Day Trip to Nara Itinerary: Explore Japan’s First Ancient Capital | The Invisible Tourist

“It’s amazing to think over 1,300 years of history can be uncovered in a single day” ~ Alyse.

No sooner had I taken a few steps away from the shika senbei stall, about a dozen spotted deer cantered over to me like I was some kind of celebrity. Grasping a deer cracker in one hand, I couldn’t help but laugh during my brief struggle against black, wet noses competing for this prized treat. Ah, the fun memories from my day trip to Nara!

As Japan’s first permanent capital city from 710 – 794 AD, Nara is steeped in history, tradition, and has been so well kept throughout the centuries it’s like stepping into a time capsule from a long-lost world. I’ve visited during both summer and winter, and each season creates a beautifully different atmosphere. 

If you’re planning a Japan trip, it’s a wise idea to contrast the shiny new cities against the old. Home to 8 UNESCO World Heritage sites, Nara pre-dates the times when Kyoto was the country’s capital city for over 1,000 years, arguably making it one of the best places to visit in Japan for ancient history.

Following the existing grid-like street pattern from the 8th century, ease of exploring by foot and its close proximity to major cities in the Kansai region, Nara is one of the best day trips from Osaka or Kyoto.

If you’d like to find out why spending one day in Nara is the perfect addition to any Japan itinerary, read on for more!

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One Day Trip to Nara Itinerary: Explore Japan's Ancient Capital | The Invisible Tourist
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TIP: This one day in Nara itinerary forms part of my 2 weeks in Japan and 3 weeks in Japan itineraries. It’s also a romantic day out so I’ve included it in my Japan honeymoon itinerary. Be sure to take a look for more inspiration for your trip one you’re done here. 

One Day Trip to Nara Itinerary Map | The Invisible Tourist
One Day Trip to Nara Itinerary Map
 

How to get to Nara

Nara is one of the best day trips from Osaka or Kyoto, and can be reached between 35 – 60 minutes depending on the train line used. 

Kintetsu-Nara Station is centrally located within the city and provides faster access to the main sights, compared to JR Nara Station.

 

Transport passes to buy in advance

Transport passes in Japan offer discounted travel. Here are some to consider for your Nara day trip and beyond.

Visiting multiple major cities by bullet train?
Try the Japan Rail Pass →

Visiting Nara, Kyoto and Osaka?
Try the 1, 2 or 5 day Kintestu Line Rail Pass →

Spending several days in the Kansai region?
Try the 2 or 3 day Kansai Thru Pass →

 

Day trip to Nara from Osaka by train

If you’re following my 3 days in Osaka itinerary, you may already know how to get to Nara so feel free to skip down the page. 

The Kintetsu Limited Express trains are the fastest way to travel from Osaka to Nara, but JR can also be used if you prefer. If using JR Nara Station, look for the East Gate exit on arrival and follow the signs to Nara-koen (Nara Deer Park).

  • Osaka Namba Station Kintestu Limited Express to Kinetsu Nara – 35mins, cost 1,090 yen or covered by the Kintetsu Line Rail Pass.
  • JR Osaka Station Yamatoji Rapid Service to JR Nara Station – 60mins, cost 810 yen or covered by the Japan Rail Pass.

Nara day trip from Kyoto by train

Again, trusty Kintetsu is the fastest route, but JR can also be used if you prefer.

  • Kyoto Station Kintetsu Limited Express to Kintetsu-Nara – 35mins, cost 1,160 yen or covered by the Kintetsu Line Rail Pass.
  • JR Kyoto Station to JR Nara Station – 45mins, cost 720 yen or covered by the Japan Rail Pass.

TIP: On any day trip, I personally prefer to not bother with rail passes that mean sacrificing time for money, and just pay for the fastest route. This means maximise my time exploring a new city, but you do what works for you.

Nandai-mon Gate and deer of Todai-ji in Nara

Nara day trip itinerary: Amazing things to do in one day

Throughout this Nara day trip, I will reference temples and shrines. Do you know the difference between them in Japan?

  • Temples are Buddhist, a religion that was introduced into Japan from India via the Korean Peninsula in the 6th century.
  • Shrines are places of worship for Japan’s native religion, Shinto, which pre-dates Buddhism.
  • These religions are closely intertwined and not exclusive, meaning people can follow both.

With that said, there are quite a few ancient must-sees in Nara, most of which are free. I’ve worked the following Nara attractions into a loop to and from either Kintetsu-Nara Station or JR Nara Station so you can visit in the most efficient way.

Meet the sacred deer (and make friends)

One of the first things you’ll notice when walking down Omiya-dori towards Nara Deer Park are the herds of deer casually strolling and chilling on the footpaths.

There is even a Japanese word to describe deer gatherings on the lawns, shikadamari, translating to “deer meeting spot.”

Believed to be messengers to the gods in pre-Buddhist times, Nara’s sacred deer have been freely roaming around this city for over 1,300 years. Today’s modern-era deer have even learnt to use the pedestrian crossings alongside humans!

TIP: Please don’t be one of those annoying Instatourists who taunt the deer with food to take a selfie. The deer are known to kick and ram tourists if they become aggravated. Well, we can’t really blame them as they are wild animals after all. Please take heed of the warning signs and treat the deer with respect. 

NOTE: If you’re interested to read what happened to deer who came to rely on tourist’s senbei for food when borders were closed for 2.5 years, my guide to overtourism in Japan details this and more. 

Deer Warning Sign in Nara

Visit the ancient Kofuku-ji  

Another significant UNESCO World Heritage site, Kofuku-ji 興福寺 is a Buddhist temple featuring the only 5 storey pagoda left in Japan. It dates back to 730 AD, although today’s current structure was rebuilt in 1426.

In its prime during the Nara Period (710 – 794 AD) and Heian period (794 – 1185), the grounds of Kofuku-ji expanded under the powerful rule of the Fujiwara Clan, and was known as one of the Seven Great Temples of Nara.

The complex is made up of different buildings, some attract a small fee to enter. I’ve listed them by the dates they were built (or reconstructed).

  • 1185 – Three-storied Pagoda
  • 1210 – Northern Octagonal Hall 
  • 1425 – Eastern Golden Hall
  • 1426 – Five-storied Pagoda
  • 1427 – Bath House 
  • 1741 – Southern Octagonal Hall 
  • 2018 – Central Golden Hall

NOTE: The Five-storied Pagoda will be undergoing extensive restoration works from January 2023 until March 2030. Unfortunately it will be covered up during this time. 

The National Treasure Hall is beside the Five-storied pagoda and houses dozens of significant religious artefacts including Important Cultural Properties and National Treasures.

TIP: On the way to Kofuku-ji from Kasuga Taisha, drop by Kasuga Taisha Manyo Botanical Gardens. It’s one not to miss if your visit coincides with the wisteria blooming, usually around May. 

Kofuku-ji Five-storied pagoda, Nara

Don’t miss Saruawa-ike Pond

Reflecting Kofuku-ji’s old wooden pagoda in its waters, Sauawa-ike Pond has a mysterious past. Legend says a court lady drowned here when she fell out of favour with the emperor in ancient times. 

Kofuku-ji Reflection in Sarusawa-ike Pond, Nara

Relax in Yoshiki-en Gardens 

Our first stop in this Nara itinerary is an easy 10 minutes’ walk from Nara Kintetsu station, the stunning Yoshiki-en Gardens 吉城園. 

Divided into three areas – a pond garden, moss garden, and tea ceremony gardens – Yoshiki-en was created on former priest residences in 1919. 

While the more popular Isuien Garden 依水園 is next door, I preferred these (and entry was free for foreign tourists!) With mossy lawns and stone footpaths, Yoshiki-en is a very tranquil place to practise shinrin-yoku (forest bathing).

TIP: Learn the deeper meaning behind shinrin-yoku and more in my guide to beautiful Japanese words.

Yoshiki-en Garden, one of the beautiful Nara attractions

Pass by Ukimido Gazebo

This tranquil pond complete with wooden Ukimido Gazebo and bridge makes a nice photo spot away from the crowds, which is a nice bonus. The bridge extends over Sage-ike pond, and the surrounding foliage changes with the seasons.

TIP: There is a hidden bamboo grove opposite here. Head into Yugayama Enchi Old House Gardens, there is a “deer proof” gate, but the gardens are so quiet and the bamboo groves are hidden up the back. So stunning!

Hidden bamboo grove at Yugayama Enchi Old House Gardens

Be left in awe by the Nandaimon Gate  

Make your way over to Nandaimon Gate. This “Great South Gate” on the southern approach to Todai-ji (more below) houses two giant statues of Nio Guardian Kings who have been protecting the temple since the 13th  century. 

Known as the largest temple entrance in Japan, the gate itself and fierce-looking guardian statues are considered national treasures!

TIP: Most people walk through the gate’s centre. I noticed during my second visit if you walk off to the left side, there is an area with replicas of the Great Buddha’s hands for reference. They are HUGE!

As its location informally marks the eastern entrance of Nara Deer Park, Nandaimon Gate is where you’ll see plenty of these furry friends hanging around. 

TIP: They love loitering near the senbei stalls and wait for unsuspecting tourists to buy some! The deer will even approach you nodding their heads, as they know to bow for food.

Don't miss the Nandaimon Gate of Todai-ji Temple on your Nara day trip

Marvel at the impressive Todai-ji Daibutsu-den 

Passing beneath Nandaimon Gate, you’ll be greeted by a lengthy pathway to Todai-ji’s main hall, Daibutsu-den. Meaning “Eastern Great Temple,” 東大寺 this jewel in Nara’s crown was the world’s largest wooden structure until 1998.

A popular UNESCO World Heritage site in Nara, it was built in the ancient way – there are no nails holding this incredible structure together even to this day. 

TIP: Todai-ji’s main hall was once much bigger than it is today, having been scaled down over the centuries – which is hard to believe given its colossal size right now. 

Housing the oversized Daibutsu (Great Buddha), this bronze statue is the star of the show as its origins date back to 746 AD. Standing 16 metres tall, made up of 437 tonnes of bronze and 130kg of gold, it’s easy to see why the Daibutsu is a magnet for tour groups and children on school excursions.

TIP: Before I knew it, I was queuing with a bunch of school kids to see if I could fit through a hole in the pillar behind Daibutsu. This hole is the same size as one of Daibutsu’s nostrils, and if you can crawl through, it’s said you’re sure to reach enlightenment. It was a bit of a squeeze for me as a petite adult, but thankfully to the sounds of the school kids’ giggles I made it! 

Over behind the statue is a 1:50 scale reconstruction of what Todai-ji once looked like. Located on both the eastern and western side of the model’s main hall, you’ll notice there are two 7-storey wooden pagodas that were each 100 metres tall. What an amazing feat of engineering for their time!

Todai-ji on a day trip to Nara

Todai-ji is a must on a day trip to Nara

Todai-ji 1:15 scale model

Don’t miss the huge Todai-ji Shoro

While many foreign tourists seem to miss adding these next few stops to their Nara day trip itinerary, they are each quite significant and worth taking the extra time to discover.

Completed in 1210 around the same time as Todai-ji’s founding, Todai-ji Shoro (Bell Tower) was constructed in what is known as “Daibutsu Style.” For me at least, this means its brown-and-white appearance matches the wooden exterior of Todai-ji temple.

Despite the bell it houses measuring 2.7 metres in diameter and weighing in at a whopping 26 tonnes, it’s easy to miss for those who aren’t in the know. The wooden hammer used to ring the bell is over 4 metres in length!

Todai-ji Shoro’s distinct long ring and significance to the temple have allowed it to be known as one of the 3 Famous Bells of Japan.   

Todai-ji Shoro (Bell Tower)

Explore the stunning Todai-ji Nigatsu-do  

From Todai-ji, Nigatsu-do 二月堂 is about 7 mins walk in a south-east direction. Situated atop a set of awfully steep stairs lined with toro (traditional stone lanterns), Nigatsu-do is famed for its views over Nara from its wooden verandah.

Meaning “Second Month Hall,” its name is derived from a special ceremony conducted annually during February. (Psssst, learn Japanese numbers and other useful phrases with my guide to Japanese for tourists with free cheat sheet).

My favourite things were the ornate bronze lanterns suspended across the verandah’s length. During my second visit, I was fortunate to see the sun setting over Nara through the clouds – perfect komorebi!

Omizutori Matsuri is held here annually in early March, a tradition that dates back to 752 AD. It’s the oldest recurring Buddhist event in Japan. Isn’t that incredible?

TIP: Down the page, I’ve listed more events to add to your Nara itinerary throughout the year! 

Todai-ji Nigatsu-do stairs & toro

Don't miss Todai-ji Nigatsu-do on your day trip to Nara

Komorebi at Nigatsu-do

Discover the beauty of Kasuga Taisha Shrine

A leisurely 15 minute stroll from Nigatsu-do, next up on this day trip to Nara is another remarkable UNESCO World Heritage site, Kasuga Taisha 春日大社. This Shinto shrine was founded in the 8th century by the powerful Fujiwara family clan.

As the most celebrated shrine in all of Nara, over 3,000 ornate gold and bronze lanterns decorate its interior buildings. All have been donated by worshippers throughout the centuries.

Hundreds of stone toro covered in moss can also be found in the surrounding ancient woods. They are lit twice a year for lantern festivals in February and August, creating a beautiful evening atmosphere.

It’s not uncommon to find deer peeping out from behind the toro. Don’t forget your camera!

Kasuga-Taisha Shrine is a must for your one day in Nara itinerary

Gold Lanterns at Kasuga-Taisha, Nara

Pick up some souvenirs from Nara on the way back to the station

My detailed guide to Japanese souvenirs will help you decide what meaningful gifts you’d like to pick up for loved ones (or for yourself!) If you have some extra time, here’s where I recommend you go shopping.

  • Nara National Museum gift store sells unique Nara-themed gifts such as t-shirts, tote bags, stamps, ceramics, postcards, stationery, incense, furoshiki, and wooden items – the miniature deer are especially cute. 
  • Higashimuki Shopping Street
  • Mochiidono Arcade

From any of these spots, you can easily make your way to Kintestu-Nara Station or JR Nara Station for your journey back to Kyoto or Osaka.

Nara tsuko-tegata
The tsuko-tegata on the right is one of my souvenirs from Nara

Events in Nara for a one day itinerary

Part of being an invisible tourist is immersing ourselves in local culture and traditions. There are dozens of events in Nara throughout the year, however I’ve summarised some of the more well-known ones below.

I was fortunate to time my second visit with the Mt Wakakusa Yamayaki Fire Festival, which was a great experience. See if any events will coincide with your trip and get involved!

 Festival  Dates  More Info
 Mt Wakakusa Yamayaki Festival (over 250 years old, includes a procession & fireworks)  January  More info
 Kasuga Taisha Setsubun Mantoro (3,000 stone & brass lanterns illuminated)  February   More info 
 Katsuragi Imasuhono Ikazuchi Shrine Nagoshisai Summer Festival  July  More info
 Kasuga Taisha Obon Mantoro Lantern Festival (honouring of those whom have passed)  August  More info
 Todaiji Temple Ceremony of 10,000 Lights  August  More info
 Uneme Shrine Festival Procession  September  More info

 

Mt Wakakusa Fire Festival, Nara

Mt Wakakusa Yamayaki Festival

 

TIP: Find more events by calendar and unique things to do in Nara at night here

 

How much time do you need in Nara? Where to stay

If you would prefer to spend the night in a hotel or ryokan (one of the wonderful cultural experiences in Japan) and explore the surrounding region such as Mt Yoshino (a MUST during spring in Japan!) Be sure to compare Nara hotels and reviews here.  

     

Nara deer gathering

 

Uncover more of Nara with a local guide

Prefer to have a friendly local guide show you around Nara? This Nara Half Day Itinerary Walking Tour combines the best of the city’s UNESCO World Heritage sites, as well as the chance to enjoy an authentic lunch with fresh local ingredients from Nara. You can’t get much better than that!

 

Have more than one day in Nara?

If you’re looking to spend an extra day in Nara, consider adding these locations to your itinerary to experience more.

  • Mt Wakakusa – Located between Todai-ji and Kasuga Taisha, his grassy hill has sweeping views over Nara city and is a favourite with deer. 
  • Mt Kasuga Primeval Forest – Behind the beloved Kasuga Taisha is untouched native forest to explore. Hunting and logging here has been prohibited since the 9th century. Perfect for hiking. 
  • Naramachi – Often overlooked by foreign visitors, the narrow preserved streets of Naramachi are lined with traditional dark-brown buildings converted into boutiques, cafes and small temples and shrines. Naramachi Museum is filled with local porcelain, trinkets and their meanings, paintings and drawings. A quirky little place to visit!

The Naramachi Museum in Nara is an interesting little place to visit

Concluding this one day Nara itinerary

Is Nara worth visiting? Is Nara a day trip? I hope my itinerary for how to best explore Nara in one day answers these questions with a resounding YES! 

Now you know what Nara is most famous for, the lengthy history of some of the religious structures (and their meanings), how to make friends with the spotted deer and how to get here from Osaka and Kyoto, you’re sure to have the most meaningful visit.  

I hope you found this Nara travel guide helpful, I’d love to know if you plan to use it in the comments below.

While you’re here, be sure to read my ultimate guide to planning a trip to Japan to cover all your bases, know the essentials for what to pack for Japan, or learn some Japanese phrases for tourists with my FREE cheat sheet so you’re set the moment you arrive.

Feeling social? Come and join me on Facebook, Pinterest, TikTok and Instagram for more travel inspiration!

Until next time,

The Invisible Tourist


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2 Comments

  1. Hi!

    Useful information for a trip to Nara! Would you recommend staying one night in Nara or just a day trip from Osaka?

    Thanks!

    1. Hi Sjanne,
      Thanks for your kind words 😊
      If you have time to spend the night I absolutely would! I’ve done two day trips to Nara now (from Osaka and Kyoto). As it is a popular destination for day trippers, it would be so lovely to explore early morning before they arrive and evening after they leave. You may be interested in staying in a lovely traditional ryokan, too!
      Some suggestions include:
      • Tenpyo Ryokan
      Ryokan Kosen Kazeya Group
      Nara Ryokan
      I hope that helps and you have a wonderful time exploring the ancient beauty of Nara!

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