Nara was the capital of Japan between 710 and 784. As a result, the city contains plenty of national treasures and temples that are worth visiting. Nara is a one hour train ride from both Osaka and Kyoto, making it the perfect option for a day trip. I spent approximately eight hours exploring the former capital and it was an unforgettable experience.
The main attraction is Nara Park, which houses Todaiji Temple and a National Museum (to name a few). Besides walking to and from the train station, I spent all of my time exploring the park and interacting with the wildlife. I was also fortunate enough to visit during Otaimatsu, which is a series of Buddhist events held during the beginning of March. The ceremony features priests running with large torches across Nigatsudo’s balcony, which is a section of the Todaiji Temple complex.
Todaiji Temple is the largest wooden structure in the world. It was constructed in 752 and became a symbol of Buddhism’s growing power in Japan. The government eventually moved the capital to Nagaoka in 784 with a hope to lower Todaiji’s political influence. The present structure is a reconstruction and is only two-thirds of the original’s size!
Upon entering the main hall, you’ll see Japan’s largest bronze statue of Buddha, which stands 15 meters tall. Daibutsuden also houses plenty of other statues which exhibit beautiful workmanship and attention to detail. My favourite is Kōmokuten who is one of the four guardians of Buddha’s realm. Another fun aspect of Todaiji Temple is a pillar with a small hole at its base. If you can squeeze through this opening, you’ll be granted enlightenment during reincarnation.
The Sacred Deer of Nara Park
Upon entering Nara Park, you’ll be greeted by its sacred residents. The deer are always hungry and expect that tourists will feed them crackers, maps or articles of clothing. For the most part, these animals are quite friendly and they have even learned to bow for visitors (how could you not feed them after that)! If you have food, aggressive behaviour can occur but is generally limited to a headbutt to the leg.
If you want to feed the deer, there are plenty of stores near Nandaimon Gate that sell crackers. The cost is usually around 150 yen for a nice stack. I was thinking that with all these crackers, I could easily spend ten minutes rationing out meals to my favourite deer. However, upon smelling any type of food, a dozen deer will swarm a person. 10 seconds later, you’re wondering where all the crackers went!
I learned a few helpful tips while feeding the deer inside Nara Park. As soon as you purchase the crackers, try to split them all in half before you get swarmed (it will last twice as long). Keep the food as high as possible, the deer can get quite grabby and snatch the crackers right out of your hand. Lastly, I suggest giving your wallet and phone to a friend. The deer are notorious for trying to eat what’s in your pockets!
Otaimatsu & Conclusion
If you’re fortunate enough to have your Nara day trip during early March, you can attend the Otaimatsu events. Click here for a short video of the ritual. It’s a spectacle of fire set on the balcony of a historic wooden building, good thing there are people standing by with extinguishers! The good spots fill up quickly, so be sure to check the schedules online and show up early.
I can’t recommend Nara enough. You can do the main attractions through a day trip or even stay a couple days. In hindsight, it would have been amazing to visit the National Museum and Heijo Castle. I can’t wait to go back and visit Nara once again!
Thanks for reading my article “Nara Day Trip”. For more information, check out my Kyoto City Guide and Japan Travel Guide!