yoshino blossoms 2

Often overlooked in favor of Kyoto, Nara Prefecture is one of the most beautiful and significant places—culturally and historically—in Japan. If you happen to be traveling in the Kansai region, we cannot urge you enough to make the time to swing by!

In fact, there’s so much to see that we can’t possibly tell you about every amazing place in Nara, but here are a few of our favorites!


Let’s start with the place many people already know about: Nara City.

  • Heijou Palace

The city was one of the first permanent capitals of Yamato (the old name for Japan) and, in 2010, Nara celebrated its 1300th anniversary by rebuilding the long-lost Heijo Palace. As you can see in the architecture, the people of the Nara Period were heavily influenced by Chinese culture of the time. The palace is free to enter and only a short walk from Yamatosaidaiji Station in Nara City.

▼The reconstructed palace (via Wikipedia)

▼The reconstructed palace gate, Suzakumon. (via Wikipedia)

  • Todai Temple

Of course, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention Todai Temple, a World Heritage site registered with UNESCO and home to the largest wooden building in the world (until 1998).

▼Daibutsuden: Inspiring “Holy crap, that’s big!” comments since the 8th century
todaiji daibutsuden

Housed within the temple is the Nara Daibutsu—an enormous copper and bronze Buddha statue completed in 752, measuring 14.98 meters (49.1 feet) tall and weighing 500 tonnes (or 550 US tons).

▼Daibutsu (via Wikipedia)

Todai Temple is conveniently located a short walk from JR Nara and Kintetsu Nara Stations and has an admittance fee of 500 yen (about US$5).

  • Nara Park

The uphill walk from the stations to the temple will take you past Nara Park, Koufuku Temple, the Nara National Museum, and hundreds of free-roaming deer. The deer, which happily gobble up the senbei (rice crackers) sold by various merchants in the area, are mostly harmless—but they won’t hesitate to “encourage” you to feed them with “gentle” nudges.

▼“Gimme the senbei and nobody has to get poked!”


While Toudai Temple was once the largest wooden building in the world, Houryu Temple, an hour southwest of Nara City by train, is the oldest. Built in 607, the Buddhist temple has a number of beautifully constructed buildings and statues as well as a museum. The center pieces of the temple are the five-story pagoda and Kondo, or Golden Hall, which contains elaborate murals, statues, and other national treasures. Be warned, though: the entrance fee is a bit steep at around 1,000 yen (roughly US$10) for adults.

▼Golden Hall (via Wikipedia)
golden hall

▼Five-story pagoda (via Wikipedia)


Going directly south from Nara City, we come to Asuka Mura, or Asuka Village, the capital of Yamato directly before the Emperor’s move to Nara. In addition to having historical significance, the area is absolutely beautiful with its soft rolling hills and lush greenery.

You have a few options for going around to these sightseeing spots: Catch a bus, walk, or rent a bicycle. However, the buses run infrequently, so unless you want to spend a lot of time walking, renting a bicycle is your best bet. There are a few bike rental shops right outside of Asuka Station (such as this one, which also provides a map of local sightseeing destinations), and you can expect to spend between 900 and 1,500 yen (about US$9 to $15) on a one-day rental.

  • Ishibutai Kofun

One of the most popular places is the Ishibutai Kofun, which was once an ancient tomb. Originally covered with a mound of dirt, the tomb was stripped bare by the elements, leaving behind only the monolithic stones composing its walls and roof.


Dug into the ground, the chamber is large enough to hold several people. And, thanks to the cool soil, it’s a nice place to hide from the sun in the summer! If you’re hungry, there are a few restaurants and gift shops next door that serve traditional Japanese food as well. (All Ishibutai Kofun photos via Wikipedia)


  • Amakashi no Oka

About a mile and a half to the north-west is Amakashi no Oka, or Amakashi Hill, whose summit affords a panoramic view of the Asuka area. The hill is also of historical interest as, in addition to enshrining Empress Suiko and various deities, this was where “trials” were carried out. Rather than pleading their cases with judges, jurors, and lawyers, people accused of major crimes were given “trail by fire,” in which they would place a hand into a bowl with a poisonous snake or boiling water. If they escaped unharmed, it was a sign from the gods of their innocence.

▼View to the east (Click for larger image)
Eastern view from Amakashi no Oka

▼View to the west (Click for larger image)
Western view from Amakashi no Oka


Getting on the train and heading further south, travelers come to the end of the Kintetsu train line that runs the 70 kilometers (about 43.5 miles) from Kyoto to Yoshino. After either taking a cable-car or hiking up from Yoshino Station, travelers stroll up a street lined with massive torii gates and traditional buildings where Japanese food, treats, and souvenirs are sold, before trekking into the tree-covered mountains.

  • Yoshino Angu

Yoshino is home to a sprawling national park with thousands of Japanese cherry trees as well as numerous beautiful temples and shrines. During the Nanbokucho Period, from 1334 to 1392, it was also the site for the Southern Imperial Court’s palace as they fought with the Northern Imperial Court in Kyoto for control of Japan.

▼Yoshino Angu, palace to the Southern Imperial Court, visible in the center background
Yoshino Angu

  • Kinpusen Temple

▼Kuromon, the black wooden gate (Via Wikipedia)
kuromon wiki

▼Kane no Torii, the bronze gate (via Wikipedia)
kanetorii wiki

Coming to the top of the road, we arrive at Kinpusen Temple. This is the head temple for Shugendo Buddhism, a sect of esoteric Japanese Buddhism famous for yamabushi monks who live and wander in the mountains and are alleged to have magical powers.

After climbing a set of steep stairs, travelers come to the Nio gate. Nio are large, wooden statues of the Buddha’s fierce, muscular guardians.

▼Nara: Land of too many stairs (via Wikipedia)
niomon wiki

▼”Hey. How’s it going?”

▼”I have such a cramp in my arm!!”

Once past the fearsome warriors, you can proceed to the main hall, called Zao Do, which houses some of the most unusual Buddhist statues in Japan.

▼Zao Do

Unfortunately, photography is prohibited inside (despite the many photos available online), but you can get a look at the Zao Gongen statues in the tourism commercial below starting about 10 seconds in.

Attached to the temple are some smaller Shinto shrines dedicated to Inari Okami, the Japanese god of foxes.

▼It’s just so…cute!!
inari jinja

  • Yoshino cherry blossoms

After exploring Kinpusen Temple, travelers can follow the road into the mountains to see Yoshino’s legendary cherry trees. In spring, the whole valley is covered in the white blossoms, which have inspired Japanese poets for over 1,000 years.  There are a number of hiking trails with multiple vantage points as well as some “roadside” tea houses.

▼Semi-panoramic view of Yoshino cherry blossoms. Click for larger view.yoshino blossoms

yoshino blossoms 2

▼Enjoying some green tea at a “roadside” tea house. More temples are visible across the valley.
yoshino tea hiking


Finally, you can head even further south to the Kii Mountains, where Shugendo followers often traveled in the Heian period (794 to 1192). The mountainous region was, and still is, an important area for Buddhist pilgrimages, stretching out into three prefectures: Nara, Wakayama and Mie.

▼Follow the…uh…stoney brick road? (via Wikipedia)
kii 1 wiki

▼Sanjo Mountain (via Wikipedia)
Mount Sanjo wiki
▼Daikou mountain range (via Wikipedia)
daikou mountain range wiki

We hope you enjoyed our tour of Nara! There is still much more to see, so we hope you’ll get a chance to check it out!

All photos (unless otherwise noted): RocketNews24
Sources: Wikipedia (Amakashi no Oka, Inarioomikami, Kinpusenji)