One of the most well known historical places you can visit is Nara. With its multitude of temples, gardens and Nara attractions, there are plenty things to do on a Nara day trip. However, the main reason most tourists come are the sacred Nara deer. But they are not all cute and adorable. Here’s my story of visiting Nara during my 2 week trip around Kansai.
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Why Are There so Many Deer in Nara?
On my first visit to Nara I came prepared. I had done my research and found out that the local deer are in fact sacred. Hunting them had been forbidden a few centuries ago when a noble family asked the gods to bless their new home, and a deer turned up as the divine messenger.
Ever since then, they have been adored and protected. Until the 1600s, you could be sentenced to death if you hurt the deer! Post WWII, they now carry the status of National Treasure.
In the Japanese Shinto religion, animals can act as godly messengers. For instance for the god of war, Hachiman (八幡神), as well as for the goddess of fertility, Inari Ōkami (稲荷大神), foxes are the messengers. (Check the respective shrines for statues and symbols.) For Nara, the deer are godly messengers of the god of thunder, Takemikazuchi.
Nowadays, there are around 1200 deer roaming Nara freely. At times, though seldom, they even enter the city. Mostly, they stick to the parks, temple areas and the forests. But if you want to catch them (metaphorically), you just need to walk to Nara Park and grab a deer cookie.
They will be all over you in no time. And then never let you go. (Hold on to your maps and papers, too because the deer love snatching them.)
Things to Do in Nara Japan
Nara Temple Hopping
Did you know that Nara used to be the capital of Japan? That was before it was moved to nearby Kyoto in 795. Before that time, the city was home to the “Seven Great Temples of Nara” (Nanto Shichi Daiji). All seven of them can be visited to this day. The most prominent of the bunch, however, is the Great Eastern Temple, Todaiji (東大寺).
Its construction started and was completed in the same year, that of 728 AD. Todaiji is a temple of superlatives, having been the largest wooden building in the world until 1998 and housing the biggest bronze Buddha in the world. Two highlights during any visit of Todaiji are the Great South Gate and the Nigatsu-dō hall (February Hall).
Depending on how many religious buildings you want to see in one day, you can also stop by the other former Great 7: Saidaiji (Great Western Temple), Yakushiji, Horyuji, Kofukuji, Gangoji and Daianji (Great Peace Temple). However, if you had to make a choice I would say Kasuga-Taisha should be high on your list. Branch off from Nara Park and follow the 3000 lanterns to the forest shrine.
Nara is a cornucopia of wonderful photo opportunities. With its stunning old temples and shrines, the cheeky deer and the wonderful natural surroundings, you will find plenty to capture with your camera. A great start – particularly if you are a nature lover – is Nara Park and the nearby Kasugayama Primeval Forest.
From either you can climb Mount Wakakusa for excellent views over the park and temple areas. By the way, did you know that Nara Park is one of the oldest parks in Japan? It was established in the 1300s. It’s free of charge, open 24/7 and there are souvenir shops and cafes at its fringe in case you get hungry watching all the deer snack on crackers.
Isuien Garden, a historic garden in the typical Japanese garden style with stone walking paths, also makes for wonderfully scenic spots. Here’s a budget tip: If you walk over to adjacent Yoshiki-en (吉城園 ), you don’t have to pay if you show your foreign passpot. This garden is made up of three parts: a pond garden, a moss garden and a tea ceremony garden.
Most people embrace the typical (touristy) cultural experience in Kyoto. But since Nara used to be capital as well and is chockfull of culture itself, why not do it on your Nara day trip?
Nara is excessively pretty and you will want to wander around a lot. So it’s definitely good for your first visit to join a cultural walking tour like this one*. (It’s easy to walk around, everything is mostly flat. Or you rent yourself a bike*.)
On top of getting a feeling for traditional Japanese clothing, you can also attend a tea ceremony or visit one of the local museums and gardens. Should you feel rather lazy or are in need of Japanese souvenirs and fashion, why not stroll down the city centre of Nara?
Here, you can find wonderful stationary (with deer motives, of course), deer themed t-shirts and other Nara typical items.
Meet the Famous Nara Deer
The deer you see walking around Nara’s parks and forests (and sometimes even in town) are sika deer. They have been declared a National Treasure and were once even sacred.
The story goes that when Nara was founded as the new capital of Japan, blessings by the God of Thunder were asked for. To show his goodwill, the god sent a white deer as his messenger. Ever since then deer have been seen as divine messengers in Japanese shintoism.
Should you want to feed the Nara deer, please stick to the local senbei, rice crackers. They are sold as deer food around Nara Park. Don’t bring your own or feed them your lunch snacks. Remember, these are wild animals and shouldn’t eat human food. I have seen plenty of tourists feed them sandwiches, bananas and maps. That’s so not cool!
Once you have fed them, the Nara deer usually expect you to procure more food so make a quick escape. (And if you have little ones, keep them away.) The animals are known to kick, bite and jump as well if they don’t get their way.
Luckily, during spring time the male deer don’t have antlers yet so it’s safer but just act cautiously and remain calm. They aren’t scary, just very cheeky. I once experienced their greediness first-hand and was cornered by an especially tenacious deer.
Where to Stay for a Nara Day Trip
If you are staying in Osaka or Kyoto, getting to Nara is easy and takes between 60 to 90 minutes. With a Japan Railpass, the situation is super easy. (Here’s my experience with the Japan Railpass.)
You have your pass sent to your home address abroad, bring it to the nearest JR railway station with Railpass counters to validate the pass (that can easily take an hour, queues are insane during sakura season especially) and then you can even make advance reservations for specific seats and trains. (Check for exceptions.) Or you just walk through the gates with your pass in hand. You’ll feel like a VIP.
Of course, there are also options for staying in Nara overnight if that’s of interest to you. Being such an important site for temples and shrines, there are many festivals and events going on as well. During cherry blossom season, for instance, you can become witness to the lighting of the lamps and burning ceremonies late at night.
You can get your own Kansai Railpass here*. (And if you don’t use it, you can return it. Note: it’s easiest to preorder before your visit although it’s now possible to have it sent to your hotel in Japan.)
How to Get from Osaka to Nara
There are regular trains going from Osaka to Nara and Nara to Osaka on a daily basis. You can check the timetable on Hyperdia but generally, trains go every ten to twenty minutes. The ride is direct, there is no need to change and tickets cost around 800yen. The line is JR Yamatoji Rapid Service for either Kamo or Nara.