It’s true; Japan’s largest cities are chock-full of photogenic sites and attractions, but we can’t forget the smaller towns — short day trips from Tokyo and Kyoto — that have just as much to offer. Nara, Japan, is one of them.
In the eighth century, Nara was Japan’s first permanent capital city in a young country where, at the time, the capital changed with each new emperor. Though Nara does not hold this title today, its well-maintained and exquisite temples, shrines and gardens make it a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
So, what are you waiting for? Start with these four sites in Nara and watch the Instagram likes flood in.
Nara Park’s Welcoming
At the center of the city sits Nara Park, which features a series of popular attractions, including the National Nara Museum with its impressive Buddhist art collection and the Todai-ji temple (home to a 15-meter high Buddha statue).
Most uniquely, however, Nara Park is home to over 1,000 deer, which are considered messengers of the Shinto gods. Tourists and city dwellers can purchase crackers to feed the amiable animals, who have learned to ask for food by bowing. We recommend trading a cracker for a photo opp!
Kasuga Taisha’s Hall of Lanterns
Don’t leave Nara Park before visiting Kasuga Taisha, a Shinto shrine located on the park’s east side and featuring sloping roofs, gold decor and vermilion pillars. This is Nara’s most celebrated shrine, famous for its architecture (it was rebuilt every 20 years until the end of the Edo period) and 3,000 bronze and stone lanterns.
For the best photos, visit Kasuga Taisha during the lantern festival, Mandoro, which lights up the shrine grounds every year in early February and mid-August. And if you happen to visit during the month of May, don’t forget to admire the stunning wisteria plants at the shrine’s breathtaking Manyo Botanical Garden located next door.
Mt. Omine’s 100-Kilometer Trail
One of Nara Prefecture’s greatest treasures is Mt. Omine, a sacred peak that pilgrims have hiked for centuries. A 100-kilometer path cuts through thick picturesque forests, and in the springtime the white blossoms of the treasured Oyama magnolia can sometimes be spotted along the way. Take a detour to visit the Ryusenji Temple and the limestone caves at Tenkawa — and for the ultimate recharge, relax at the Dorogawa Onsen hot springs located at the mountain’s base.
Though the mountain is notable for its spectacular views, don’t miss the town’s traditional townscape and ryokan (traditional Japanese inns), like Koryokuen Nishisei, deemed one of the best in the area.
Owl Cafe Watawata’s Feathered Friends
Japan is famous in part for its unique dining experiences, some of which entail catching your own seafood or feeding felines in cat cafes. One standout, however, is Nara’s Owl Cafe Watawata. For an entry fee of about $12, visitors can grab a drink and hang out with 16 varieties of owls, learn about the different breeds and snap a selfie. If you choose to visit Owl Cafe Watwata, you may be joined by a falcon or a duck, or even a flock of cockatiels.