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  • Writer's pictureThe Killorans

The Old Buddhist Town of Nara

Want to get some zen on and see something truly unique while visiting the great country of Japan? Do you love wild animals that roam freely and comfortably around people in seemingly perfect harmony? Then hop on the Shinkensan and head on over to the old Buddhist town of Nara.

Nara, where's that?

Nara is a town south of Kyoto in the north side of the Nara Prefecture, bordering the Kyoto Prefecture. It's an easy train ride down from Kyoto or Hiroshima, but in all honesty, we're talking about Japan here. Virtually everything is accessible and relatively easy to get to via the amazing infrastructure.

What's so special about Nara and why would I want to go there?

Not only was Nara the capital of Japan in the 8th century, it is also the site of one of the most impressively large Buddhist temples we've personally seen on our Japan trip. Surrounding the temple is the great green space known as Nara Park. Nara Park, in turn, is coincidentally home to thousands of wild deer. The combination of these elements really create a fun and unique experience you won't get in most places in the world.

We explored the town of Nara spontaneously one afternoon when we took a day trip out to Hiroshima. There is a similar park on an island in Hiroshima where wild deer roam around that you can be around, but the time it takes to explore the area wasn't super appealing to us. Since we were only in Japan for 2 weeks, we instead decided to jump on the Shinkensan from Hiroshima straight over to Nara (with a transfer or two in between) to go see some really amazing architecture and friendly(ier) deer than the ones we read about in Hiroshima.

Since the deer have resided here for centuries, and the Buddhist monks occupied the temples for generations, the deer have innately been trained by the monks. If you bow at the deer, they'll actually bow back to you! It's adorable! You can purchase little deer biscuits to feed to the deer, too, if you feel the urge. The deer are so used to people (and tourists) that they are very comfortable living in this park.

The deer aren't the only main attraction. The green spaces, the statues, the architecture, the history and the whole surrounding area are really quite special to see. Whether you plan to stay a night or visit during the day like us, we have a few recommendations on what we loved based on our couple hour visit.

Spontaneous day trip tips (based on our experience):

1. We highly suggest you begin your visit following the map below, starting by walking along Sanjo Dori street on your way to the park. This street is conveniently located just across from the Nara Station, assuming this is where you arrive if you take the Shinkensan. There are the cutest little shops and delicious looking restaurants lining the way. It's mostly a pedestrian path, so it's easy to use this as the main thoroughfare to double-back on back to the train station. Follow along all the way to the Torii gate leading to the park. There's a nice shaded pedestrian pathway that leads you to the central path that runs north directly through the Gate of Tōdaiji on your way to the Buddhist shrine of Tōdai-ji (pictured above).

2. Be sure to know what you want to see before arriving. We were literally 10 minutes late to the Buddhist temple to see the great Giant Buddha statue. Had we known it closed at 5, we wouldn't have dilly dallied around before arriving to the temple.

Luckily, there were some really adorable deer that were roaming around the outside of the temple. They were also very photogenic posers for us as seen in these photos.

Which brings us to our next tip:

3. If you don't buy the deer biscuits, you can still bow at them and they'll bow back! But remember to respect the deer. Overall they're extremely harmless, but they are still wild animals, and it's important to respect them and their distance. We didn't walk up to pet or overly interact with them, but did see others who did. Again, use your discretion and best judgement. We tend to lean on the side of respect, and we highly encourage you do the same. But try the bowing thing - it's so kawaii!

4. You have to walk under the Nandaimon Gate of Tōdaiji on your way toward the Buddhist temple. Though the architecture is extremely old and not overly ornate, it is so impressively large it nearly took our breath away. It doesn't appear to be that immense until you realize how long it takes to walk up to it. (You can see the scale of people underneath the entry in this photo.) There's also a nice surprise when you walk through the gates flanking both sides, so you've got to check it out!

5. Time of year can matter. We were there in spring early-mid April and the cherry blossoms were in bloom EVERYWHERE! It was so beautiful. The large park is the best place to explore not only to see the deer, but for the trees and nature. If you can, take your time and enjoy the park. A couple of hours in one early evening just wasn't enough. It's super easy to navigate around, but it is a lot of walking, so if you think you can make a quick stop in, keep in mind that it can take a while to walk. But enjoy it nonetheless.

6. Don't overthink your visit. We were wary of visiting Nara because we hadn't really found much information in our guidebooks or on the internet that truly illustrated what we experienced. But on a last minute whim, we figured "why not - let's go see some deer - we don't know when we'll be back in Japan" and jumped on the train. Sometimes you just need to wing it and you'll be surprised what you'll stumble onto. Check out these rooty trees that mark some of the pathways through the park - so cool!

7. Google Maps is a godsend and we highly recommend at a minimum you have map access on your phone. As we mentioned before, it's a lot of walking and it can be easy to get turned around trying to locate some of the sites or find your way back to the train. Google Maps definitely helps.

8. Find a place and just sit. Listen to the wind in the trees, observe the cherry blossoms falling, listen to the deer communicating to one another through clicks and baas, enjoy the fresh air and nature. It's no surprise why the Buddhists placed a temple here as it's the perfect backdrop for meditation and contemplation.


Nara was a sweet place to visit and we would highly recommend coming, even if it's just for a couple of hours. You will not regret it, especially if you love nature in all its grandeur (like us).


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