I really love Nara. I was incredibly lucky to live in this beautiful city for a couple of years so I have guided my friends and family around some version of this walking tour many, many times. I’ve also typed out a basic Nara itinerary for almost everyone I know that is visiting Japan. So, I thought it might be good to put my Nara tips online. If you’re visiting Nara, I hope this will give you some good ideas for your trip. If not, at least you can take this virtual wander around this historic city. You can squeeze in most of Nara’s most famous sights in one day, but if you can, stay for at least one night so you can visit the temples at sunset. If you plan to stay for longer, let me know and I can give you more ideas for more quirky off-the-beaten-track-type sights too.
Kyoto is famous for being Japan’s ancient capital, but Nara is even older. It was the capital of Japan 1300 years ago. This means there are UNESCO National Heritage sites dotted around Nara park, and the various temples and shrines are not only pretty, they have a rich history as well. To add to this, half of the city is covered by Nara park, where 10,000 deer like to wander around greeting tourists. You can easily walk to everywhere, just make sure you have comfy shoes.
Nara walking tour map
Nara walking tour – Getting Started
There is a tourist information center right outside Kintetsu Nara station. Pop in there and ask for a map, (Or use this online pdf map). They are also very helpful if you need any advice about your time in Nara. There are plenty of signs in Nara (most are in Japanese, English, French, Chinese and Korean,) so you will find it hard to get lost. If you start at JR Nara, just come out of the station and walk straight up Sanjyo-dori (the main street) after about 15 minutes, you’ll find yourself at Sarusawaike…
1. Sarusawaike Pond (猿沢池)
If you start at Kintetsu Nara station, walk down Higashimuki dori (the covered shopping street), and then turn left. You’ll go past a famous mochi shop, so you can stop there to watch staff pound the mochi with mallets. I always like to take a peek at Sarusawaike pond. There are normally tortoises sunbathing on the logs or swimming at the edges of the pond.
There are also great views of Kofukuji, which is right next to the pond…
2. Kofukuji Temple (興福寺)
Kofukuji temple is gorgeous. It is worth wandering around and exploring the whole area. If you come up the stairs from Sarusawaike, you’ll enter near the Octagonal Hall. I also really like the area near the jizo statues and the three storied pagoda.
My favourite building is the five storied pagoda. However in 2018 the newly re-built Central Golden Hall was opened to the public. Now I’m looking forward to revisiting Nara to see it.
I used to cycle or walk through Kofukuji every day, so I can prove that it is even gorgeous on grey days.
3. Nara kencho (奈良県庁)
After visiting Kofukuji, head straight across the main road (North of Kofukuji) to get to Nara Kencho, the Prefectural Government Offices. This is where I used to work. Most tourists don’t realise this, but government buildings are open to the public. Nara Kencho has some truly fantastic views from the roof.
Walk in the main doors, there is an elevator to the left, pop in and take it straight to the top. Then, there are some stairs to take you to the highest section of the roof.
You can see Todaiji and Mount Wakakusa to the East, Kofukuji to the South and Heijo-kyo (another UNESCO World Heritage Site) to the West. Nara’s flag is on the left and the Japanese flag is on the right.
4. Yoshikien and Isuien Gardens (吉城園・依水園)
Nara has such lovely gardens! Yoshikien and Isuien are located on the back streets between Nara Kencho and Todaiji. Yoshikien has a truly gorgeous teahouse, so if you are able to take part in a tea ceremony here, jump at the chance!
However Isuien is my favourite of the two gardens. Mostly because I love the way the garden uses borrowed scenery of Wakakusayama and Todaiji as part of the garden design.
5. Nara Koen (奈良公園)
Aaah Nara park. No Nara walking tour would be complete without wandering here and meeting some of the local deer. The park is massive, so you can explore for as long as you like. Just be careful if you’re having a picnic, it is easy to sit in deer poo by mistake!
Remember, if you’d like a deer to bow for you, buy some crackers (called shika senbei) to feed them. If you hold up a cracker, the deer will either be polite and bow…or just grab it!
6. Todaiji Temple (東大寺)
If you skipped the gardens (mentioned above) then you’ll probably arrive at Todaiji from the main road. First, you’ll need to go through Nandaimon. It’s funny, anywhere else in the world, this gate would be impressive enough to be a tourist destination on its own. In Todaiji, it’s just the first of many, many ancient, stunning buildings.
This is Todaiji decorated for a summer festival. It doesn’t normally have the stripey screens, but I love how bright and cheerful it looks.
Todaiji is the largest wooden building in the world. It was built without using any nails, so those wooden beams all slide together perfectly. It is extra impressive when you consider just how massive the beams and pillars are! The ancient builders really planned ahead. When they first built Todaiji they also planted trees, so they would be able to replace wooden structures in the future when the trees had grown.
But it’s not just the building that make Todaiji impressive. You should definitely spend ¥500 to go inside. You’ll see plenty of people purifying themselves by wafting the incense around their heads.
Then, step inside to see the amaaaaazing daibutsu. Daibutsu literally means ‘big buddha.’ This is Japan’s largest bronze Buddha, and it is beeeeautiful. Once you’re suitably impressed, you’ll see a model of the original buildings at Todaiji – it used to be even bigger! There also used to be two ten storied pagodas, that were so tall, they have lost the technology to build them! Imagine, skyscraper-sized pagodas!!
If you head to the back of the temple, there is a hole in one of the pillars, the same size as the daibutsu’s nose hole. If you can squeeze through the hole, you should reach enlightenment. Being able to squeeze through a nose hole, really gives perspective on how blooming huge the Buddha is!
At the back of the temple there are two scary-looking guardians. I love visiting them late in the afternoon, when they shine in stripes from the sun and shadows from the surrounding window slats.
It’s also worth stopping to visit the strange looking statue of Binzuru-sonja. He’s easy to spot with his red hat and bib! If you touch him, and then touch a part of your body that is sore, this should heal it.
Lots of tourists rush around Todaiji, and then rush off to the next sight. However, it’s worth really exploring around the temple complex, as there are sooo many more pretty gardens, building and statues to find around here.
7. Nigatsudo (二月堂)
If you only visit one extra part of the Todaiji complex, make sure you visit Nigatsudo. When you exit Todaiji, turn left (with Todaiji behind you) and walk up the hill.
Nigatsudo is a national treasure, and my favorite spot in Nara. It is a perfect place to watch the sunset, as the high platform gives fantastic views down to the rest of Nara city. If you visit in March, come here in the evening to see the Shunie Ceremony where monks run with giant pine torches along Nigatsudo’s platform. Sparks of fire fall on the crowd below, and it’s meant to be lucky if one lands on you. Just don’t wear flammable clothing!!
I used to jog up here to watch the sun rise. It is such a perfect, relaxing place. Although, quite often at sunrise there would be a large group of ladies gathered to gossip and chat while they watch the city awaken. I never worked out what the sunrise club was there for, but hearing their giggles is a great way to start your morning!
8. Mount Wakakusa (若草山)
Now you’ve walked up the hill to Nigatsudo, you can consider going even higher and climbing up Mount Wakakusa. Wakakusa means “young grass.” Although all the other mountains are covered by forest, each year there is a ceremony (Yamayaki) when priests burn Mount Wakakusa.
This means it is always green and covered in tasty grass for the local deer.
You can hike straight up the mountain from near Nigatsudo. However, there is a more gentle path that winds up through forest. If you have time, that is a really pleasant hike. The mountain is 342m high, so it’s not too huge, but if you climb straight up, it will really get your heart pounding!
If not, you can just wander along the base of Mount Wakakusa. There are some lovely shops in this area (including a fantastic second-hand kimono shop.) I *love* this view, halfway between Nigatsudo and Kasuga Taisha.
9. Kasuga Taisha Shrine (春日大社)
This is another one of the must-see sights on my Nara walking tour. Kasuga Taisha is Nara’s most famous shrine, it was built when the city was first established, to protect the city. On the walk up to the shrine, the pathway is lined with hundreds of beautiful stone lanterns.
My favourite time to visit here is in April, when the ancient wisteria is in flower. It is sooo blooming pretty! You can reach the shrine’s main offering hall for free. However it will cost ¥500 if you’d like to see the inner buildings and all the beautiful bronze lanterns.
You’ll see lots of papers tied onto the wisteria. These are fortunes. You can pay to take a fortune at the shrine, then, if you don’t like the fortune you receive, just tie it onto the tree and forget about it. If you receive a paper with a super-good fortune, then keep hold of it.
10. Sagiike Pond (鷺池)
For some reason, fewer tourists bother to walk the extra few hundred meters to explore the area of Nara park with the large pond, Araike and Sagiike. I love this area when the sakura (cherry blossom trees are in bloom. It is the perfect spot for a picnic. You can also rent boats and go for a paddle around the pond.
It’s pretty lovely any time of year though. I walked up here in the snow, just to see what it looked like. It’s pretty magical.
Or, if you decide to just head back to the center of Nara, there is a shorter, straight path that leads from Kasuga Taisha back to Kofukuji.
11. Naramachi (奈良町)
If you still have some energy left, there is still plenty more to explore! The area South of Sarusawaike (where you started) is known as Naramachi. This is an older, low rise area of the city.
It is full of interesting craft shops, quirky cafes, gorgeous old buildings etc. It is the perfect place to wander around and get lost.
So, that is the end of my virtual Nara walking tour. Do you like the look of my favourite Japanese city? Or have you already visited Nara? If so, which area did you like best and did you get chased by hungry deer!?
If you’d like to see what this Nara walking tour looks like at night, I also wrote a post about the gorgeous Tokae festival. This is in August when Nara is lit up by thousands and thousands of lanterns.