When possible, I always love to add a day trip out of the city I’m visiting on long weekends. It often means sacrificing seeing everything I can in a particular city, but it broadens the scope of my trip. During my Kyoto long weekend, I decided to take a day trip out to Nara. Nara was actually the first permanent Japanese capital when it was established in 710 CE. Its reign as Japan’s capital only lasted 74 years before the capital was moved to Kyoto. However in that short period of time, Nara laid the groundwork for Japanese arts, crafts and literature, as Nara imported everything it could from China. Today Nara is a modern city, but it still is home to some ancient temples and Japan’s largest bronze Buddha. Nara is easily reached from Kyoto on the JR Nara Express train which departs approximately every 15 minutes from Kyoto Station, and it takes approximately 45-60 minutes to reach Nara.
To maximize my travel experience, I went to the Horyuji Temple complex first, which is about a 20 minute train ride from Nara station and an additional easy, 20 minute walk from the train station. The temple complex was originally founded in 670 CE as a center for Buddhism in Japan. This temple complex was also Japan’s first UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site in 1993.
The temple complex consists of many different halls, plus Japan’s oldest five-story pagoda, as well as a gallery of temple treasures to display the important works of art, dating from the 7th and 8th centuries.
After enjoying the Horyuji Temple complex, I made my way back to the Nara city center. From the train station, it is about a 20 minute walk to Nara Park. Nara Park is a huge park where the rest of the historical sites are located. Nara Park is also home to packs of “wild” deer. Though these animals are ostensibly wild (with many signs warning patrons of such), you can buy packets of deer cookies to handfeed the deer. Trust me, these deer get hungry and will swarm you (gently) when they sense you have food for them.
Hungry deer congregating around a deer cookie stand, hoping for some customers to feed them.
Tired deer napping in the shade. It was rather sunny, hot and humid that day.
Trying to take a selfie with a deer proved to be an interesting attempt at photo taking.
Deep into Nara Park is the Todaiji Temple.
This temple is home to the Great Buddha (Daibutusu). While the initial Buddha began construction in the mid 700s, the present Buddha (or at least its head) dates from 1692 due to a couple fires melting the Buddha’s head, and an ancient earthquake in 855 CE that destroyed the head as well. Daibutusu stands approximately 15m (50 ft) tall, and is made with 437 tons of bronze, 286 pounds of pure gold, 165 pounds of mercury, and 7 tons of vegetable wax. Unlike other Kyoto temples, patrons can actually take pictures of the Buddha and all its surrounding statues inside the building.
Also in Nara Park is Kasuga Shrine, which is a Shinto shrine nestled among the trees, pillars and approximately 3,000 stone and bronze lanterns that are specially lit a couple times a year.
Nara is definitely a worthwhile day trip from Kyoto. It is easy to reach with fast, reliable transportation, and there is enough to see and do to easily occupy visitors for a day or more, depending on their preferences.