Nara may only be a former capital of Japan and not as popular as it’s neighbors, Kyoto and Osaka, but it does have its own visit-worthy places and I’m not only talking about the deer park. That said, it is quite a distance from Kyoto so I made a itinerary in which I could go to as many places as I could in a day.
I used the Kintetsu Nara Line because it was more convenient for me and I wanted to get down at Kintetsu Nara Station, which is closer than the JR Line to the famous tourist spots. I only had Google Maps in “map” mode so I didn’t really know what I should expect after getting out of the train station, but I saw Higashimuki Nakamachi shopping arcade and I can’t resist those so I walked through it and exited into Sanjo Dori where I saw tourists crowding around a Japanese confectionery shop. Naturally, I joined the crowd and bought what everybody was buying.
That shop has the best yomogi mochi (grass rice cake) in Japan, which immediately makes it the best yomogi mochi in the world. You can bring some home but it’s better if you eat it there when it’s still slightly warm and the flavors are fresh. It was honestly the best mochi I have ever had and I after I went back to Kyoto I kept looking for something like it but never succeeded.
My first planned stopped of the day was Kohfukuji Temple Complex, just 300 meters from the mochi shop. The temple is one of Nara’s seven great temples and it’s complex includes pagodas, halls, and statues that are National Treasures.
You’ll start seeing deer in Kohfukuji and I think it is better to feed and appreciate them there because across the street in the park where all the deer gather, tourists also gather like a herd. At least at that time because I found out later that there was an uncharacteristically large crowd of tourists on that day. There seemed to be two people for every one deer, and there are hundreds of deer there. I didn’t even try to give a cookie because the smell was overpowering and the crowd didn’t help reduce the stench.
The road that cuts across the park leads to Todai-ji Temple where the world’s largest bronze statue of the Buddha Vairocana/Daibutsu is housed. It was also very crowded but even among the endless camera clicks and stream of people I could appreciate the statues and feel history in the temple. Behind the statues is a pole with a hole apparently the size of one of Daibutsu’s nostrils. It is believed that crawling through the hole will make you enlightened in your next life. Sadly, I couldn’t even try because the line of people waiting to do it reminded me of queues in Disney Land.
After leaving the temple, I climbed steps to reach Nigatsu-do and Sangatsu-do, which are sub-temples of Todai-ji. Nigatsu-do doesn’t have a famous statue but it does offer a nice view of Nara and Todai-ji temple. Sangatsu-do, on the other hand, contains 15 important statues (you can’t even take pictures of them) and is one of the oldest building in the Todai-ji complex. I loved the silence and peacefulness of watching the statues while sitting on tatami mats in Sangatsu-do.
I left the Todai-ji complex by going down the steps but then I found myself panting again as I went up a slope next because my next stop was Mount Wakakusa, a 342-meter mountain beside Todai-ji Temple. I really only meant to climb up the grassy, treeless slope until the part where the grass grew longer but I spotted stairs and they looked so mysterious that I decided to climb further. It lead me to a higher slope where I had an unobstructed view of the city. At that point I was sweating buckets but the view and the fresh air were worth the climb. I could have climbed higher but I satisfied myself in watching other people climb up.
The climb made me very hungry so I stopped by a picturesque cafe at the edge of a wood that lead to Kasuga Taisha Shrine. I don’t remember what I had but I do know that they had mostly snacks and I got something matcha-flavored as usual. It was a nice place to take a break after all the walking and hiking I did but if you’re in this area from Wednesday to Sunday, I recommend going to le Case instead. It’s a quiche shop I discovered later with the most amazing quiche ever. You have to go.
It was late afternoon by the time I left the small cafe and followed a path through the wood (where you can still see deer) to my last destination. At that point, I was a little sleepy from the food so I wasn’t really looking forward to seeing Kasuga Taisha Shrine but it turned out to be my favorite. There were stone lanterns leading to the inner area and bronze lanterns hanging from the eaves of the buildings inside the inner area.
It would have been great to see the lanterns lit on the Lantern Festivals in February and mid-August, but I saw what a few of them would have looked like in an hidden dark room filled with lit hanging lanterns. The scene in that room made Kasuga Taisha Shrine my favorite temple in Nara.
Nara isn’t as big as Osaka and it loses to Kyoto in history. If not for Todaiji, it probably might not get a lot of tourists but I’m glad that I went there because the few tourist spots it has are wonderful and worth the trip.
Todai-ji Temple, Daibutsu Hall
April to September 7:30-17:30
November to February 8:00-16:30
Adults = ¥500
Children = ¥300
Kasuga Taisha Shrine
April to September 6:00-18:00
October to March 6:30-17:00
Adults = ¥500
University and High School Students = ¥300
Elementary and Junior High School Students = ¥200