Visiting Nara as a Day Trip or Overnight Stay?

The Japanese city of Nara is in the perfect location for a day trip visit. Located in the Kansai region of Japan, it forms a triangle with two of Japan’s most famous and visited cities, Kyoto and Osaka. With easy train connections to both cities, it is easily accessible, friendly and quaint, with plenty to see on foot in a just a few hours. But what are day trippers missing out on? So is it worth extending a visit to Nara to stay overnight?

I’ve done both, and here are the best reasons why each is a good choice, depending on your time and travel plans.

A sketch of cute deer waiting for crackers from tourist in Nara
Nara’s resident deer

Nara as a Day Trip

Getting to Nara from Kyoto and Osaka

Let’s start with transport times and options. To get to Nara from Kyoto, it is a 34 minute train ride from Kintetsu Kyoto Station to Kintetsu Nara Station via the Kintetsu Limited Express. This is a private line so the JR rail pass won’t work – but it is fast and comfortable.

Alternatively, it is 41 minutes ride from JR Kyoto Station to JR Nara Station, and the JR Rail Pass works for this journey. Either choice is very fast!

Getting to Nara from Osaka is also very fast, and there is a choice between the JR or Kintetsu line. From Kintetsu Namba Station in Osaka to Kintetsu Nara Station, the journey takes 40 minutes. From JR Osaka Station to JR Nara Station, the journey is 52 minutes. If there’s no preference, it might be best to choose the station closest to where you’re staying in Kyoto or Osaka.

Both Kintetsu Nara and JR Nara Stations are close to the city centre, and both are perfect options for exploring by foot.

What to do in Nara for a Day Trip

For day trippers to Nara, there are two main areas to focus on, that can easily be done in a day. The first is the downtown area along Sanjo-Dori Street and Noborioji-Dori Street, where many of the best shops, restaurants, and hotels are located. The surrounding streets have plenty of things to explore too, with cafes, pottery shops, owl cafes, supermarkets and more. A particular highlight is the Nakatanidou mochi shop, famous for its lively mochi batter ‘beating’ displays.

Depending on how much time is spent downtown doing shopping, eating and picture-taking, that leaves plenty of time for the other main attraction – Nara Park (Nara Kōen). Located on the other end of the town centre, it too is best visited on foot. While the huge park is 502 hectares (1,240 acres), many of the main sights are close to the city.

The first stop on the outskirts of the park should be Kōfuku-ji temple. Further along is the big one – Tōdai-ji temple, the largest wooden building in the world, open for visitors to explore inside. Afterwards, it’s time to feed the resident deer in Nara Park. Numbering about 1200, the wild sika deer are the mascots of Nara, and a major tourist draw. Many are used to human presence, and street vendors sell special crackers to feed them. By this time, it might be time to walk back to the station, making a pretty great day trip to this beautiful city.

Staying Overnight in Nara

If deciding to upgrade a day trip to Nara to an overnight stay, the first thing that this allows is much more time to experience the city. Starting with Nara Park, there are many more things to discover if you have extra time. Other incredible sights can be found in the park, such as the mysterious Shinto shrine deep in the forest, Kasuga-taishi.

Other great visits is the Shinto shrine Meoto Daikokusha, and the Ukimido pavilion stretching out onto a pond. Another benefit of wandering much further into the park is the chance to see more wild deer, skittish and wary of humans. Nara National Museum is also located in the park.

Staying overnight gives you extra time to see Nara by night, and explore some of the dinner options available. You can try some of Nara’s specialities, such as somen noodles (a string-thin flour noodle), or bitter persimmon leaf sushi, kaki no ha zushi. While Nara is not lively like Osaka, there are plenty of wonderful sake bars to relax at after dinner.

And what about the next day? Farther afield, there is Neijō Palace, leading over to the Suzakumon gate. Take the train one stop down to Nishinokyo station, and there you’ll find Yakushiji temple and Toshodaiji temple.

A short walk from JR Nara Station or Kintetsu Station is Naramachi, a historic merchant district. Filled with narrow laneways and traditional wooden houses, Naramachi is a glimpse into a historic era.

Both a day trip and overnight (or multi-night) stay in Nara have lots of great things to do and see. Whichever way you choose to visit Nara, it’s hard not to fall in love with this historic city. Let’s take a closer look at some highlights in Nara.

Feeding Nara’s Deer

With big, cute doe eyes, a deer pushed its wet face into my jacket, demanding a biscuit. Its horns had been removed for safety, and instead were left two polished stumps where they were removed. In Nara’s gigantic, sprawling park, there were hundreds of deer roaming all around.

At one point in history, the deer population was considered sacred; today they are protected national treasures and popular tourist draws, and very much accustomed to interacting with people. A deer is even Nara’s official mascot, the cute Shikamaro-kun.

Sketch of a Nara deer

Buying deer crackers

Despite the overcast weather and promise of rain, we bought a stack of special ‘deer crackers’ from one of the many cart vendors, a kind of brittle wafer, and began snapping off pieces to feed the deer. It wasn’t long before a group formed around us. They knew the routine, bowing politely and sometimes even standing on their hind legs to receive a piece of cracker.

Even the young deer came escorted by mothers, their mottled red fur dashed with white spots. And before long, the crackers were gone, and the deer went searching for new friends elsewhere.

Drawing of a deer trying to steal food from a man in Nara

Tōdai-ji, the World’s Biggest Wooden Building

We were glad to be rid of the food, once we saw the herds of deer teeming around the temple sites. Enthusiastic deer were snatching crackers from peoples’ hands, before they’d even left the seller’s cart.

The park is home to Tōdai-ji, a monumental Buddhist temple containing Japan’s largest bronze Buddha, which also has the distinction of being the biggest wooden building in the world. We took a look inside, admiring the enormous Buddha statues in the dark, cavernous main hall, as beams of light illuminating dancing dust motes.

Sketch of Nara's Buddhist Tōdai-ji temple
Tōdai-ji temple

Exploring Nara Gōen

The quiet, relaxing park called out to us to explore it’s endless size. Deer moved casually through the forest, ambushing people to ask for treats. Gravel paths meandered deeper into Nara’s expansive forest, and the crowds disappeared. Trees started to soar, old green and brown giants that whispered with life, time and mystery.

Guiding the way were stone lanterns blanketed in moss, and carpets of crispy winter leaves. We wandered deeper, finding big vermillion temples with swaying golden lanterns, stone courtyards and verandas; tiny shrines enveloped tall trees and thick vegetation; and skittish wild deer which still weren’t used to seeing humans. Along the way we found a pagoda in the middle of a small lake, where a wedding couple in traditional costume were having pictures taken.

Ramen on Sanjo-Dori Street

The weather was closing in, and our hands ached from the icy-cold wind, so we walked back towards Nara in search of a hot bowl of ramen. Nara city was quiet, lazy, and laid out across a few criss-crossed main streets. One was packed with okonomiyaki restaurants, curry houses, expensive cafes, and souvenir shops selling everything deer-themed.

After a short search, we found the perfect ramen establishment, and warmed our hands on the hot bowls of steaming soup.

Nakatanidou Mochi Shop

A famous mochi shop was nearby – Nakatanidou mochi shop. Two men were yelling and grunting as they stretched and beat a huge lump of green dough in a heavy wooden bowl to make their treats; a crowd had gathered to watch the masters at work. One would lift the dough and smash it back into the bowl; the other would beat it with a wooden bat. With a quick double-slap, they repeated the energising dance again and again. We stopped for one, a sweet matcha and red bean delight, with a perfect chewy, doughy texture.

Nara Owl Cafe

Sketch of an owl cafe sign with Japanese charac
Owl cafe sign

As we walked back, we came across an owl cafe. We knew of cat cafes, and in Tokyo we’d heard rumours of owl cafes, so curiosity drew us inside. A shelf the length of the room had real owls perched on rocks or branches, all in a row, a tethered foot fastening them to their perch. Staff unclipped them if we wanted to hold one, and attached them to a thick leather glove. Some stood, obediently posing for pictures, whilst some larger ones flapped their massive wings in irritation, mussing the hair of the staff.

We drank our vending machine coffee (the ‘cafe’ of the owl cafe), studying the enclosed outdoor area for the owls to fly after hours. Surely their nocturnal routines were in complete disarray. It was too cruel, and we wouldn’t go back.

Kaki no ha sushi

Sketch of
Persimmon leaf-wrapped Sushi from Nara

Be sure to try the local specialty of sushi, the persimmon leaf sushi (kaki no ha sushi). We took off our shoes as we entered the restaurant, and sat cross-legged on tatami mats at a low table. The sushi arrived, none of it familiar. Rectangular blocks wrapped in persimmon leaves absorbed a salty, bitter flavour.

Other sushi served included maki, sashimi and nigiri, many of which we couldn’t identify. Some appeared to be wrapped in egg; others contained crunchy pink vegetables; whilst others were topped with slices of silver and bronze-scaled fish. We left, quite full, into the cold winter night. When we returned from dinner, we found hot water bottles ready for us at our Airbnb. What service!

Get to know the locals

Our Airbnb was in a neighbourhood of pretty wooden houses and immaculately clean streets. It was a guesthouse run by a young man named Yuki, a part-time monk. He ran the property most of the time, and was very proud of his home town.

He recommended the kaki no ha sushi one night, and a great soba noodle shop the next. He showed us his ceremonial sea-shell horn, offered cups of sparkling sake, and explained his different types of tea served from rare lacquered wooden teacups.

We stayed in Nara for two nights. What do you think? Is a day trip enough, or maybe one night? Let me know in the comments!


9 thoughts on “Visiting Nara as a Day Trip or Overnight Stay?

  1. What a wonderful blog. Absolutely wonderful.
    Thank you for your interest in my travels as well. I love Japan and would live there in a second. Your drawings are refreshing. I look forward to your next post!
    My wife, Sadako, is from Osaka where her mother still lives. We travelled to Nara some years ago. We didn’t go to the owl cafe, but I’ve heard of it. I think I agree with you regarding the poor owls. Ironically, I wanted to visit Nara because of its free roaming deer.
    I love Japan and the people I’ve met over the past six years have been such good folk. I’m glad you’re enjoying your trip. Cheers to you and your wife.

    1. Thank you very much! The drawings are a great way to re-live and digest the wonderful things ive seen in my travels; I dont have time to do them ‘live’ so I base them on my photographs and sketch them out at home.
      Yes the owl cafe was a bit of a shame, but the deer were great fun to interact with. Japan is such an amazing place, I cant wait to return one day. All the best to you and your wife, and look forward to reading about your future travels.

      1. Several – one in Sept on the pond when a woman goes out to view the moon, the Jan. one when they set the grass on a mountain on fire, O-Bon festival, New Years’ Eve bell ringing, etc.

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