Don’t let anyone tell you a half day is enough to see Nara. You’ll need a day trip to Nara or more to truly appreciate the smells of incense, fight off the hungry sacred deer, and take in the bright splashes of red berries in a traditional Zen garden.
It can be difficult to narrow down your itinerary in Japan to just a few places. But no matter how crammed your itinerary is, any amount of time spent in Nara is amazing and a day trip to Nara is a good choice.
I left Osaka by 9AM and arrived in Nara by 10ish. I’ve now learned to plan 30minutes in each new place “for confusion.” I’ll save you some trouble, the tourist office right next to the train station will store your luggage but they only take cash!
First stop on any itinerary should be Kufuku-ji temple. This complex is pretty large, with a shrine and two temple buildings that each cost 500Y to get into.
I honestly don’t think the entrance fee is worth it. The buildings only house some nice statues and some basic information on Buddhism. That being said, they are absolutely lovely to look at from the outside!
Then, if you haven’t already, find the famous deer. They’re a little aggressive, but they can be bribed to compliance for a cookie from a 200Y pack for sale nearby.
They’ll nip at your pockets/purse and headbutt your back. But their horns are generally capped so it’s not a big deal. If you’ve been around a horse or a large dog it’s basically the same. They’re really cute and fun to see everywhere.
Gardens and Tea on a Day Trip to Nara
Part of the reason I think I loved Nara so much was because it somehow doesn’t feel super touristy once you get past the deer.
Nara’s gardens were my favorite of those I saw in Japan. Isui-en Gardens are gorgeous. The entrance fee is a little steep at 800Y but it does include access to the small museum on site.
I had so much fun wandering the gardens with hardly any people. It’s also where I think you can start to see some of the traditional markers that are found all over Japan. A rock with rope tied around it means you can’t go down that path. A plant with red berries generally seemed to mark entrances.
Even in winter these gardens were well worth the visit. However, if you are wanting to save money, there is a free public garden literally to the right of the entrance.
It is also very beautiful, and has more camellia flowers. Isui-en also has a lovely tea house. Matcha and a small sweet treat was 800Y and it has some sublime views and atmosphere.
Todaiji wound up being one of my favorite temples (not the most favorite though, that honor is unsurprisingly held by a temple in Kyoto). The three giant statues housed inside under the towering rafters are quite impressive.
The large dominance of the building as it comes into view with its two golden “horns” is surprisingly unexpected. The entrance fee can seem a little steep again at 600Y but it’s worth it. It’s definitely not a spiritual place, so don’t expect mysticism. But it is really cool! There’s also a place to get your fortune for 100Y (I got Good Fortune, huzzah!).
After Todaiji and before you head off to your next destination, grab yourself some freshly made mochi for 150Y and some delicious maple bread from a bakery on the way to the train station.
I hope this has given you some ideas of what you can see with on a day trip to Nara! But I do recommend you stay the night and give yourself time to fully appreciate everything, and visit some further away temples and especially hike in the Kasugayama Primeval Forest. Learn more about that hike here.
A Daytrip to Nara simply isn’t enough but sometimes it’s all you’ve got, and it’s worth it.