Heading to Japan, but not sure where to go? Make sure to put Nara on the itinerary. One of Japan’s most charming cities, it is often overlooked in the typical Tokyo-Kyoto schedule. Nevertheless, Nara is worth a few days of exploration. While not the biggest city, its history is one of the longest in Japan, and it’s where Japanese civilization began. Long before there were was Kyoto, there was Nara, and it’s the perfect place to spend 48 hours.
Start out the 48 hours by heading towards the beginning of Nara Park closest to Kintestsu-Nara station. The first stop should be Kofuku-ji, one of the first temples established in Nara in 710. The pagoda is the 2nd tallest in Japan and was last rebuilt in 1426. After Kofuku-ji, it’s time to head further into Nara Park. Nara Park is home to Nara’s world famous deer, long considered to be divine messengers. Before leaving the park, make sure to buy a stack of shika-senbei, or deer crackers, from any of the vendors located around the park. Don’t feel bad about just walking around the park and hanging out. It’s the perfect place to take those deer selfies.
After that, depending on time/mood/weather, choose the Nara National Museum or Manyo Botanical Gardens (or both!). The Nara National Museum houses many of Japan’s religious treasures including an important Buddha statue. Manyo Botanical Gardens appears to be a dedication to a famous collection of poems called Manyoshu written during Nara’s time as the capital. The plants mentioned in the book are planted in the garden, with a written explanation about what poem they were in. Plan a visit during early May to catch the wisteria in bloom.
There aren’t many places to eat around Nara Park, but thankfully there are a few options. About a 13-minute walk from the park is a popular udon restaurant, Takabata Tatsuya, or Le Case, a quiche restaurant right inside the park.
Pick up where you left off after lunch by going to Kasuga Taisha Shrine, Nara’s most important shrine. It houses the gods responsible for protecting the city. It is most famous for its scenic path lined with large stone lanterns that cuts through the Kasuga Primeval Forest. Inside the shrine, there are hundreds of bronze lanterns hanging from the vermilion eaves. Afterward, it’s time to head over to the big one, Todai-ji Temple, and the Big Buddha Diabutsu. Don’t forget to crawl through the small hole in a pillar near the back of Todai-ji. Said to be the same size as one of the Big Buddha’s nostrils, going through will bring luck to anyone who can make it.
When leaving Todai-ji, do not pass up a chance to see Nigatsu-do in the back. The crowds diminish significantly on the walk to Nigatsu-do, and it’s a great way to see some of Nara’s temples and forests without hundreds of other people. The view from the platform is incredible, but make sure to hang out until dusk. All the lanterns are turned on then, and Nigatsu-do turns into an absolute dream.
For dinner, head back to Naramachi for a chance to eat at Edogawa Naramachi and sample their eel courses. Another choice would be to grab a drink at Mugiya, a local craft beer bar.
Start out the day at Naramachi. This old area of Nara has all the charm of Kyoto minus the crowds. Don’t forget to walk along the shopping arcade to get in some souvenir shopping. Make sure to squeeze in Gango-ji before leaving. Along with Todai-ji, Gango-ji was one of the seven most powerful temples when Nara was still the spiritual center of Japan.
Swing by Wakasa Curry on the way to Kintetsu-Nara station for some seriously good Japanese curry. Or pick up some of Nara’s regional dish, pressed persimmon leaf sushi, at one of the takeout counters around the station. While there are a few to choose from, one of the most popular is Tanaka right by station exit 2. Then it’s time to hop on a train to Kintestsu-Koriyama station to check out the Koriyama Goldfish Museum. This adorable place has over 40 species of goldfish to check out, and the “goldfish town” around the museum has themed itself on goldfish. Check the streets for manhole covers with goldfish designs and small goldfish details in shop windows. Do stop by K Coffee for a cup of joe in front of the goldfish telephone booth. Originally just an exhibit set up by a local club, it’s become a permanent fixture in the town.
If there’s still some daylight left, go back to Kintetsu-Koriyama station to take a train to Nishinokyo station to see Yakushi-ji temple, the third of the seven great temples that are covered in this 48 hours. Yakushi-ji is one of the oldest temples left in Japan, and its pagoda is said to be almost 1,300 years old.
Go back to Kintetsu-Nara station for dinner before heading to your hotel. Two well-liked restaurants are Kura and Kameya. Kura is a popular izakaya with delicious sashimi and lots of sake options. Those wanting a heartier meal will like Kameya Okonomiyaki. This place is popular, so be prepared to wait, but delicious okonomiyaki will make all the waiting worth it. Cooked table side, this will be a fun meal on which to end this tour through historical Nara.