Nara, Japan is world-famous for Nara Park: a unique public park filled with historic temples and freely-wandering sika deer. These deer, once considered sacred, have been designated by Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology as natural treasures.
Nara is a fantastic day or half-day trip from other popular Japanese destinations like Osaka and Kyoto, taking only 35-45 minutes by train from Osaka and 45-60 minutes from Kyoto. Nara has two train stations, the JR Nara Station (services run by Japan Railways [JR]) and the Kintetstu Nara Station (services run by Kintetsu Railway), making it convenient and accessible to visit.
This Nara Park guide discusses some of the park’s notable attractions, ways to get to Nara by train from Osaka and Kyoto, and provides plenty of photos to give an idea of what things around the park look like.
The Deer in Nara Park
As you approach the park, there are deer congregating everywhere, even the sidewalks. Even so, Nara Park is extremely spacious, with lots of room for both people and the deer to stroll around and relax.
Plenty of space around the park, unless the deer invade your personal space
The Nara Park deer are quite used to being around people. In fact, you can purchase deer crackers to feed them with. If the deer think you may have something, they will rush over in search of a snack. Some deer have even learned to bow in exchange for some munchies.
A deer bowing
“Did someone say ‘snack’?”
Because they are so used to humans, some of the deer can be quite presumptuous. One deer tried to gnaw at my pocket in search of crackers. If you buy some deer crackers, just directly feed the deer; they could get cranky if you mess with them or tease them.
Very comfortable around humans
You can buy deer crackers throughout the park if you decide you want to feed them.
Because the deer have free reign over the park, you will see them everywhere: hanging around people, the temples and shrines, the stone lanterns. It’s pretty amusing to walk around Nara Park and see where you can spot them next.
Some of the deer around Nara Park, including two judging visitors from their hiding spot
Besides deer, the grounds of Nara Park are also home to a number of extremely old, gorgeous trees. Near Kasuga Taisha (discussed below) is the Mount Kasuga Primeval Forest, which features a variety of ancient trees and plants, as cutting down trees has been banned there since 841 CE.
Some trees around the park
As Nara was the capital of Japan throughout most of the 8th century CE, it holds many significant and interesting historical sites, particularly temples, statues, and art.
Todai-ji is a Buddhist temple circa 752 CE and UNESCO World Heritage site (along with seven other spots in Nara, together the Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara). This temple features many of Japan’s designated national treasures, including Daibutsu-den, Daibatsu, Nandai-mon, the Octagonal Lantern, and Nio statues (also known as the Kongo Rikishi).
The entrance to the temple starts with the Nandai-mon (“Great South Gate”), the biggest temple entrance gate within Japan. Housed inside the gate are the Nio, two large statues guarding the entrance to the temple. These guardians are over 27 feet/8.4 meters tall.
Nandai-mon from afar and close-up
Some Nio statues
Todai-ji is famous for its grand main hall, Daibutsu-den (“Great Buddha Hall”), which holds a massive bronze statue of the Buddha Vairocana (aka Daibatsu). The hall itself was once the world’s largest wooden structure, with a width of 187 feet/57.012 meters, length of 165.6 feet/50.48 meters, and a height of 159 feet/48.472 meters.
Besides the Daibatsu, the Daibutsu-den also has a variety of other Buddhist statues on display, pictured below.
The Daibatsu (first photo) and other statues around the Great Buddha Hall
On the path leading to the hall, you can see the Octagonal Lantern. This National Treasure dates back to around the opening of Todai-ji, and bears ornate decorations including musicians and lions.
Also around the temple grounds are the Todai-ji Museum, Hokke-do (hall with a notable statue of the Fukukensaku Kannon, both National Treasures), and Kaidan-in (a complex of buildings that includes statues of the Four Divine Kings that guard the cardinal directions, also considered National Treasures).
The Octagonal Lantern
Other sights around Todai-ji
Hours: 7:30 AM – 5:30 PM (April-October), 8 AM – 5 PM (November-March) for the Great Buddha Hall, Hokke-do, and Kaiden-in; 9:30 AM to 5:30 PM (April-October)/5 PM (November-March) for the Todai-ji Museum
Admission: ¥600 (Great Buddha Hall), ¥600 (Todai-ji Museum), ¥600 (Kaiden-in), ¥600 (Hokke-do), ¥1000 (Joint pass for Great Buddha Hall and Todai-ji Museum)
Kasuga Taisha Shrine
Kasuga Taisha is a renowned Shinto shrine in Nara and another UNESCO World Heritage site. It features a multitude of lanterns in and around the shrine, making for a gorgeous area to walk through.
As is common for Shinto shrines, there are some of the distinctive red torii gates around as well.
Chozubachi (water basin)
The outer area of the shrine is free to go into, but the inner area costs 500 yen to get into. I opted not to pay to enter the inner area, and just wandered around the shrine grounds instead.
There is a cafe on the grounds that is open 10 AM to 4 PM, and closed on Mondays from December to March and from June to September. The shrine also holds a museum and botanical gardens, both of which cost 500 yen to enter as well.
Lanterns and ema (prayer plaques) hanging up around Kasuga Taisha
The best part of Kasuga Taisha for me was the area immediately outside of the shrine, with its hundreds of moss-covered stone lanterns coming in a variety of styles and shapes. There were various deer strolling or lounging among the lanterns, adding to the tranquil environment around the shrine.
Lanterns around the exterior of Kasuga Taisha
Hours: 6:00 AM – 6 PM (April-September), 6:30 AM – 5 PM (October-March)
Admission: Free (Outer area), ¥500 (Inner area), ¥500 (Museum), ¥500 (Manyou Botanical Garden)
Kofuku-ji is a Buddhist temple near Todai-ji, established in 710. Like Todai-ji and Kasuga Taisha, this temple is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
It features various National Treasures, including the Five-Story Pagoda (Goju-no-to), the Three-Story Pagoda (Sanju-no-to), the Eastern Golden Hall (Tokon-do), and the North Octagonal Hall (Hokuen-do). The Five-Story Pagoda at Kofuku-ji is the second tallest wooden pagoda in Japan, coming in at 164 feet/50.1 meters tall.
The Five-Story Pagoda of Kofuku-ji
The Eastern Golden Hall holds a statue of the Yakushi Buddha, and the National Treasure Hall is supposed to hold great examples of Buddhist art, including the notable Ashura Statue. However, as all the buildings cost money to get into and I was focused on visiting other locations, I mainly stopped by Kofuku-ji to snap a few quick photos of the five-story pagoda and some other buildings along the way.
The Southern Octagonal Hall (Nanen-do)
Hours: 24 hours a day (grounds), 9 AM to 5 PM (buildings)
Admission: ¥300 (Eastern Golden Hall), ¥500 (Central Golden Hall) ¥700 (National Treasure Hall), ¥900 (joint pass for the National Treasure Hall and Eastern Golden Hall)
How to Get to There
To get from Osaka to Nara with JR West, you can take the train on the Yamatoji Line from either the JR Namba or Tennoji Stations, with multiple trains per hour. If you take the rapid train from Namba Station, the trip to Nara will take about 45 minutes and cost 570 yen for a one-way ticket, with no transfers.
If you take the local train from Namba Station, you will have to transfer at Tennoji Station, with the journey taking about 50 minutes and also costing 570 yen. If you take the local train directly from Tennoji Station in Osaka, the trip to Nara will take about 35 minutes and cost 470 yen, with no transfers.
To get from Osaka to Nara with Kintetsu Railway, you can take the train from Namba Station to Kintetsu Nara Station. Both the rapid express and limited express trains take about 35-40 minutes, but the rapid express service costs 570 yen and the limited express service costs 1090 yen. These trains run less frequently than the JR trains, and most do not require transfers, but some do.
To get from Kyoto to Nara with JR West, there are also several different train options, again with multiple trains an hour. The fastest service is on the Miyakoji rapid train, which takes about 45 minutes and costs 720 yen.
The regional rapid service takes about an hour, and the local train on the Nara line takes about an hour and 10 minutes, both of which also cost 720 yen.
To get from Kyoto to Nara with Kintetsu Railway, you take the train from Kyoto Station to Kintetsu Nara Station. The limited express service takes 35-40 minutes, and costs 1160 yen. The express service takes 45-50 minutes, but costs only 640 yen. Note that some of the trains may require you to transfer at Yamato-Saidaiji Station.
From JR Nara Station, Nara Park is about a 20 minute walk, and from Kintetsu Nara Station, the park is about a 5-minute walk. There are also buses that go around the park, train stations, and other sites in Nara.
Is Nara Park worth visiting?
Absolutely! Overall, I loved visiting Nara Park and some of the temples and shrines around the area. I had wanted to go for a long time, and was glad when I was finally able to do so. It’s been one of my favorite things I’ve done in Japan.
Nara Park provides a great mix of nature, history, architecture, and art to visitors. The expansive grounds of the park are very green and peaceful. In the heart of the park, surrounded by the aged forest, it’s easy to forget that you’re in the middle of a city. The deer also give the park a distinctive and lively character.
The temples and shrines are very impressive and beautiful. I thought that the Great Buddha Hall at Todai-ji Temple was worth the entrance fee, especially seeing as going to the park itself is free.
Paying to enter some of the other buildings among Todai-ji, Kasuga Taisha, Kofuku-ji, and the other temples and shrines would be well worth it for someone interested in Buddhist or Shinto architecture and art.
Its unique features, beautiful grounds, and ease of accessibility make Nara Park a must-see attraction for travelers of every kind.
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