Did you know that one of Japan's greatest cultural and historical centers is only a short trian ride south of Kyoto? Nara - the ancient capital that was thriving before Kyoto was even a glimmer in the eye of its founder - is truly an untapped tourism resource in the Kansai region that many foreign visitors overlook. In fact, Nara was recently included on several "most overlooked destinations" lists on Japan in 2016, and that really got us thinking at KyoTours Japan about how to better introduce this awesome city to our guests.
So here's a short list of five great experiences you can look forward to in Nara when you visit, either on your own or on a half day tour to the ancient capital with KyoTours Japan.
1. Meet the World's Largest Buddha Statue
The Daibutsu (big Buddha) is by far the most must-see sight in Nara. This massive 15 meter tall statue dates back to the 700s, and is truly a central point in Japan's cultural and religious history. Housed in the world's largest wooden building (!), the giant Buddha consistently leaves chatty tourists speechless and awestruck as they gaze up at the detailed statue. The stories about the construction and "eye-opening ceremony" of this Buddha that your KyoTours guide will share with you are just as amazing as the statue itself.
But the Daibutsu isn't the only attraction housed in the enormous hall at Todaiji temple. An impressive collection of guardian statues, models of the original layout of the temple, and a unique spot to crawl though a hole to gain the Buddha's blessing round out the experience. The hall is also a great spot to marvel at the ancient architecture and woodworking techniques as well. Be sure to pass through the Nandaimon gate located in front of the temple. It's the largest wooden gate in the world and houses two massive, ferocious wooden guardians.
2. Play with Thousands of Wild Deer
This is more than your average petting zoo experience! Many guests will often tell us that they're not so interested in seeing the deer in Nara because they have wild deer in the wilderness where they live. Fair enough, but can you pet those deer back home? Take selfies with them? Get an up-close look at their babies? Feed them and attract a whole swarm of deer fighting for your attention? I didn't think so....
These deer are so famous and popular that the city of Nara made one of them their official mascot. This being Japan, of course they had to make it into a cute anime character, but Shikamaru-kun has become a well respected icon in this part of the country. That's him between the sections of this article!
The wild deer in Nara Park never fail to impress visitors who expected much, much fewer than the thousands that roam the area. Seen as messengers from the gods, these deer are treated with utmost respect and provide quite a unique experience in return. Kids and adults can't help but enjoy the unexpected surprise of finding that they'll be hanging out with a few thousand hungry new friends for the day as they tour Nara.
3. Escape the City and Enjoy Some Peace and Quiet
Many tourists don't make it past the main area near Todaiji Temple where most of the deer hang out, and they're missing out big time. To really experience Nara Park, head up into the foothills of the eastern mountains and walk through the famous old-growth forest that blankets the area. Numerous small temples and shrines dot the area, and you'll be the only visitors at some of them. Even the deer up here are a little more skittish and won't approach you as readily, no matter how much you try to tempt them with food.
After a few days in Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto, this backroad route through eastern Nara Park is a great reprieve from the hustle and bustle of city travel. Be sure to check out some of the lesser visited shops along the base of Mt. Wakakusa's grassy slopes, as well as some of the more isolated restaurants and tea shops. There are some surprisingly great knife shops along the road, as well as some other interesting local crafts and goods. Keep walking through the woods towards Kagua Taisha Shrine to experience one of Japan's most famous forest shrines. Enjoy the peace and quiet of the woods as you circle back towards the main park area. Take your time!
4. Get a Bird's Eye View of Nara City
Here's one that most locals don't even know about: there's a great lookout platform on top of the Nara Prefectural Government Office building... and it's FREE! This is a great way to end your day in Nara and look out over all the things you saw as you walking through Nara Park and the forest. On a clear day, you can see almost all the way back to Kyoto, as well as the towering mountains to the southwest in Wakayama Prefecture. See that big grassy patch of land on he slope of Mt. Wakakusa? You're not gonna believe your tour guide when he tells you what ritual they perform there every January!
To access this view, head into the lobby of the building and take the elevator up to the highest level. There's a landscaped, grassy deck that you can go out onto when you exit, but keep going up the staircase in front of you to reach the topmost observation platform. If you look to the north, you'll be able to see the remnants of the rollercoasters at Nara Dreamland, a large amusement park abandoned some years back. It can be a little awkward walking into a big government office building as a clueless tourist, but go for it! The staff at the front desk will happily point you towards the elevator with a smile. The view is totally worth it, we promise.
5. Eat Some of Japan's Best Udon Noodles
Ok, this is one that we spent a lot of time going back and forth on, but KyoTours has decided to let you in on one of our "secret spots" in Nara. Kamaiki Udon has been rated Japan's second best udon noodles (yes, there's a very serious competition for that, and they have the trophy to prove it) and it's a MUST EAT if you are a noodle fan. Located on a small shopping street next to Kintetsu Nara Station, this place is often busy with locals looking for a quick lunch.
The menu is simple: udon noodles made from rice with just the right texture - not too slippery, but not too firm. You can get oroshi udon, simple noodles with a bit of ginger and grated radish, or curry udon, a rich treat for anyone who loves a little spice. The tempura chicken udon is also worth trying, and this is one Japanese dish where you should NOT expect small portions! I've seen this place convert non-noodle people into udon-lovers, so even if you are ambivalent to udon, Kamaiki is worth trying. (Just don't tell too many people about it so we can keep it as our little secret spot, ok?)
Do these ideas change your mind about visiting Nara? Did you even KNOW about Nara before reading this? Hopefully you'll want to visit this great city for yourself and see what everyone is missing out on! Easily accessible from Kyoto or Osaka, a visit to Nara should definitely be on your Japan itinerary.
KyoTours Japan has crafted a concise half day Nara experience that will give you all the highlights (as well as some great udon!) and get you back to Kyoto by mid afternoon so that you can keep sightseeing and make the most of your time.
See you in Nara!