I haven’t been everywhere, but I’ve seen my fair share of beautiful Asian travel destinations. Each of them has its own unique culture, flavour and flair. But my time in Nara, Japan, was something extra special.
The ancient city is known (and loved) for its beautiful temples and tame deer that roam throughout the area. The compact city is small enough to be tackled in a day, leaving your memory bank full of timeless moments.
If you’re planning a Nara day trip from Kyoto or Osaka, then this one-day itinerary is the perfect asset to help you kickstart your adventures. In this Nara day trip guide I cover everything you need to know, including how to get there, how to get around and the best things to see.
How to get to Nara (from Osaka or Kyoto)
One of the best parts about planning a day trip to Nara is how easy it is to get to. Most visitors come from either Osaka or Kyoto, both of which have efficient public transport.
If you’re coming from Osaka Namba Station, you can get on a Rapid Express train that travels along the Kintetsu Nara Line. If you’re travelling from Kyoto to Nara, the Miyakoji rapid train leaves from Kyoto Station every 30 minutes.
The journey from both destinations consists of approximately one hour. The routes are included in the JapanRail Pass, making the trip both easy and cost-effective.
If you don’t want to travel by train and wander around Nara by yourself you can also do an organised day tour, which will takes you to all of the beautiful spots I’m about to list in this itinerary, with the added benefit of a knowledgeable local guide. There are day trips available both from Osaka and Kyoto.
The ultimate Nara itinerary for one day
It’s very easy to get absorbed by the beauty of Nara. Arriving with a plan and a few bucket list activities is essential. If you still need some convincing and are wondering what to do in Nara, then look no further.
Once you exit JR Nara Station just head straight on to Sanjo dori Street. From here it’s a short 15-20 minute walk to Nara Park, where all the main attractions of Nara are located.
Stop 1: Kofukuji Five-Storied Pagoda
The Kofukuji pagoda consists of five floors, each showcasing traditional Japanese architecture and is truly a sight to behold. Even more impressive than the significant structure is the historical story that it tells.
The temple was first established in Nara back in 1710 and was used as a family temple of the Fujiwara (who were the most influential aristocratic clan at the time). The pagoda is a single structure in a group of several buildings.
Reaching up to 50 meters in height, the five-story pagoda is revered as Japan’s second-tallest wooden pagoda. Entrance to the temple grounds is free, making a visit the perfect budget-friendly addition to your Nara one day itinerary.
If you want to delve a little deeper into the history of the temples and surrounds, then you can pay a little bit extra to see the Eastern Golden Hall and Kofukuji’s National Treasure Museum.
The pagoda is easy to reach. If you arrive by Kintetsu Nara Station, then it’s a short five-minute walk. If you arrive at JR Nara Station, then the walk is a little bit longer (20 minutes).
Stop 2: Todaiji Temple
A visit to Nara would be incomplete without a stop by Todaiji Temple. The sacred building is one of the most important temples in the whole of Japanese Buddhism and serves as the headquarters of Kegon teachings.
Not only is Todaiji Temple majestic in appearance, but it is resilient in structure. The temple was built in 753 and has survived, quote, “earthquakes, fires and political mayhem”.
Entrance fees for the museum or the Great Buddha Hall are ¥500 separately, or ¥800 for a joint ticket. This fee is well-worth the remarkable experience.
The Todaiji Temple is home to the biggest bronze Buddha statue in the world, which spans up to 15-meters tall. The impressive sight can be viewed once inside the temple.
I spent two weeks in Japan and have to admit that by the time I arrived in Nara, I was a bit “templed out”. I was so templed out I almost didn’t go inside the Todaiji Temple and was about to settle on just seeing the grand exterior.
I’m glad my friends convinced me to go inside because the sight of the three buddhas one next to the other, inside the magnificient halls is really impressive. Inside the temple you can also find little stalls that sell lucky charms and souvenirs.
The esteemed temple is located at the northern end of Nara Park. You can easily get here from the Kofukuji Pagoda in a 30-45 minute stroll through Nara Park. If like me you get distracted by the beautiful deers that roam free, it might take a bit longer!
Stop 3: Kasuga-Taisha Temple
If you’ve been following my travel tips and experiences, then you’ll know that I am fascinated with unique and beautiful temples.
With this in mind, Nara is the best destination for temple-lovers. Kasuga-Taisha Temple is the third one for the day and a must-see sight on your Nara tour.
Celebrated as more of a ‘shrine’ than a ‘temple’, Kasuga-Taisha is a popular attraction to visit in Nara. The traditional structure is dedicated to the deity that is responsible for the protection of the city.
The walkway up to the main building is set in lush greenery and lined with over 3,000 austenitic lanterns. The beauty of the setting makes a visit to Kasuga-Taisha Temple a great practice opportunity for budding photographers, so make sure that you pack your camera.
Travellers can visit the outer area of the temple for free, but stepping inside the sanctuary will cost ¥500. Once inside the bright, red columns and white walls, travellers are met with beautifully ordained shrines that are dedicated to the lucky gods, making you feel even more lucky to see it yourself.
Stop 4: Wander around Nara Park
Once you’ve ticked off the main structural attractions in Nara, then you can take your time to soak up the beauty of Nara Park.
The park is located in central Nara and is known around the world to be the home of hundreds of freely roaming deer. With all of the above-mentioned temples located within the park, chances are that you’ve already caught a glimpse or two of these cute, friendly creatures while going from one to the other.
These deer have become a symbol of the city, and are considered by locals as messengers of the gods. Although they are surprisingly tame, they can become a bit aggressive if you tease them with food.
If you really want to feed them, then you can buy some deer crackers within the park. I’ve seen some people pet the deer but like all wild animals, you should be careful not to bother them too much.
You should also be careful if you’re carrying food in packagings, as they might snatch it from your hands and you don’t want them munching on the plastic wrapper of your Twix. Nara Park is a beautiful spot to end off your full day in the city.
Where to stay to visit Nara on a day trip
Whether you’re visiting Nara on a day trip from Kyoto or Osaka you should aim to stay somewhere close to a train station, so that you can minimise travel within Kyoto and Osaka before even getting onto a train to Nara.
In Kyoto I was staying at Hotel Elcient Kyoto which was right across from the train station in Kyoto. The staff were always helpful, the rooms clean and fairly spacious, and besides the train station to visit Nara it was conveniently located also to explore Kyoto.
In Osaka I stayed at Hotel Monterey La Soeur Osaka. This hotel was close both to a train station and Osaka castle, which was perfect. After our day trip exploring Nara we were close to one of the main attractions in Osaka, as well as being connected to everything else we wanted to see in the city.
If this one-day itinerary has got you excited about your trip, but you don’t want to travel by train or wander around alone, then you can also do day trip tour which takes you to all of these spots with the benefit of a knowledgeable local guide. There are day trips available both from Osaka and Kyoto.
Final thoughts on a day trip to Nara
We visited Nara as a day trip from Osaka and loved it. This Japanese city is so rich in history and culture, but also offers a relaxing atmosphere to explore it all in.
I spent two weeks in Japan and after the chaos and bustle of Tokyo and Kyoto, it was a pleasant change. It reminded me a bit of our day trip to Kamakura or visit to Himeji Castle earlier during our Japan trip.
Get ready for a fantastical day in Nara, filled with temples, history and, of course, cute deer. This Nara 1-day itinerary is based on what I got up to when I visited Nara, I hope you find it useful in planning your day trip to Nara.
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