Nara is a small city with a long history and is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Kansai region. Easy to reach from both Kyoto and Osaka, Nara is home to numerous World Heritage sites and is famous for its park full of tame deer. Naramachi is a small district in the centre of the city which was the merchant quarter during the Edo period. Many of the wooden machiya merchant buildings have been preserved as shops, cafes, and museums, and wandering along the district’s narrow streets (particularly at night) is a wonderfully atmospheric experience.
The “Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara” are eight historic places in the city grouped together under the umbrella of one UNESCO World Heritage site. Located in the Naramachi district, Gangouji is one of the oldest temples in Nara, but sees relatively fewer visitors than some of the other famous ones in the city. The sprawling temple complex was constructed in the 8th century, but many of the original buildings have since disappeared. Machiya townhouses were built in their place in the 15th century, giving birth to the historic merchant district that still survives today.
Gangouji was one of Nara’s “seven great temples” and its remaining structures date back to when Buddhism first arrived in Japan. The Gokuraku-do and Zen-shitsu buildings have a simple beauty and are both registered as National Treasures. Visitors can find a treasure house and various stone lanterns and markers on the site.
Kofukuji is another significant temple complex located due north of Naramachi and just a five-minute walk from Kintetsu Nara Station. Its most famous landmark is the 50m- high, five-story pagoda, the second tallest in Japan. It is free to walk around the site to admire many other interesting structures and buildings, including the newly reconstructed Central Golden Hall (just across from the pagoda). Entry to the National Treasure Museum requires a small fee, but it houses an incredible collection of Buddhist art and temple treasures.
Tucked away in the forest at the eastern end of Nara Park is another celebrated World Heritage spot, Kasuga Taisha. This shrine is as old as the city and while the outer area is free to enter, the inner sanctuary costs 500 yen. This sanctuary offers visitors a closer look at the shrine’s unique Kasuga architectural style. The shrine is also famous for its hundreds of stone lanterns lining the various paths and walkways; they are lit up twice a year (in early February and mid-August) during the atmospheric lantern festivals.
In the northern part of Nara Park is one of the grandest World Heritage sites in the whole of Japan, Todai-ji. This extensive temple complex was built in the 8th century.At its centre lies the Daibutsuden (Great Buddha Hall), a beautiful building that is also one of the largest wooden structures in the world. Inside sits a magnificent 15m-tall bronze Buddha statue, and nearby there are plenty of other interesting sights too, such as the famous Nandaimon Gate with its two imposing guardian statues watching over the approach to the temple.
Shoso-in is the treasure house of Todai-ji, located a little out of the way, a five-minute walk beyond the great hall, and so it is often missed by tourists. The distinctive building sits above the ground on wooden stilts and houses many artefacts belonging to the temple and the Imperial Royal Family, but entry is restricted.