • The Five-Storied Pagoda (Gorunto) was completed just after the Main Hall rebuild. It is the oldest pagoda of this type in Japan and one of the oldest surviving wooden towers in the world.

These structures offer a glimpse into Japan’s ancient past and showcase the remarkable craftsmanship of the time, so take your time exploring the grounds.

hōryū ji in nara

More than 1,300 years old, Hōryū-ji's Kondo and Gorunto are (among) the world's oldest extant wooden structures

On your way back to your accommodation pop into Naramachi Nigiwai-no-Ie, a traditional tradesman’s house (closed Wednesdays and Thursdays), to experience life in Naramachi over 100 years ago.

Afterwards, enjoy dinner in one of the many restaurants in Naramachi.

tiny house in naramachi

You never know what you might discover as you stroll around Naramachi - we came across what must be the tiniest building in Nara

Special Tip #2

Did you know that Nara offers free private tours held by graduates of the Nara YMCA Guide Course? That’s right. It’s a win/win for both visitors and guides alike: you get to hang out with a local eager to show you their city, and the guides get to practice their newly learned skills. The initiative started in 1970 when the World Expo was held in Osaka, and it’s still going strong.

If that’s something you’d like to do, contact them at least 3 days prior to your visit. While there are recommended routes, the guides do tailor a tour based on your requirements, so just ask.

kasuga taisha in nara by jennie ryken

Kasuga-taisha is also the starting point for gorgeous hiking trails into the Kasugayama Primeval Forest | Photo by Jennie Ryken

Day 3 – Farewell to Nara

On your final day in Nara, it’s all about nature. Get up early, check out after breakfast and ask your accommodation to keep your luggage for a few hours (unless you have arranged a late check-out).

Then start exploring the Kasugayama Primeval Forest [Google Maps location]:

The latter part of both trails (along the grassy hillside down from the summit of Mt Wakakusa) requires the payment of a small entry fee (JPY150).

After your hike, head back to your accommodation to shower/pick up your luggage. Then head to the Nara Train Station for your onward journey.

kasugayama primeval forest1 by jennie ryken

Nara’s sacred forest has been preserved for over 1,100 years | Photo by Jennie Ryken

Special Tip #3

If you travel from Kyoto to Osaka with a few days in Nara in between, you could change the above itinerary as follows:

  • Day 2 – Do the hike in the morning and visit Tōshōdai-ji in the afternoon.
  • Day 3 – Visit Hōryū-ji [Google Maps location] on your way to Osaka. In that case, take the train to Hōryūji Train Station (there are coin lockers for your luggage before you exit through the ticket gates). From the Hōryūji Train Station, it’s a 20-minute flattish walk north to the temple complex.

Where and what to eat when visiting Nara

When visiting Nara, there are several culinary options to try.

In Nara-machi, the old merchant town:

  • Head to Ajimi Izakaya [Google Maps location] or Totomaru Izakaya [Google Maps location] for a delicious authentic Japanese dining experience (both are closed on Mondays).
  • For a taste of Nara’s famous okonomiyaki, stop by Surugamachi’s Okonomiyakiya [Google Maps location].
  • Vegan Cafe Ramuna [Google Maps location] offers plant-based dining options, with delicious dishes available on Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays.
  • Shizuka Omiya [Google Maps location] (closed Tuesdays) is the spot to savour Kamameshi, a traditional Japanese rice dish cooked in an iron pot.
set lunch at ajimi nara

Head to Ajimi Izakaya for a delicious and authentic Japanese dining experience

And when it comes to desserts, don’t miss out on trying Dango, rice flour dumplings coated in kinako (roasted soybean flour) and syrup – for example at Tamausagi [Google Maps location] by the ticket gates at Kintetsu Nara Station.

For a touristy but fun experience, pop by Nakatanidou [Google Maps location] to watch the (lightning-fast) mochi pounding and enjoy a fresh mochi afterwards.

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Download your Sustainable Travel Checklist and show the world you care

As travellers, we should all be aware of our travel behaviour and its environmental, economic and social impact; and make conscious decisions about it. Too often, we hear negative stories in the media about tourists behaving badly.

Here is your chance to tick some boxes and check out what it really takes to travel with a sustainable mindset.

Where to stay in Nara

For accommodation, as with any other travel expenses, it’s worth shopping around. When we book our accommodation, we look across several booking platforms to find the best value-for-money option. Wherever you book, do make sure you read the fine print to make sure you compare apples with apples. For example, your stay may incur extra charges (like local tourist taxes or cleaning fees). Some booking platforms include them, while with others, you have to pay them to your host upon arrival.

Below are my recommendations for accommodation options that fit the criteria of affordable, often meeting a sustainability certification, and that are close to public transport and points of interest.

NameProperty FeaturesTypePrice IndicatorBook Now
Slow House Nara2-Star
Shared kitchen
Japanese or Western style rooms
Guesthouse$$Book Now
Haruya Naramachi2-star
Shared kitchen
Bicycle rental service
Japanese or Western sryle rooms
Guesthouse$$Book Now
Guesthouse Nara KomachiBike hire availableGuesthouse$$Book Now
Sustainability Certification included as appropriate, but not validated. $ is USD50 and below. $$$$ is USD150 and above. A marks where we stayed and would highly recommend to our friends and family.

Have you been to Nara?

What time of the year did you visit? How long did you stay? And most importantly, what off-the-beaten gems were your favourites? And if exploring the city on your own isn’t yuor thing ad you prefer a guide, consider a Nara Full-day Private Tour. We haven’t obviously done this tour, but with a 5-star rating, it is one to consider.

Nara\'s hidden treasures: A 1-3 day itinerary for the offbeat traveller
Author: <a href="" target="_blank">Sandra Rosenau</a>

Author: Sandra Rosenau

Sandra Rosenau is a Gen X gal from Germany, born and raised behind the Iron Curtain, with an unquenchable thirst to learn. Self-starter. Multi-lingual. Minimalist. Environmentally conscious. Financially and location independent. Energised by connecting with others and helping people succeed.