Why Nara was my favorite place in Japan
We spent 7 weeks in Japan and my favorite memories were of our 1 day in the town of Nara. Why? There are a few reasons: the most impressive temple we’ve seen in Japan (the Todaiji Temple), one of the most famous Shinto shrines (the Kasuga Taisha shrine) and lastly – tons and tons of deer wandering around everywhere. If you’ve never had a chance to get close to deer then you have to come to Nara. That alone makes Nara a very different kind of place.
I’ll write more about the deer further below. Not everyone likes them.
.Nara was the capital of Japan from 710 to 784 AD (referred to as the Nara Period). During this time Japan had flourishing ties with China. The Chinese Tang dynasty was the largest empire in the world and Japan was receptive to its highly developed culture. This culture influenced art as well as religion – during this period Nara became the center of Japanese Buddhism and lots of money was spent on Buddhist temples, images, and texts. More on Buddhism in Nara.
Note: In 2021 Japan introduced Visa requirements to visit the country. Click on the link for your Japan online visa application.
Reasons Why Nara was my Favorite Place in Japan
.1. The Todaiji Temple
Of all the temples built in Nara, the Todaiji Temple is the most famous both for its size (they claim it’s the largest wooden structure in the world*) and for the huge bronze statue of Buddha that’s inside the temple. The statue, 15 meters tall, dates back to 752 AD and is the world’s largest bronze image of the Buddha.
* over the last year, we’ve seen various claims to the “largest wooden structure in the World” including the Metropol Parasol in Sevilla and the Higashi Honganji temple in Kyoto. So I’m always a bit sceptical when I hear claims to be the “largest”. Whether the largest or not, just know that the Todaiji Temple is huge.
Most Japanese Buddhist temples are simple and clean in the interior, with wood and paper walls and doors and tatami mats on the floor. The outside of the temples are usually more impressive than the inside. The Todaiji Temple is different. In addition to the huge Buddha – which basically stands there near the middle of the huge hall – there are sculptures of two golden Bodisattva (“Enlightened Beings”) that flank him on both sides. You’ll also see sculptures of fierce-looking guardians. The scale of all these statues is really remarkable. It’s why Todaiji ended up being the most impressive temple (in our opinion) that we would see in Japan.
Related: Wearing Masks: what we learned from the Japanese and how it applies today
2.The Kasuga Kaisha Shrine
Kasuga Taisha is Naras’s most celebrated shrine. It was originally completed in 768 AD as the shrine of one of Nara’s most powerful family clans (the Fujiwara family). It is known for an incredible 3,000 odd stone and brass lanterns (donated by ordinary people as token of faith and thankfulness) which you’ll see all over the shrine grounds.
A few photos:
Besides some beautiful buildings and all the lanterns, we found the Kasuga Taisha Shrine very peaceful. It might not be as well-known as the Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine in Kyoto, but we enjoyed wandering the ground just as much. It ranks among the favorite shrines we saw in Japan.
3. Nara Park and The Deer
Almost all of the temples and shrines in Nara are located in Nara Park, a large public park established in the 1300’s (it’s one of the oldest parks in Japan). Most of the highlights are within easy walking distance of each other along trails in the forest. No cars, no ugly buildings – that makes Nara is a pleasant place to visit. The park is also full of deer which for many people is the main reason for coming here in the first place. The closest I’ve ever come to deer was seeing them while playing golf at Mont-Tremblant in Quebec. There they ran away when you got too close. In Nara they come up to you hoping they’ll feed you biscuits, they’ll even bob their heads up and down at you as if politely asking you for a cookie. I’ve never seen anything like it.
Why are there so many deer in Nara? They were considered sacred as “messengers of the gods” and allowed to prosper. Until 1637 killing a deer was a capital offense punishable by death. Today there are about 1,200 deer roaming freely around Nara.
I’ve mentioned that Nara is my favorite place in Japan – it wasn’t Lissette’s. That’s because she was afraid of the deer. I was trying to tell her that the deer are completely harmless…then she saw these signs:
Lissette: “Bite, Kick, Butt, Knock down?! I’m going to punch you in the head if they come after me“.
Lissette isn’t much of a friend of nature, but seeing these signs of crazy rabid deer attacking people and getting in fights with dogs, cars and locals with bats spooked her. Maybe they should tone down the warnings a bit.
I don’t think the deer are at all aggressive though and as usual, there are the usual bunch of dumbasses that provoke them by teasing them with food. That’s when the trouble starts. If you don’t act like a dumbass you have nothing to worry about. For me, seeing the deer up close was unique and an experience that made Nara a special place.
I’ve highlighted the top 3 reasons why Nara was my favorite place in Japan. Although the above were the highlights, there is more to see and just walking around Nara Park you’ll see various temples and shrines worth stopping for. A few more photos.
Most visitors to Japan make it to Kyoto but don’t always make it to Nara. Please do yourself a favour – if in Kyoto go see Nara. It only takes 45 minutes to get there by train. It is really worth a visit.
– Train. It took us 45 minutes from Kyoto to get to Nara’s “Kintetsu Nara Station”. From there you can walk to all the sites.
– Organized Tour. This 3.5 hr Tour will take you to the highlights while presenting a local’s perspective.
– Hotels. The inexpensive Oak Hostel Nara is right across from the train station. Besides dorms, it also has private rooms that include your own bathroom. Perfect for a night in Nara (which we wish we had done). If you want to go higher end, Onyado Nono Nara Natural Hot Spring is a beautiful hotel with their own hot springs that you can relax in. Close to both train stations.
Related: The “Must See” Highlights of Kyoto
Related: Why you should visit Singapore at least once in your life
Related: The Hypothetically Perfect Day in Bangkok
Ps. If you find our blog helpful, please consider using our links to book your flights, hotels, tours, and car rentals. Have a look at our Travel Resources page.
If you haven’t subscribed yet and want to get our posts and newsletters sent to your email, just insert your email address below
Agree with you 100% on Nara! LOVE the deer and I was surprised there wasn’t much poop in and around the temples, on the walkways, etc. A taxi driver told us the deer live in the mountains and everyday make the trek into town; I happened to see them making their way in one morning—it was pretty cool. Todaiji was a highlight for myself as well. Pictures just don’t do justice in relaying the true size of the figures, but your pictures are AMAZING. I’m sorry Lissette wasn’t into the deer; that’s what I found most charming about Nara.
Thanks so much for the comment Sarah. I didn’t know that they lived in the mountains. So they’ve learned to go into town for those cookies huh? Interesting.
Yes, I wished we had planned an extra day in Nara, really enjoyed it.
I found Nara to be such a cool and unique place to visit when I traveled to Japan last spring. Although feeding time was a little interesting and getting a selfie was a little bit challenging to do, I found it to be quite an enjoyable experience!
Ratheesh R Nath
I recently began to follow your blog. Your posts are so unique and that makes me want to come back and check it again. I love reading your posts. by the way, thanks for sharing such excellent photos of Nara. 🙂
Thank you so much for the kind words Ratheesh! 🙂
Deer over monkeys any day! Like you say, deer don’t bother anyone but monkeys, now that’s a completely different kettle of fish! I also liked Nara, not only for the reasons above but because it was the first place in Japan in which I experienced a heated toilet seat!
Don’t ever mention monkeys to Lissette! She has a real fear of them…and I can understand that. But deer? Hmmm.
You know, we spent 7 weeks in Japan and I got used to those heated toilet seats. I can’t understand why Canada hasn’t adopted Japanese toilet technology – I remember the old days when I had to get up at 6am for work and walking to the toilet for that morning dump when it’s -30C outside and the floor is frigin cold. Nothing would have been better than a warm toilet seat.
If I had to equip a house in a cold climate it would be the first thing I buy. And did you try out the bidet or spray action on those toilets? We can talk about that one day we meet 😉
Yeah, I don’t know why cold countries such as Canada don’t adopt the heated toilet seat and as to whether I experienced the Japanese bidet, the answer is no but I’m intrigued. It will make for good beer conversation!!!
Kirsty and Lissette might start looking at us funny if we start talking about bidets 😉 Maybe something we have to talk about in private conversation because whenever a guy starts talking about anal stimulation of any kind in mixed company there’s no way you’ll ever get your manhood back…
Agreed, lets keep it for a more appropriate time (if there ever is one for such a topic :-))!
Sorry for the delaying in replying BTW, internet in Malta has been terrible and very lacking up until this point!
Gile (from Tripologia)
Nara is very beautiful and interesting town, I agree with you. Deer are cute and funny but they could be a little bit aggressive sometimes. I love animals and do not have any fear from them but it is not so nice when this guy from middle hit you with his horn in your butt (see image). Their horns are cut off but it still hurt. If you have some cookies you have to run while feeding them, when you give away all food you have you must show them empty hands, otherwise they will not let you alone.
Regarding deer a have a funny story. We saw some young girl, 12 years or something like that, she was eating a sandwich in park when one of this deer approached and start to bothering her. She picked up the sandwich over her head to protect it from deer and then some large bird, crow or something, came out from nowhere and steal the sandwich from her hands. Poor girl, but it was funny, it was like in cartoon. So there is no way to keep your food in that park. 🙂
EDIT: I can’t post any URL here so you have to search for our Nara post by yourself.
The best we saw was a deer eating someone’s map, it’s true you have to be alert because they seem to always have food on the brain 🙂
Linking your Nara post here Gile.
Thanks for taking the time to comment!
Oh you had better weather than I did! It rained the whole day. It’s the PERFECT city for a day trip, it’s all so walkable and close together. I liked it very much too, although I prefer Hiroshima and Kyoto which I think are amazing cities. 🙂 lovely to see Nara with blue skies. I worked the umbrella ALL DAY!
Oh get it, we had the same experience as you in Nikko and for sure takes the shine out of a place.
Sand In My Suitcase
Very interesting about the deer… We have many, many deer in Victoria city here. A family virtually lives in our garden year round. They’re adorable, but they really shouldn’t live in the city — but it’s a sensitive issue (what to do with them?). Anyway, that Todaiji Temple is HUGE! The collection of stone and brass lanterns is interesting… No doubt, especially since we love deer, we’d enjoy visiting Nara :-).
I didn’t realize that about Victoria Janice. I’m sure it can be a nuisance with all those pellets of poop!
Thanks for the comment.
I loved Nara too and the deer and lanterns played a big part in that. It helped also that it was an easy trip from Kyoto, we found ate some great pastries at a French/Chinese bakery and you’re right that temple is huge. I thought it had a lot to offer and it was easy to walk around too.
Thanks Jan! I didn’t think that Japanese towns were generally that nice to walk around in – but Nara was different. So we’re in total agreement 🙂
Having recently seen the Metropol Parasol in Seville, your comparison between it and the Todaiji Temple helped me appreciate how truly massive the temple must be as well as the Buddha inside. I loved your photos of the lanterns in Kasuga Taisha Shrine and I imagine it would be truly magical at night if they were all lit. But, YES! the deer would have had me at hello too and I would have been one of those suckers feeding them biscuits. Still laughing at the posters and the pictures – they look like little Rudolphs gone bonkers!
Thanks Anita! If you like that wait for one of my upcoming posts on all the weird signs we photographed while in Japan. The Japanese unique in their signs and you could spend all day hunting them down and it would never be boring 🙂
You always post a terrific collection of photos, Frank, but I’m loving this set, especially those of the hanging lanterns. I find the architecture of Japan to be so interesting because it seems unique to the world at large. I could be wrong because I certainly haven’t traversed the world to know for sure, but it sure seems that. The temples are amazing (for lack of a better word) and the combination of history and spirituality is so intertwined although I suppose that could be said about many places in the world. Japan is not on our radar so I’m really enjoying visiting the country through your words and lens.
Thank you for the very nice comment Patti 🙂
The temple looks beautiful indeed. You also mentioned the one reason l would not visit Nara. The deer! I am such a big chicken. When l lived in Hollywood, I had this deer that somehow found its way under my deck and took up camp there. Couldn’t figure it out for a while, and l lived alone. One Saturday morning, it came up to my back door and l freaked. Made my friend drive from his house to mine to escort me out of the house and purchased some deer repellent (that has got to be the worst smelling shite in the world!). Boarded up the deck..it took a while to get rid of it and l could back to sleeping again. I have so many deer and coyote stories (thanks to dog walks in the morning) and it always ends with me running like heck to neighbors yards, screaming all the way…Haha! I did meet a lot of them that way though :-).
I can understand getting scared of coyote…but deer? I would just want to feed them and pet them (although Lissette said not to because I could get lyme disease…jeez, can’t get a break).
The worse I saw any of them do was pull out a map from a man’s back pocket when he was busy bending over helping his kid with something. Have to admit I found that pretty frikin funny.