Nara

Daibutsuden of the Todaiji temple

Nara (奈良市) is an ancient capital city in Nara Prefecture, Kansai region of Japan. Throughout 2010 the city celebrated its 1300th anniversary. Overshadowed by its more famous neighbor Kyoto, Nara is omitted from many a time-pressed tourist's itinerary. However, Nara is home to many important scenic and historical sites, and today preserves its main sights much more attractively than Kyoto within Nara Park and neighborhoods like Naramachi.

Understand

Along with the development of Heijōkyō (平城京), the capital of Japan between 710-784 AD, Nara flourished under the influence of Buddhism, leading to the creation of an enormous number of cultural assets, buildings and books, many of which are preserved today. Nara has the largest number of buildings designated National Treasures in Japan.

While the Heijōkyō Palace (平城宮) site turned into plain fields after the capital was moved to Kyoto, the shrines and temples were left on the east side of the palace (called Gekyo (外京)), and Buddhism remained influential throughout the following centuries. Another part of the area developed as a merchant town, notably in the Edo period, known as Naramachi (奈良町) today.

Eight places in the old capital Nara have been inscribed to the UNESCO World Heritage Site "Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara" since 1998, including five Buddhist temples, one Shinto shrine, an imperial palace and a primeval forest.

Get in

By plane

Nara does not have its own airport; most visitors arrive via either Kansai International Airport or Osaka's Itami Airport (for domestic flights).

From Kansai Airport, Airport Limousine buses run to the two Nara train stations every hour (¥2000, 1 1/2 hours). More frequent service is available by rail: If you have a Japan Rail Pass, you can take the Haruka limited express to Tennoji station and then transfer to the Yamatoji line for the run to Nara (¥2900, no charge with rail pass). Otherwise, it's cheaper to take the Nankai Railway's Kūkō-Kyūkō (空港急行) express train to Shin-Imamiya, and then take the JR Yamatoji line from there (¥1430). With good connections, both trips take around 1 1/4 hours and 1 1/2 hours, respectively.

Limousine buses connect Itami Airport to the two Nara train stations for ¥1440; the ride takes about one hour.

By train

The Kintetsu railway station is the closest to Nara's major attractions

From Kyoto Station, both the JR Nara Line and the private Kintetsu Kyoto Line will get you to Nara quickly. The Kintetsu Nara Station is better located than the JR Nara Station, and all-reserved Tokkyū (特急) trains leave Kyoto twice an hour, making the run to Nara in 35 minutes. On slower but more-frequent Kyūkō (急行) services, the trip takes about 50 minutes and you may need to change trains at Yamato-Saidaiji Station. The trip costs ¥620, plus ¥500 extra on the Tokkyū. For Japan Rail Pass holders, JR's Miyakoji Kaisoku (みやこ路快速) runs during mid-day hours from Kyoto to Nara in 45 minutes (¥690, no charge with rail pass).

A select number of Kyoto subway trains on the Karasuma line (running north-south) run directly to Kintetsu Nara, offering convenient one-seat rides for those coming from the northern part of Kyoto city. These trains are designated as express trains to Nara - running local through the subway, then continuing to Nara as an express service. For example, a one-seat journey to Nara from Kyoto's Shijō subway station (connection with the Hankyu Railway) costs ¥860 and takes one hour.

The fastest route from Osaka is to take the private Kintetsu Nara Line from Namba Station. Kaisoku-Kyūkō (快速急行) trains run three times per hour to Kintetsu Nara (40 minutes, ¥540). For Japan Rail Pass holders, JR runs up to three Yamatoji Kaisoku (大和路快速) trains each hour from Osaka, Tennōji, and intermediate stations on the Osaka Loop Line. The run to Nara is 45 minutes from Osaka Station and 30 minutes from Tennōji (¥780 and ¥450 respectively, no charge with rail pass).

Hanshin offers services from Kobe's Sannomiya Station to Kintetsu Nara via the Hanshin Namba line for ¥940. Direct Kaisoku-Kyūkō services leave three times per hour during most of the day; otherwise, you change trains at Amagasaki. The trip takes about 90 minutes.

If traveling between Kyoto, Nara and Osaka consider purchasing the Kansai thru-pass which enables unlimited travel for 2 or 3 days on private railways, buses and subways (not-JR) in the Kansai area.

By bus

As Nara is a major tourist attraction, there are a good number of buses that run between Nara and other locations throughout Japan, which can result in significant savings when compared to train fares.

The following buses run from Tokyo and take approximately 7-8 hours to reach Nara: (Current as of March, 2012)

JR Bus

A major operator of the bus routes from the Tokyo area is JR Bus (Japanese website). Seat reservations for JR Buses can be made in train stations at the same "Midori-no-Madoguchi" ticket windows used to reserve seats on trains. JR Buses depart from Tokyo Station - Yaesu Exit (八重洲口) and the JR Highway Bus Terminal (JR高速バスターミナル) located adjacent to Yoyogi Station on the Yamanote Line (one stop south of Shinjuku). In Nara, buses stop at the JR Nara train station.

JR Bus offers, in order of comfort and price, Seishun (youth) buses with 2x2 seating configurations, Standard buses with individual seats arranged 1x1x1, and Premium Buses that offer wider seats and more amenities.

JR Bus' overnight one-way fares to/from Tokyo start from approximately ¥3500 for overnight trips in Seishun buses up to ¥7400 for premium buses with advanced purchase. Daytime buses to Kyoto start from ¥4200, from which Nara can easily be reached by train. Fares are typically higher on weekends and holidays.

Willer Express

Discount bus operator Willer Express does not operate any direct bus services into Nara. The nearest Willer Express stop is in Kyoto, from which you can easily reach Nara by train. The advantage to using Willer is that journeys can be booked online in English, and their Japan Bus Pass is valid on all of their routes with some exceptions.

Direct buses to Nara

A few bus operators run direct service between Tokyo and Nara, stopping at both Kintetsu Nara and JR Nara train stations, without going through Kyoto:

Get around

On foot

Once within Nara Park, you can walk to almost all the other major sites. The conventional round course (from Kintetsu Nara Station to Kōfuku-ji, Nara National Museum, Tōdai-ji, Kasuga Taisha and back to Kintetsu Nara Station) is about 6km long, a pleasant walk for the typical tourist.

By bus

Several temples are on the outskirts of town. Tōshōdai-ji, Yakushi-ji, and Horyu-ji are accessible from JR and Kintetsu Nara train stations without change by Nara-Nishinokyo-Ikaruga Excursion Bus line (Line No. 97). Map.

See also World Heritage Tour in Nara.

By taxi

Taxis are available at Nara but those who do not know Japanese may find it difficult to make the Taxi-driver understand where they want to go.

See

If you only have one day to spend in Nara, focus on Nara Park. With more time, though, there's more to see.

Nara Park

The Daibutsu inside Tōdai-ji
Lanterns at Kasuga Taisha

Most of Nara's sights, including temples, shrines and famously mercenary deer, are concentrated in Nara Park (奈良公園 Nara-kōen), a wide, pleasant space of greenery. According to legend, the god of the Kasuga Taisha came riding a white deer in the old days, so the deer enjoy protected status as envoys of the god; however, based on their current behavior, either the deer have lost the job, or the god has taken an extremely passionate interest in biscuits from tourists (¥150), empty food wrappers and harassing shopkeepers.

Other sights

A miko entering a Nara shrine
Heijokyo Suzakumon

Do

Walking tours

Work

There are many English conversation schools near Kintetsu Station.

Buy

Narazuke (奈良漬), a local specialty pickle made of various vegetables and fruit and traditionally melon cucumber, is quite popular. The distinctive strong flavor comes from the use of sakekasu, the sediment of sake fermentation, and the pickle also has some residual alcohol. Nara is also famous for its calligraphy brushes, called narafude (奈良筆), which are available in the specialist stores on Sanjō-dōri Avenue. However, as these brushes are made with a special kind of animal hair, they are expensive and rare, and customers will need to make a specific request for them. Other brushes sold in the specialist stores will be less expensive than narafude, but still generally of reputable quality. Lastly, Nara sarashi (奈良晒), or Nara fabrics are a local specialty. Originally made of boehmeria variation plants in the older ages, cotton has become the major material since Edo Period. Towels, handkerchiefs, blankets, blinds and many other cloth products can be found in stores on Mochiidono Shopping Street or in the Naramachi area. One other unusual local specialty is chopsticks and other small objects carved from the sawn-off horns of the Nara Koen deer. They should be readily available from any tourist stall in the park, but for best selection and prices travel east from Todai-ji until you bump against the barren side of Wakakusa-yama and turn right - the entire right-hand side of the street is taken up by two-story shops, with souvenirs on the ground floors and shokudo (Japanese fast food restaurants) up top. Just follow the throngs of students being herded there for a bite after seeing the sights.

Central City

Outskirts

Eat

A local specialty is kaki-no-hazushi (柿の葉ずし), which is sushi (usually mackerel or salmon) wrapped in persimmon leaves, and actually originates from nearby Yoshino. Kudzu, also from Yoshino, is a very renowned product of Nara, which is used for making various food ranging from kudzu noodles (葛切り kuzu-kiri) to Japanese sweets (和菓子 wagashi). Somen (thin wheat noodles) from Miwa region (三輪そうめん Miwa sōmen) have a history as old as Nara. The noodles are served either hot or cold. Another well-known culinary product is shika-senbei, a rice cracker sold around Nara Park. Don't try eating it yourself though it's meant for the deer! Note that closing times may be as early as 10PM.

Take-out

Alternatively, you can take out kaki-no-hazushi, the persimmon leaf wrapped sushi, which is actually very popular for domestic travellers. There are three kaki-no-hazushi stores that can be easily spotted around Kintetsu Nara Station. Packages of various size and combination are available.

Drink

Yamato-cha (大和茶) is the locally produced Japanese green tea which is healthy and tasty. There are also numerous sake brands, among which is Harushika brand, produced by one of the oldest existing sake breweries in Japan.

Sleep

As usual throughout Japan, make your reservation as early as possible for August (the time of yearly vacations and Bon festivals, when it is customary for the Japanese to travel to their and their ancestors' birthplaces) and around Christmas/New Year, and also in early November, when Shosoin treasures are on display at the National Museum. Cheaper accommodations may sell out and/or raise prices.

Budget

Mid-range

Splurge

Stay safe

Deers too enjoy cherry blossom

The deer in Nara Park tend to be friendly and perhaps overly eager to eat shika-senbei (¥150) biscuits from the hands of tourists. Small children may be frightened to have the suddenly manic deer coming after them, so it may be best to feed the deer yourself and let the kids watch. While in the Kasuga-yama forest, steer clear of any deer which still have their antlers. They can be aggressive and their antlers can injure you.

If you are allergic to pollen, beware: the heaviest cedar pollen fluctuation in this area is usually from mid-February to April.

Connect

There are several tourist information centers.

Go next

As the center of a plain dense with history, Nara makes a good hub for exploring the vicinity.

Routes through Nara

Osaka  W  E  Iga Nagoya


This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Thursday, September 17, 2015. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.