13 Best Things to Do in Nara Japan for First-Time Visitors

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As an avid traveller and Japan enthusiast, I’ve had the pleasure of visiting Nara multiple times. However, I still vividly remember my initial bewilderment as a first timer overwhelmed by the city’s wealth of UNESCO sites and maze of century-old shops selling crafts echoing ancient traditions.

From my own first-hand experiences exploring this fascinating destination, I created this guide on the top things to do in Nara Japan specifically for fellow first-time visitors.

Planning any inaugural trip to Japan can feel daunting, especially for Nara, an underrated city often overlooked between famous neighbours like Kyoto and Osaka. Without knowledge of the area, it’s easy to miss Nara’s top attractions and struggle maximising time in this historical hub filled with towering temples, magical shrines, and the city’s adorable free-roaming deer.

Best Things to Do in Nara Japan

Luckily, I’m sharing insider tips to uncover Nara’s highlights even on a quick day trip. From the unforgettable sight of Todaiji Temple’s enormous Daibutsu Buddha to wandering forests lit by thousands of shimmering lanterns at Kasuga Taisha Shrine to glimpses of old Japan preserved in Naramachi’s traditional winding alleys, this Nara travel guide has first timers covered.

Feed the Deer at Nara Park (Nara Kōen)

Nara is famous for its sika deer that wander freely through the city’s expansive Nara Park. These deer are believed sacred, having been the messengers of the Shinto gods for centuries.

Locals sell special shika senbei (deer crackers) specifically made for deer consumption so visitors can have the fun experience of feeding these docile animals by hand. Just be sure not to tease them with the crackers or food items besides these crackers, as the deer can get aggressive if tempted and unsatisfied.

Spending an afternoon feeding the over 1,000 resident deer in this lush park with its magnificent Todaiji Temple backdrop is easily one of the best things to do in Nara Japan.

Nara Full-Day Private Tour from Osaka/Kyoto with Guide

Embark on a private day trip to Nara, departing from either Osaka or Kyoto, and enjoy a comprehensive walking tour of this ancient Japanese city.

Accompanied by a government-licensed and multilingual guide, you’ll discover the unique blend of modern and traditional elements that define Nara, making one of the best things to do in Nara Japan.

You have the flexibility to select between 3 to 4 sites in Nara for a tour that’s crafted just for you.

Highlights of the Tour:

  • Visit Tōdaiji: Explore Japan’s “Great Eastern Temple,” renowned for its historical significance and architectural grandeur.
  • Nara Park: Experience the charm of Nara Park, where free-roaming deer graze, offering a unique and serene encounter with nature.
  • Wander in Naramachi: Step back in time as you stroll through the Edo-era district of Nara, Naramachi, showcasing the city’s rich historical tapestry.

This tour is the perfect opportunity to delve into the heart of Nara’s culture and history, guided by an expert who brings the city’s past and present to life.

See Todaiji Temple and the Giant Buddha Statue

Inside the UNESCO World Heritage site Tōdai-ji temple complex lies Daibutsuden, the largest wooden building in the world. Housing with the country’s largest bronze Buddha statue inside built in 752 AD, this building is a masterpiece of ancient architecture using no nails, making it one of the top things to see in Nara Japan.

Cast in 746 CE and standing at 15m high, seeing the serene-faced Great Buddha, or “Daibatsu” is an awe-inspiring experience for both religious followers and visitors.

Marvel at the skilled engineering it took just to get the massive Buddha into its current home within Todaiji’s main hall.

Don’t forget to feel around for the “Daibutsu’s pillar” inside, which is said to have a hole the same size as the Great Buddha’s nostril – placing your hand over it will bring enlightenment.

Explore Kasuga Taisha Grand Shrine

Prime Minister Fujiwara no Fuhito established this gorgeous Shinto shrine in Nara way back in 768 AD, dedicated to the deity responsible for the protection of the city.

Kasuga Taisha has bright vermillion orange honden (main halls), silver-roofed corridors winding through tranquilforest paths, and over 3000 lanterns that are magically illuminated twice a year during two lantern festivals.

Wandering the mystical forested grounds lined with lantern-lit pathways along with vermillion-lacquered halls makes Kasuga Grand shrine one of Nara’s and even Japan’s most spectacular sights.

Marvel at Toshodaiji Temple’s Golden Hall

While most temples have a main building covered in plain wood, the Golden Hall at Toshodaiji Temple literally shines, with a spectacular gilt exterior housing an enormous 16-meter-tall Senju Kannon Buddha statue is one of the unusual things to do in Nara Japan.

Flanked by 28 guardians and adorned by vibrant jewel ornaments, this radiant Buddha figurine towers within the already imposing fully gilded hall.

 Sensational visuals aside, Emperor Shomu established Toshodaiji Temple in 759 specifically to spread Buddhist teachings far and wide. Representing the glamour of Nara’s early Buddhist influences, shiny Golden Hall alone motivates visiting this sanctified temple.

Explore Heijo Palace Site

Visiting the Heijo Palace is one of the top activities to do in Nara Japan. Travel back in time by walking through the remains of the Imperial Palace ruins at Heijo Palace Site.

As Japan’s first permanent capital, Nara’s Heijo Palace served as the Emperor’s residence from 710 to 784 AD before relocating the capital.

Now a historical site park, the palace grounds feature partial reconstructions plus the original floor platforms clearly outlining structures like the State Hall.

With knowledgeable volunteer guides providing extra details, visitors can vividly visualize Heijo Palace during Nara’s heyday over 1200 years ago.

Wander in Naramachi, the Edo-era district of Nara

Naramachi, is one of the must visit places in Nara. Naramachi showcases well-preserved traditional architecture and historic residential buildings from the Edo period is a must see in Nara Japan.

Once where wealthy merchants catering to the Imperial Court lived, Naramachi is now home to diverse galleries, boutiques and cafes filling former townhouses and storefronts.

Wander the atmospheric winding lanes and alleyways for a glimpse into old world Japan. Boutiques sell local crafts and tasty snacks abound. Don’t forget to snap photos alongside Naramachi’s iconic waterways lined by willows gracefully arcing over the canals.

See Great Buddha Hall at Yakushiji Temple

Constructed in 680 AD by Emperor Tenmu, Yakushiji Temple houses the authentic wooden Asian architecture of ancient Japan, making it one of the best places to visit in Nara.

Although many temple structures got damaged over the centuries, the present Great Buddha Hall miraculously survived, enduring as Japan’s oldest substantial non-reconstructed building.

The grand interior even today contains colourful murals, dragon pillar carvings, and relics like Genjo Sanzo’s clergy garb (inspiration for the character from Journey to the West). Paying respects at Yakushiji Temple’s hallowed ancient Great Buddha Hall remains a moving experience.

Take a Day Trip to Asuka Village

For a glimpse into Japan’s first imperial capital, take a short train ride towards Asuka Village in the Asuka Historical National Government Park.

Unlike modern Nara, Asuka still retains quaint country village charms dotted with historic sites like Ishibutai Kofun – Japan’s oldest stone tomb said to contain Emperor Sujin’s consort. Further away sits the picturesque Oka-dera temple, one of the world’s oldest.

Getting outside Nara city exploring Asuka Village’s wealth of historical attractions makes for an excellent day trip that provides precious cultural insights.

Nara City Sightseeing Loop Bus

If you are wondering what to do in Nara? Then hop on Nara sightseeing loop bus. Nara is bigger than expected, making a sightseeing loop bus very useful, especially for visitors with limited time.

This convenient bus service hits major Nara City landmarks making it easy reach sites like Nara National Museum, Nara Park, Kasuga Taisha, and more without figuring out public transport.

With buses departing every 30 minutes and affordable flat-rate all-day passes available, sightseeing Nara via this well-designed bus loop is definitely recommended.

See Early Buddhist Sculptures at Nara National Museum

Gain insight into Nara’s esteemed past as Japan’s cultural and spiritual capital at this foremost institution housing the country’s most precious artworks and artifacts from pre-modern civilization.

Spanning Chinese bronzes, early Imperial treasures plus ascending collections of Buddhist iconography, the chronologically arranged Nara National Museum manages to thoroughly trace Far East history while spotlighting 7th-9th century achievements.

Don’t miss the famous Shakyamuni Triad carved by master sculptor Tori nearly 1,300 years ago nor the museum’s own 6th century Shinto shrine relocated from Kashihara.

Explore Shopping Arcades near Kintetsu Nara Station

East of Kintetsu Nara station lies a covered shopping arcade with over 160 shops selling Nara crafts, cuisine, and products.

The shops here have retained their retro 1950s facades giving the area a nostalgic feel. It’s fun to wander around what feels like an outdoor museum of Showa era mise-en-scène architecture.

See Sakura Blossoms at Yoshikien Garden

Come springtime, head to this traditional landscaped garden to see weeping cherry trees explode into fluffy pink cherry blossoms contrasted against a backdrop of emerald ponds and wooden teahouses.

Built upon a former samurai lord’s estate, Yoshikien dazzles with over 3,000 plum, peach, magnolia and ultimately sakura trees flowering from late February through April. The Yoshikien garden celebrating all flowers the season has to offer.

Meander through traditional-style garden landscapes, snapping Kodak-worthy images of vibrant pink canopies above you. Don’t miss the lawn transformed into a wisteria haven when lilac vines burst over wooden arbors and the central pond – equally stunning reflecting their hues.

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