With a population of just 360,000 but more than 1,000 semi-domesticated deer, it’s no wonder that the animal has turned into something of a symbol for Nara. However, this city is so much more than its deer – the city also has an interesting history as well as several world-class sightseeing spots, including several World Heritage sites, making Nara well worth a visit even if you don’t care much for its four-legged ambassadors.
Nara is a city with a long history. It was the capital for most of the 8th century, during what is since then referred to as the Nara Period in Japanese history (AD 710-794). This was the time when Buddhism became permanently established in the country, and as a result, there are several impressive Buddhist temples in Nara. One of the most well known is Todai-ji with its 14.7 metre Giant Buddha Statue. This impressive temple is the biggest wooden structure in Japan, and one of Naras eight Unesco World Heritage Sites.
Todai-ji, with several other of Nara's historical buildings, is located in Nara Park, a vast oasis of greenery a short walk from the train station. Not far from the park you’ll find the old town of Nara – Naramachi. This area has been home to merchants and creators since the 15th century. Today, several local artisans still run studios and boutiques in these blocks of old wooden and narrow streets. In recent years, several trendy cafés, restaurants and shops mainly targeting the growing number of tourists have also opened here.
In Nara, you will also find some of the most attractive Japanese gardens in Japan. Specifically Isui-en and Yoshiki-en are often mentioned as some of the top sightseeing spots of Nara. Isui-en is the bigger of the two, with the oldest part dating back to the 17th century.
Nara also houses the Nara National Museum, where many impressive Buddhist statues, paintings, and several historical scrolls reside. The museum was founded in 1894 and is located in Nara Park.
Other notable sightseeing spots in Nara includes Horyuji temple – One of the world’s oldest wooden temples, as well as Kasuga Taisha, the biggest and most beautiful Shinto shrine in the city. Wakakusayama, a grass covered hill in the back of Nara park, is also a popular spot due to the impressive view of Nara from its peak, 342 metres high.
Nara is worth a visit all year round, but it’s especially beautiful during the cherry blossom season in April. The city centre is fairly small and most of Nara can be reached on foot without too much trouble. Nara makes for a good daytrip destination from both Kyoto and Osaka, but if you want to explore everything that this historical city has to offer, it might be a good idea to spend a night or two here.