If you are planning a trip to the Kansai area of Japan, it will not be complete without a journey to Nara.
Photo ©Nara Prefecture/©JNTO
Situated between Osaka, Wakayama, Mie and Kyoto prefectures is the beautiful landlocked region of Nara. Located approximately 32 kilo-metres from Osaka City, the region’s capital city of the same name is an easy 45-minute train ride away on either the Kentetsu or the JR Line. One of the first things that will catch your eye when you arrive via either route is the prevalence of Sento-kun, the antlered mascot of the city. The Kintetsu Line’s point of entry puts you in close proximity to the Higashimuki shopping street or shotengai, which offers plenty of cafés and traditional Japanese restaurants as well as a wide variety of souvenir shops. You can also find an array of non-Japanese cuisine.
After working your way south through the shopping district you will find one of the more famous attractions in the area: the Nakatanido shop. This store is well known as much for mochi—Japanese rice cakes—as it is for the spectacular show by its proprietor and staff . On several occasions daily, you can watch with fascination as they work in harmony to pound rice into the soft delicacy that their establishment is known for. The finished product is a sweet, bean-paste-filled treat that will have you wanting more.
Photo ©Nara Prefecture/©JNTO
Make some new four-legged friends
When you finally tear yourself away from the show and the treats, the main attraction of the area will lie ahead: Nara Park. Here, you can observe a rich religious culture as you climb the stairs from the roadway and enter the park, passing temples and shrines on the way to the greenery. You will also encounter some of the numerous inhabitants that call the area home. They are wild but friendly and very approachable, especially if you happen to be in possession of a pack of their favourite treat— deer cookies (shika senbei). They are also extremely polite and show their appreciation before and after you give them a senbei. Yes, the deer do bow in Nara Park.
One of the more impressive things about these four-legged park dwellers is their intelligence. There are several cookie vendors dotting the approximately 1,240-acre park, but the deer know enough not to approach the stalls or attempt to take any for themselves. However, when they see a pack being purchased, it becomes a comedic free-for-all with a lot of bowing and nibbling.
There are many other interesting attractions to the park aside from the deer. You will find the Nara National Museum, which is considered an Important Cultural Property of Japan and houses some national treasures. It also offers a bookstore, a gift shop and a café, and its walls contain a brief history of the Buddhist temples in the area. Farther along and on the way to Todaiji Temple there are more stalls selling Japanese treats as well as an abundance of tax-free shops. Todaiji itself hosts the Daibutsu, or the Big Buddha. When you stand in front of the gigantic statue of the peaceful Buddha, you will see that this spectacular sight is well worth the small price of admission.
Photo ©Yasufumi Nishi/©JNTO
Sit back and enjoy the sights
Another interesting feature in Nara Park is Nigatsudo Temple. It offers a large deck from which you can get a beautiful panoramic view of the park with the city in the background. It’s an ideal location to see the fall colours and the spring sakura blooms. If you want to take a rest from your trek, you can enjoy a free cup of hot or cold tea in the tea room adjacent to the temple. It is a self-serve-style establishment that is—for the most part—attendant-free; the only stipulation is that you are required to wash your cup. The walls are adorned with images of the re-lit Omizutori (sacred water-drawing) festival that occurs here in the early spring, adding a colourful backdrop for your enjoyment.
If you happen to be in the park in early March, I recommend a visit to the plum grove. There you can see the many vibrant blossoms in bloom. And later in the spring, you will see the blossoming sakura—so there is never a bad time to visit. A short walk from the grove is a pond with rentable rowboats for those who want to enjoy a relaxing row on the calm waters of the basin. A wooden gazebo-like structure is also available for non-swimmers who want to enjoy the view of the pond from a safe distance.
A visit to Japan is an incredible journey, and including Nara Park in your itinerary will make your vacation unforgettable.
Discover the region’s tasty eats and indulgent treats
Once you’ve had your fill of the park, take a break and indulge in some of the area’s edible entertainment.
Kana Kana: A very short stroll from the woodland is the famed Kana Kana café. It’s a great locale to relax in a quaint atmosphere while enjoying a cup of coffee and a pastry. Photo ©Sylvester Pilgrim
Kakinoha-sushi: Nara is famed for Kakinoha-sushi, a type of Oshi-sushi (pressed sushi) that is wrapped in persimmon leaves. You can pick some up from one of the many shops at the train station. Photo ©AC works
All photos ©Nara City Tourist Association unless otherwise noted