This Nara touring plan offers a step-by-step itinerary for seeing the top temples, the Great Buddha, and devious deer as a day-trip from Kyoto, Japan. In it, we detail the must-see points of interest, what can be skipped, and where you should do lunch and dinner in Nara. We’ll also include a few diversions along the way that are convenient en route to Japan’s ancient capital city.
Our first visit to Nara, we stayed a couple of nights at a ryokan. While we don’t regret the experience as it allowed us to slow down on a trip that was otherwise a whirlwind experience, I wouldn’t do it again. We were convinced this would be the right approach by a guidebook, which called it a more “relaxing experience.”
My counterpoint to that would be that changing hotels every night is really draining over the course of a trip, and visitors to Japan who intend upon doing a lot of city-hopping should try to find as many ways as possible to minimize hotel hopping. In the Kansai region, especially, there are plenty of places to visit that can be reached efficiently from a home-base in Kyoto.
Each of our several subsequent visits to Nara has been a day trip from Kyoto, and that’s what we’d recommend to pretty much anyone reading this. Nara is an incredibly easy day trip, with Nara’s highlights being easily accomplishable in that span of time.
As with day trips to Osaka, Kobe, and Himeji, getting to Nara from Kyoto is simple. From Kyoto Station, it’s a straight-shot on the JR Nara Line (there are faster–more expensive options, but we always take the JR line). Once you’re in Nara, you will be able to get around completely on foot. City buses are available, but the main area you’ll be exploring is compact, so getting around by foot doesn’t require too much walking and allows you to get a feel for the city’s atmosphere, which does differ from Kyoto.
Since we feel that Nara is a logical extension of a Kyoto trip, we’re lumping this together with our growing list of Kyoto itineraries. To recap, here’s what our 3+ day trip looks like:
- Day 1: Eastern Kyoto Itinerary
- Day 2: Western Kyoto Itinerary
- Day 3: Central Kyoto Itinerary
- Day 4: “Cool Kyoto” (Northern Kyoto) Itinerary
- Day 5: Southwestern Kyoto Itinerary
We strongly recommend starting out with the first 3 days of that itinerary in order. After that, the trip becomes much more flexible, and we’d be inclined to prioritize this visit to Nara over the Cool Kyoto and Southwestern Kyoto Itineraries since this takes you to a new city, with a few very compelling draws. It’s not necessarily a change of pace, but it is different.
Kyoto & Uji Diversions – I’ve covered both Tofukuji Temple and Fushimi Inari Shrine in other itineraries, but if you’re not able to fit them into your Kyoto touring plan other days (or previously only did Fushimi Inari at night), now is a great opportunity to visit on your way to Nara. Both have stops along the JR Nara Line, and are well-worth your time.
You’ll also pass by Uji Station, which is a 10-minute walk from Byodoin Temple, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of our favorite spots in Japan. Logistically, we’d recommend trying to do Tofukuji and Fushimi Inari on dedicated Kyoto days so you can stop and spend a decent amount of time at Byodoin, which is more of a hassle to access from Central Kyoto, while still making it to Nara in the morning.
Skipping Byodoin Temple would allow you to arrive in Nara earlier and take the JR Yamatoji Line from Nara Station to Horyuji Temple. My strong opinion is that Byodoin is far superior to Horyuji Temple–and less of a time commitment.
Lunch – No matter what you do to start the morning, we’d recommend starting with a meal once you arrive in Nara. This is because there’s a shortage of dining options in the area around Nara Park and a surplus of tourists. This can mean long waits, even for restaurants that are just mediocre. Even just grabbing some food from 7-11 or Lawson can be a savvy and time-saving move to avoid eating near Nara Park at peak hours.
Our go-to restaurant in Nara is Wakasa Curry Honpo. We’ve dined here several times, and have always been pleased. It’s not life-changing curry or anything, but it’s a tasty introduction to Japanese curry with good portion sizes, fair prices, and there’s never a wait to be seated.
Kofukuji Temple – A short walk from the shopping arcade where Wakasa Curry Honpo and other restaurants are located is Kofukuji Temple, which is renowned for having the second-tallest pagoda in Japan and its main areas are free to visit.
This is a relatively quick and superficial stop, but it’s worthwhile thanks to the eye-catching five-story pagoda and because it’s on the way to Nara Park. The temple grounds don’t close, so this is also a good spot for sunset or evening photos.
Nara Prefectural Office – From Kofukuji Temple, you’re just a short walk from Nara Prefectural Office, which has an observation deck. Visiting a government office building, just what everybody wants to do while on vacation! I kid, but judging by some reviews of this “point of interest,” people don’t understand that you’re not going here to learn about the monotony of Japan’s bureaucratic workers.
This is a 20-minute stop, tops. It offers great panoramic views of Nara, and is the best place in the city for a 360-degree view. It’s free and convenient, too.
Nara Gardens – Isuien Garden and Yoshikien Garden are two iconic Japanese gardens in Nara. The latter is free for international visitors, whereas the former charges 900 yen admission.
Of the two, Isuien is the marginally superior garden, and its use of borrowed scenery is interesting. However, I have a tough time saying it’s 900 yen better, especially since you’ll likely see some exemplars of borrowed scenery in Kyoto. If money is even a minor consideration, skip Isuien and just do the lovely Yoshikien Garden. It feels more intimate, and somehow draws smaller crowds despite the allure of “free.”
Devious Deer of Nara – After one or both of those gardens, double-back into Nara Park, which is the main home to the city’s devious deer. You’ll probably already have seen some along the route, and might even have hundreds of deer selfies on your phone by this point.
Nara is famous for its deer population, and this is probably why you’re visiting Nara in the first place. We have a comprehensive “Devious Deer of Nara, Japan” article that covers background about them–and why they’re considered “devious,” so that’s worth reading if you want additional information.
Harushika Sake Brewery – If you are already “templed out” after a few days in Kyoto, consider this fun sake brewery that includes a taste-testing in lieu of some of the other stops on this itinerary. (The only “essential” Nara temples and shrines are Todaiji and Kasuga.)
We did this on our first visit to Nara, and thought it was a blast. Of course, that could’ve been the sake talking! (Note that the tour is only available during low production times–the tasting is always offered.)
Kasuga Grand Shrine – From Nara Park, you’ll take a serene stroll through the woods before arriving at Kasuga Taisha. Along the way you’ll see deer peeking out from behind trees and rubbing up against lanterns, providing a real enchanted vibe.
Kasuga Taisha is one of Nara’s most popular points of interest, so it’s difficult to call it underrated, but as compared to Todaiji Temple, I’d say it is underrated. For me, Kasuga is the perfect melding of the natural and spiritual worlds that epitomize Nara. The deer, thick tree trunks, heavy foliage, vibrant shrine buildings, rows upon rows of lanterns…it all makes for an experience that’s downright magical.
Nigatsudo Hall – This is one of many subtemples of Todaiji, and on the forest walk between Kasuga and here, you’ll walk past a few others. You might consider exploring those as time allows, but Nigatsudo Hall is the only one that we consider essential.
Frequently touted for its views overlooking the city, I’m more appreciative of the approach to this hall, its stretching stairs, and design.
Todaiji Temple – Aside from the deer, this is the main attraction in Nara due to housing the world’s largest indoor bronze Buddha statue. Sarah and I have split opinions on the Great Buddha; she thinks it’s one of the most remarkable sights in all of Japan, whereas I think there’s a “that’s it?” element. Sarah’s view is definitely the consensus, and to be sure, it’s awe-inspiring to stand under the Great Buddha, but it’s far from my favorite temple in Japan.
We’ve done Todaiji several times, and have found it to be perpetually busy, with one exception: at the end of the day. Nara is huge with tour groups, and these leave around 5 p.m. Since the Great Buddha Hall at Todaiji Temple is open until 5 p.m. or 5:30 p.m. (depending upon the season), you can visit at the end of the day with minimal crowds.
Docile Deer of Nara – We recommended some time with the devious deer earlier in the day for a couple of reasons. First, because they’re impossible to resist. No one is going to walk past a park of friendly (well…sometimes) deer interacting with other humans because they have a pressing temple appointment. It’d be impractical of us to assume that you will, because that’s something we never are able to do, and we’ve seen these deer plenty of times.
Second, because the deer essentially keep business hours. They are most active in the morning, with a decreasing amount of activity as the afternoon wears on. By the time the temples are closing and tour groups are departing the city, the deer have settled in for their evening slumbers. I’d assume this is owing both to being well-fed and habit, since the exodus of tourists occurs at that same time every day.
On the plus side, you won’t have to compete for the attention of the remaining deer that are standing, and it’s somewhat interesting and amusing to see so many of them resting on the ground. I also like this time of day as the deer tend to be more docile, and far less aggressive. If you’re wanting the experience of being swarmed by deer all competing for a cracker, that’s not going to happen in the late afternoon.
Dinner – The best food we’ve had in Nara is at Kamameshi Shizuka, which has two locations–one near Nara Park. The reason we didn’t recommend it for lunch is because it always commands 30-60 minute waits. Dinner is a different story, and we’ve had the restaurant to ourselves later in the evening. Kamameshi is a traditional Japanese dish consisting of rice cooked in an iron pot topped with various kinds of meat, primarily seafood at Kamameshi Shizuka.
If Kamameshi Shizuka doesn’t appeal to you, consider Nino, the highest-rated restaurant in Nara on TripAdvisor. The cuisine at Nino is good (not 5-star good), but the service and overall experience is out of this world. The staff will make you feel like family by the end of the meal, and that’s not the least bit hyperbolic. Nino is truly the pinnacle of Japanese omotenashi, and is sure to be one of your most memorable meals in Japan.
After dinner, you should be able to catch the train back to Kyoto, arriving back at your home base by around 9 p.m. or so. Not bad for a pretty jam-packed day in Nara!
If you’re planning a trip to the Japan that includes Kyoto, we recommend starting by consulting our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto, Japan to plan all aspects of our vacation. You should also check out our other posts about Japan for ideas on other places to visit!
Have you visited Nara, Japan? What did you think of the ancient capital? Would you recommend it to a first-timer visiting Japan? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? If you’ve yet to visit, does adding a day here to a Kyoto itinerary interest you? Any questions? Hearing your feedback is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!