Must-See Destinations in the Nara Area

If you are planning a trip to Japan, you will probably want to explore the beautiful, vibrant Kansai region. It has a long history and a wealth of cultural resources. These are some of my favorite places from the two years I have lived in Japan. Travel within Kansai is quite easy: multiple train lines can deliver you from any one of these cities to the next in about 40 minutes or less. However, travel is always more fun when you can take your time, so don't feel you have to rush to catch it all! These are just a handful of Japan's beautiful and interesting places.

First up, Nara Japan! Nara was once the capital of Japan. As a result, it is jam-packed with UNESCO World-Heritage sites that you will want to explore. Fortunately, many of the most popular sites are fairly close together. 

Nara Park hosts many small, semi-tame deer (shika) that constitute an attraction in their own right as they roam freely. They beg for food by bowing at tourists. Vendors sell crackers you can feed to the deer but they can be a tad aggressive–be careful not to let them eat your map! There is also a lovely gazebo on the water in the park, which is a great place to rest and catch a cool breeze.

Deer are also prominent around Todai-ji Temple (Great Eastern Temple), which is famous for containing the world's largest wooden building (the Daibutsu-Den). This Buddhist temple complex holds an enormous, gold-plated statue of the Buddha (the Daibutsu) and houses many national treasures. It also houses a pillar with a hole through it. If you are small, you should try to wriggle through; it is the same size as the Daibutsu's nostril and is supposed to grant future enlightenment for those who pass through.

For a lunch or snack break, you should try of of the very approachable and tasty local treats: takoyaki or okonomiyaki, or, if you're feeling less adventurous, find an Italian joint and enjoy the Japanese interpretation of pizzas and pastas. Nara is also a pretty decent place to pick up small souvenirs, and has everything from a Hello Kitty store to a 100-yen store (the equivalent of a dollar store) to purikura photo booths where you can instantly print some photo stickers of yourself.

Kasuga-Taisha is a Shinto shrine set among tall trees. (Nearby is the Kasugayama Primeval Forest.) As you walk along the wooded paths, you will see many stone lanterns which are lit twice each year (February and August). 

You could see all of these sites in a single (tiring!) day. If you have more time to spend in Nara (and I hope you do!), you should consider adding some of the following stops to your agenda.

Kofuku-ji is a fantastic pagoda and also houses many wonderful statures of holy figures. Kofuku-ji is, incidentally, on the way from the Kintetsu Nara train station and its surrounding shopping area to the other sites I've mentioned, as is the lovely pond, Sarusawa-ike. Horyu-ji temple is also full of priceless statues and hosts the world's oldest wooden building as well. That's right, Nara has both the largest and oldest wooden buildings on the planet!

Nara also hosts a couple of fabulous museums, in addition to the works of art stored in the temples' treasure houses. Sadly, the Nara International Foundation has dissolved, but it appears that some sort of information service for visitors and foreign residents may continue to operate in its place. Magazines such as Kansai Time Out, can perhaps help you find events and services of interest.

Look out for my other hubs on travel in Japan!