It was one of Japan’s earliest capitals (710-784 a.d.) and today still plays a huge role in Japanese culture and heritage. This is a magical place with old structures and scenic areas you cannot see anywhere else in the world. It is deep in the mountains, there is no beach, or big city to stroll around, but Nara prefecture has plenty to offer and belongs on any traveler’s list of places to visit with many brilliant cultural and historical surroundings. I honestly could name 100 things in Nara that would make for an amazing trip, but I have narrowed it down to the top 15 spots that you will not find even in most guidebooks.
15. Hike Mount Yoshino
The sea of cherry blossom trees.
Yoshino Shrine on Mt. Yoshino.
Not many people know this but Mt. Yoshino contains one of the largest cherry blossom parks in the world. During spring season, when the cherry blossoms bloom, this mountain offers an exponentially gorgeous hike with a wave of pink all around. Once you reach the top, you will see an ocean of alluring cherry blossoms covering the land. Be sure to invite your friends for a hanami (a picnic under the trees) as this mountain offers some of the best spots in Japan. Besides spring, feel free to visit at any time of the year for a captivating nature walk through one of Japan’s most amazing mountains with temples, souvenir stands and stunning views that will defy anyone’s expectations. Setsubun (beginning of spring festival) at the beginning of February is also a great time to visit at the mountain's Yoshino Shrine with local townspeople celebrating at the temple dancing in demon outfits. The closest station is Yoshino Station.
14. Go for A Dip in Yoshino River
Some areas of the river have swimming holes.
Yoshino River, a great summer destination.
Japan is filled with incredible nature and Nara is teeming with great spots to visit. This river deep in the mountains of Nara–near the previously mentioned mountain–is wide, scenic, and makes a great summer destination as you can keep cool in the water amidst the scorching heat. With great fishing, and swimming available, this is an excellent getaway for friends and family. On the shore, barbecue or picnic areas are abundant. If you search deep enough in the forest, you may find a swimming hole just waiting to be dived into. You can get there from Yoshino Station by the Kintetsu Yoshino Line train, but if you can, going by car would be more recommended. Yoshino River will be a great spot to spend the day in summer.
13. Ride The Rides or See the Great View at Ikoma Funland Amusement Park
The adorable looking freight carts that reach the top to the amusement park.
A day at Mt. Ikoma Funland.
Osaka from the top of Mt. Ikoma.
Some amusement parks offer excitement plus more, Ikoma Funland is one of them. Especially if you are taking young kids with you, this park is filled with entertainment along with an excellent view of one of Japan's biggest cities. At Ikoma Funland, on top of Mt. Ikoma, there are the amusement park imperatives: go-carts, a gondola, bumper cars, a haunted house, etc. But the most unique part about this theme park is not the rides or games. On the mountain's peak, visitors can view Osaka and the sea. To get to the top, you get to ride a funny-looking character up a narrow hill. When you get there, you will find a load of entertaining activities for the kids and adults. Nighttime is the best time to visit and see the spectacular lights from high above. Be sure to ride on the Sky Shuttle to get the view of the city. To get there, take the Kintetsu Nara Line. From Osaka Nanba Station, take the line until Ikoma Station, then get on the Kintetsu Ikoma Cable Car at Toriimae Station. Get off at Ikomasanjo Station.
12. See Exquisite Nature at Hasedera Temple
If you love Kyomizudera Temple in Kyoto, you will enjoy visiting Hasedera Temple in Nara. Its nickname is “The Sacred Temple of Flowers” and this ancient structure lives up to that. It is filled with scenic sites including gorgeous flower gardens and a rapid flowing river at the entrance. Inside Hasedera there is a tall, wooden roofed staircase, a spectacular balcony view of the city nearby (much like Kyomizudera), grand gates and pagodas. When you go there, certainly check out the 11-Faced Kannon Bosatsu. The cardinal event at the temple every February 8th through 14th is the Dadaoshi Fire Festival where people dressed in demon costumes run around the temple grounds carrying torches with crowds cheering them on. The temple can be accessed by train via the Osaka Kintetsu Line. It has it's own train station named after it.
11. Pray at Muroji Temple
I have written about this temple in a previous article so here I will only cover the basics. Despite being built in such a tranquil and quiet town, Muroji is a significant place for Buddhism in Japan. If you wish travel to see a truly cultural and peaceful temple deep within the countryside of Japan, Muroji hits the spot. The temple is filled with spectacular ancient artifacts surrounded by deep forest and gardens nearby. You will find many Buddhist statues such as Shaka-Nyorai. If you have the energy, be sure to climb the long staircase leading to the monks’ hall. There you will usually find a performance, prayer, or event taking place year round.
10. Go Hiking on Soni Kogen Grasslands
That tiny road in the middle is the path leading to the top of the hill and is a well-paved wooden staircase.
The view of Soni Grasslands from the top.
Now this hiking trail in one of the most remote areas of Nara is something you have to see to believe! Soni Kogen Grasslands is an amazing hiking route leading to the top of a hill overlooking the luscious Nara countryside. It has 2 great hiking seasons: summer when it is the greenest and fall when the autumn foliage starts to appear. The trail is made up of one difficult path to the left and one easier path to the right that has a more clearer path. It is entirely paved with steps leading up to the top so any concerned visitors, you will not get lost. Once you get there and gaze on the horizon, prepare to have your breath taken away as you look at the magnificent mountains and gorgeous tall grass. The best way to get there is by car but there are bus services from Haibara and Nabari Station.
09. See the Historical & Beautiful Uda City
Within Japan there are many precious small towns like Uda City that are spacious, fun, and just plain beautiful filled with old style houses and hard working people who will welcome you anytime. Uda is one hour from Nara City and is surrounded by nature and warm hospitality. You can hike up Mt. Torimi and see a panoramic view of the city and suburbs from the top. One of the villages, Ouda, was once an important castle town and transportation route. It is now remodeled as a historical tourist spot with a medicine museum, cleaned roads paved, and many temples dotting the area. Like with most of Japan, Uda City has magnificent onsens to dip in. Be sure to check out Akinonoyu Onsen. While you may be lodging in the big cities, it will be worth your time to check out the things to do in special towns like this one. It is easily accessible from Haibara Station.
08. Nature Walk Through Yamanobe Road
This is the oldest road in Japan. It starts from Sakurai station and ends at Tenri station. It is not one straight line, but a maze that crosses and turns all over the place leading to all kinds of different scenic spots like ponds, rice fields, temples, shrines, farms, and a few resident's homes. The road includes paved and unpaved paths, small neighborhoods and different style homes. While it takes some considerable time to reach the end, it is well worth it because of all of the exciting things you will see. There are signs posted all along the road to help guide you, but I highly recommend bringing a map which can be found at both Sakurai and Tenri stations.
07. Gaze at the Amazing Murou Art Forest
This outdoor architecture museum, deep in Uda City, is filled with some bizarre and wonderful designs by renowned artist Dani Karavan. It begins with a large, triangular, glass entrance building and ends in the greenery with a stone visitor's center designed to mix with the nearby grounds (kind of like a Hobbit Hole). You can settle down and have a picnic here overlooking the unique and magnificent art designs. Be sure to walk through the triangular staircase or watch the sunset from the spiral in the ground. The grounds typically do not have many visitors so expect to view the scenery with little interruption. From Murouguchiono station, you can access the art forest by foot about 20 minutes away, or get there by taxi. For more info, check out my last article.
06. Take a Spiritual Walk Through Omiwa Shrine
Omiwa Shrine is one of Japan’s first shrines and is even mentioned in the Kojiki book published in the 8th century. It was once home to the largest Torii gate in Japan. While that title now belongs to Kumano Hongu Taisha, the giant Torii gate still proudly stands overlooking the city. However, what made Omiwa so sacred are the 3 mountains surrounding it, called the Miwa Mountains, where you can see the sun rise and fall against them. The mountains are quite significant as the main worship hall of the shine instead of an actual worship hall like most shrines have.
With a pathway surrounded by lanterns and lots of beautiful scenery to stroll around, touring through this shrine will satisfy any traveler looking for a remnant of traditional Japan.
05. See The Prodigious Buddha Statue at Todaiji Temple
The main draw to this temple is it's magnificent giant Buddha statue. In addition to being one of the oldest, built around the 8th century, it houses one of the world’s largest Vairocana Buddha statues at over 50ft (15.24m) tall and is an important spot for Buddhism in Japan. Outside of the temple is a large widespread garden where events often take place. In addition to the large Buddha, inside the temple there is a tiny model of the original design and many ancient artifacts that visitors can observe. Nara is proud of it's long history as one of Japan's first capitals and gloriously displays temples like this for visitors to see. It is only a few meters away from Kintetsu Nara Station.
04. See the Beauty and Taste Strawberries at Okadera Temple
This temple in Asuka is over 1400 years old. Like other temples in Nara, this one is a great place to walk around for nature, history and culture. It is home to another large Buddha statue but one that is made entirely of clay. Okadera’s grounds are teeming with nature year round and are very beautiful. It was once known as the Dragon Lid Temple and as such, there is a pond in the nearby garden known as the Dragon Pond. Once you finish checking out the temple, be sure to grab some fresh strawberries from the local shops nearby. It can be easily accessed from Okadera Station on the Kintetsu Yoshino Line.
03. See Ancient Japan at Asuka Village
Ishibutai Burial MoundsThis small town within Nara is a place that I feel I can legitimately call another world. It is surrounded with rice farms, filled with historical monuments, traditional looking buildings, and the sidewalks attractively paved to look like old roads. Local buildings, including the bank and convenience store are all designed to look traditionally Japanese with clay rooftops and lots of wood pillars.
Asuka has had beautiful rice farms since it's beginning.
Believe it or not, that's a bank!
All around, it seems like time has stopped for Asuka because people have preserved it so well and that is what makes it so great. There are many historical sights like the Ishibutai burial mound, a giant pile of rocks built to be a tomb for the Soga family in the 6th century, and a stone shaped like a turtle called the Kameishi. While there is a bus service from Asuka station called the Kame Bus, I personally recommend renting a bicycle and riding through the area yourself and you can taste the air of ancient Japan.
02. Shop For Goods at Nara Machi
Nara Machi, the beginning of a street of many wonders
Shotengai in Nara Machi
Traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony School
In Nara City, just a few blocks behind Nara Park, there is a tiny town with many interesting and fun things to do including shops and temples. On the streets of Naramachi (Japanese for Nara town), you can find a wide variety of shops selling traditional and modern toys, gifts, clothes and sweets. When you are hungry there are plenty of cafes and restaurants to dine in. In addition, you can learn about traditional Japanese calligraphy at the Kason Sugioka Calligraphy Museum or even Japanese tea ceremony schools within easy reach. If you prefer staying in traditional housing rather than a hotel, there are some extremely attractive guesthouses along the streets. Honestly, there are enough things to do here to occupy travelers for weeks. It is easily accessed from the streets behind Kintetsu Nara Station.
01. Greet the Deer at Nara Park
Now this is the part about Nara Prefecture people remember the most and it's hottest tourist spot. A large park in Nara City only a few meters from Kintetsu Nara Station filled with live deer that actually bow directly to you. At Nara Park, you can feed the deer small biscuits and walk among male, female and fawns lurking all around the grass and trees. They can be seen from the center of the park all the way to Todaiji Temple. To protect visitors, the antlers on the males have been removed. But of course they are not always friendly. While attacks by deer are rare, they are prone to get testy or ram at humans so do not try to annoy them. They can be viewed at any time of the year and are all around Nara Park just outside Kintetsu Nara Station.
If you travel to countries hoping to experience another culture, Japan is still rich with it and Nara is the perfect place to be surrounded by culture and history. It is many things at once: traditional, natural, delightful, heartfelt, and all around wonderful. Come to Nara and be amazed.