How to Have a Perfect 24 Hours in Nara, Japan - Travelerette

How to Have a Perfect 24 Hours in Nara, Japan

What’s the capital of Japan? Everyone knows it’s Tokyo, even you, Internet Stranger. But what used to be the capital of Japan? Kyoto, you say? Yes, Kyoto was the capital of Japan from 794-1868, which is not too shabby as capitals go. But what about Nara? Nara was the capital of Japan for almost all of the 8th century, but today it is primarily known for being overcome by a combination of terrifying bronze giants and hordes of hungry beasts. Join me as we attempt to not have our fingers chomped by these aggressive creatures while still managing to snack, explore, and learn our way through Nara.

Travelerette Tip: I went to Nara as a day trip from Kyoto, and I think this is a perfect amount of time to spend here. You can see all the major sights of Nara in just one day for sure.

Morning: Explore Nara

GET OUT OF HERE, YOU CRAZY DEER! Sorry for the interruption. In Nara, as you will see, it’s hard to keep the deer out of your business. I’m assuming that by the time you woke up in Kyoto, got breakfast, got on the train and arrived in Nara, it is probably about 10 AM. That should be plenty of time to explore the wonders of Nara. Come with me to explore…

the approximately top five best things to do in nara

1) The absolute first thing you must do is see the deer in Nara Park. I mean, I say that like you have a choice, but in Nara you’re going to spend time with deer whether you want to or not.

See what I mean? They just show up whenever they feel like it.

The deer of Nara Park have historically been considered sacred and killing one used to be a crime punishable by death. You won’t get executed anymore for killing a deer, but I don’t think it sounds like a nice thing to do,.do you?

This deer doesn’t think it sounds very nice either. A fun thing to do is buy crackers for the deer from one of the shika-senbei (deer cracker) stands roaming the park.

Travelerette Tip: Just be aware that the deer can recognize the crackers, so as soon as you buy some, you’ll be swarmed with a horde of RUDE deer pushing each other and you and nibbling on your fingers just to get a taste of some sweet cracker action. They’re like drug addicts with horns. Don’t worry, though, they won’t hurt you. They’ll just tickle you and push you until they are satisfied you have no more crackers and then they’ll run off to the next victim leaving you a giggling mess surrounded by Japanese schoolchildren who are all laughing at you.

2) This is the Himuro Shrine right off Nara Park, which is not one of the most famous shrines in Japan, but I think it is one of the lovelier ones I saw, especially during cherry blossom season. This beautiful tree is actually called a weeping cherry blossom tree, for what I think are fairly obvious reasons.

This shrine is also called the “ice shrine” because in old Nara, people used to freeze fish in blocks of ice and sacrifice them to the gods. I don’t want to gossip about the gods behind their back or anything, but they sure do have weird taste in sacrifices sometimes. Oh well, sacrificing a fish in ice is better than sacrificing a baby, as I always say.

3) A more famous shrine in Nara is the Kasuga Grand Shrine. You reach there by taking a path that leads from Nara Park to the shrine itself. As you can see, the path to the shrine is lined with thousands of stone lanterns.

Aaaah! How did that deer get in the picture of the lanterns? Get a life, deer!

The shrine is decorated in the customary colors of white and shrine orange. Because it is a Grand Shrine, it is much bigger than a shrine like the ice shrine earlier. There is an admission fee of 500 Yen (about 5 dollars). Follow the signs and you’ll be able to see the entire shrine complex.

Travelerette Treasure: My favorite part of the shrine was this room filled with eerie lit lanterns. The lighting made it hard to take a picture, but I felt very at peace here. Each lantern represents a different prayer, so I felt surrounded by all the positive wishes of the people who had wanted lanterns placed here and…

Deer God, how did a deer get on that lantern? Is no place in Nara safe from these infernal creatures?

4) Now that you’re done with the Grand Shrine, it’s time for the Great Buddha. He lives a deer-free life inside the Great Buddha Hall, which is one of the largest wooden buildings in the world. As you can probably guess, this is a reconstruction because one of the hazards of being made of wood is that you get burned down from time to time.

Also, I was kidding about the deer-free part.

In Nara, nothing is deer free! See that little guy being petted by the couple just above this sentence? Anyway, move past the deer and pay your 800 Yen fee to meet the largest Buddha you have probably ever seen.

The Great Buddha is the large figure on the right. The smaller fellows to the Great Buddha’s left and right are bodhisattvas, which I gather is a good thing to be. I am not Buddhist, but I was awed by the power and grandeur of the Great Buddha. Be warned, the hall is full of tourists taking pictures and pushing each other, which I don’t think is very enlightened of them. So you’ll have to be patient if you want to get a good picture.

Fun Fact: Many Japanese people practice both Shinto (a polytheist nature-based religion) and Buddhism at the same time. Temples are Buddhist and shrines are Shinto.

5) Now it’s time to eat lunch! I don’t recommend stopping at a restaurant for lunch when there are so many places to buy fun snacks in Nara. Why not try some dango–sticky sweet rice dumplings served on an actual stick?

Don’t let that sneaky deer in the background steal it! Or you could get a freshly grilled rice cracker from a street vendor! You can get them topped with soy sauce or hot pepper, but I chose sugar. Sorry that I am not sorry.

If you want something healthier, get a roasted purple yam from a street vendor. It’s on the pricy side–one cost me about 900 yen, but they will fill you up all day and they taste like a sweet potato.

The only downside is that you have to eat it with your hands which will probably make you look like a weirdo. If you’re in the mood for dessert, try some Yubari melon soft-serve ice cream. Yubari is sometimes called the Cadillac of melons because it is so sweet. That doesn’t really make sense to me. Do Cadillacs taste sweet? I’ve never eaten one before.

If you want something a little classier, pick up a box of Mimuro Monaka, which are delicate wafers filled with sweet red bean paste. That sounds unappealing perhaps, but I promise it is delicious. You can pick them up at a store called Mimuro Shiratamaya Eiju, which is on the road leading from the train station to Nara Park.

Just don’t let any of those sneaky deer take your snacks.

I see you trying to hide behind that fence, deer! You can’t have any of my Mimuro Monaka. Buy your own.

Afternoon: Tipsy Afternoon Old Town Stroll

As I’m sure you can imagine with a city that has been around for well over a thousand years, Nara has a thriving old town with shrines, gardens, and adorable historic buildings. But I don’t think we’ll get the most out of the experience if we explore the old town on our own. That is why I reserved a spot on the Old Town walking tour done by Narawalk, which operates out of the Nara Visitor Center. Our guide was an extremely funny and friendly local who spent two hours leading us around the quaint homes, shops, and food stores and teaching us well more than…

three fun facts about nara

1) If you walk around the old town, you will see that many homes have this string of little red and white figures hanging outside them. Our guide told us that they are supposed to be good luck monkeys, and you should put one on the string for each member of the family. So you would assume that this household above has two parents and three children in it.

2) I got excited when I spotted this kitty and took its picture, and our guide, noticing that I was enamored of felines, told me that cats are so popular in Nara that the city’s nickname is Nya-ra. (Nya is the Japanese way to say Meow.) After that, every time we found a cat, she would point it out to me.

Here’s a cat.

Another cat.

One more cat! At least it wasn’t deer anymore.

3) Our guide took us in and out of old homes and shops and even took us to an old well where we got to pull up some water. But the best fact that we learned is that Nara is considered to be the birthplace of Japanese rice wine, sake, and you can’t go through Nara without tasting some. We went to the Harushika Brewery located in the Nara Old Town to sample some for ourselves.

We got to sample three types of sake: sweet, dry, and fruity, and we got to eat them with a side of Japanese pickles. Which one did I like best? As usual, I say all of them. Cheers!

For a bonus, I even got to take home the little glass I drank my sake out of. You can pick one of four colors; I chose pink for cherry blossom season.

I highly recommend this tour. Our guide was so helpful and positive, and she even gave us a little Japanese candy at the end. Without her, I don’t think we would have been able to go inside the lovely traditional homes that were a great way to learn about Naran customs and get away from the deer for a moment.

NOOOOOO! They’re everywhere!

Evening: Dinner at Muchan

After the tour, you are free to explore Nara on your own. You can find terrifying deer men and deer samurai.

How about a deer police officer?

Or mayhaps a deer-covered manhole cover?

When you’ve deerly had enough, it’s time for dinner. I was so proud of myself because I dined at a Japanese speaking only izakaya called Muchan on 606-61-2 Sanjocho near the train station. There was no menu in English and the waitresses spoke no English, but I got by.

Here’s what I did:

First you go inside and say “hitori desu” if you are one person or “futari desu” if you are two people. You can also just hold up the number of fingers for the people in your party. She’ll say “eigo no menu ga arimesen”, which means that they don’t have an English menu. Say “hai, wakarimashita” and she’ll show you to a table.

If she says “nomimono wa ikaga” she’s asking what you want to drink. Say “biru” for beer and “mizu” for water. Then you’ll get a menu in Japanese, and you’ll have to be adventurous! Just point to some random things and say, “kore o kudasai”. I did this and I got:

This is katsuo tataki, which is tuna (bonito) that is seared on the outside and raw on the inside. It tasted so fresh and I loved the oniony little salad on top.

Then I had some real sashimi made of buri (yellowtail). Not much to this dish but a tasty piece of yellowtail!

The best dish was hotaru ika, which are delicate firefly squid that are fortunately in season in the spring. These are served with a yellow vinegar miso sauce on top. The sharpness of the sauce perfectly complemented the delicacy of the firefly squid. Also I love that name. When I start a rock band, I’m calling it Firefly Squid.

When you want the check, just say O kaikei onegai shimasu. Now you’re done! You’ve eaten at a place that is completely not intended for tourists. Don’t you feel special? Not even the deer can take this away from you.

And That’s How to Have a Perfect Day in Nara

What would you do on a perfect day in Nara? Have you ever ordered off a menu and not known what it was you were ordering? DEER? Please leave your thoughts below.

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Who is the Travelerette? I am a native New Yorker who doesn't know how to drive or ride a bicycle. I speak French very well and Japanese very badly. In five years I have traveled in six continents, 26 countries, and 86 cities. My next travel goal is to visit all 50 states (and DC) in five years.

I am here to provide perfect travel itineraries with 24 hours, 3 fun facts, and 1,000,000 laughs! I hope that I can motivate you to get out there, see the world, learn something, and have a sense of humor about it all.
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46 thoughts on “How to Have a Perfect 24 Hours in Nara, Japan

  1. Bhushavali

    The experience with the deers hoarding you the moment you bought the crackers is funny indeed. I had a similar moment with monkeys!!! The moment I bought the bananas they started to climb on my shoulders to grab one!!
    Btw, in all the eastern countries, eating with your fingers is very common! That’s why tiny packs of hand sanitizers are also common here!
    Bhushavali recently posted…Orange County Resort Hampi – A Review – Part II (Ballari – Karnataka)My Profile

  2. Ellis

    I heard about the deer park and it would be cool to see deers, but what looked even better were all the pictures of the food available. icecream, purple yam. yummy. Good to read there is more than just deers over there.

  3. Nicky

    It looks like foodie heaven there! So much delicious food! I’d love to visit during the cherry blossom season too, it’s just so picturesque! Thanks for sharing

  4. Dariel

    Thanks for sharing your itinerary! Was planning to go Kyoto and deciding between Nara or Hiroshima to see the deers but I guess I have my answer now 🙂 Great day trip from Kyoto I guess.

  5. clare

    I never visited Nara when I was in Japan. I did go to Kyoto so I guess I wasn’t too far away. It looks beautiful though, maybe on my next visit I can fit it in.

  6. KT Nielsen

    Oh hey, the deers remind me so much of the deers we saw at Dyrehave Klampenborg in Denmark. We saw hundreds of deers lazing on the field but I only got to see about 50 up close. About 3-5 deers also appear in the wheatfield of my father in law at dusk. Your post made me miss those deers. Awww! Thank you for sharing yet another great post about your trip to Japan. I love that it is really detailed too. Oh and Japanese food is sumptuous and I can probably live my life just eating sushi everyday.

  7. Maria

    Seeing a deer would always remind me of Bambi. Such a Disney kid right here! But anyway, I love to go to Japan!! But, just thinking of applying for visa tires me. Sometimes, it makes me feel broke even if I’ll just look at the possible expenses for application. However, I’m happy you distinguished shrines from temples. I actually got confused about those.
    Maria recently posted…The Magicians: Season 2 is here!My Profile

  8. Anisa

    This looks like a great day trip from Kyoto. I love visiting the shrines in Japan, they are so pretty and peaceful. Glad to hear you managed at the Japanese restaurant – I did have issues at some of them with getting orders messed up. And there I felt bad, didn’t want to be rude so forced myself to eat what I could.
    Anisa recently posted…La Boqueria Market: Come Hungry!My Profile

  9. Ferna

    ok wait! I think I am in love with those deers now, they are literally everywhere! I am loving it. I’m thinking I need to bookmark this one, since it is also my first time to hear about Nara and didn’t even know that they became a capital of Japan too. I am loving reading your blog now. You rock with this post.

  10. Krista @ Gringita

    haha, sounds so funny that all the deer come for some crackers!! This post is so funny, thank you for the laugh!! Also, I’ve really never thought about going to Japan before but this looks really cool, especially the buddha!

  11. John Rodgers

    Wonderful day trip even with the pesky deer but, not as bad a pesky monkeys. We have wanted to go to Japan for a long time and just thought it was out of our budget. Kyoto is the number one place on our visit and I will remember this as a day trip to take as well. Loved all of the temples and the photos were really nice.

  12. Louiela

    Those deers… I was thinking maybe Nara means deer 🙂
    But as I read along… I saw the kitten,,, so its Nya the meow of the cat… And Nara’s name is associated with cats…good to know,,,

  13. Orana Velarde

    OMG so many deer! So what deer memento did you take home with you? I love your humorous take on the whole deer situation! I think I would greatly enjoy spending a day in Nara too. Thanks for putting Nara on the map for me.

  14. Tatum Skipper

    I have been dying to head to Japan, I kind of plan on going this year! Fingers crossed. Well, looks like you had a fabulous time. Those deer in the park are so cute! I can tell that Japan has a lot of things out of the ordinary that are really awesome! The shrine with the huge tress, the little cat trinkets etc! That ice cream looks too good!
    Tatum Skipper recently posted…7 Reasons to Attend a Music Festival in 2017My Profile

  15. Sandy N Vyjay

    Nara sounds really fascinating, especially since it has a history of being the old capital of Japan. The dear deer seem to run amok in Nara, i can see their omnipresence in the city. But as you mention, they are docile creatures and harmless, except could turn out to be a nuisance. Normally we have the monkey brigade in many places, but this is different. The temple too looks really mystical, and it must be a beautiful sight with the cherry blossoms.
    Sandy N Vyjay recently posted…What to see in and around Fort Kochi, KeraIaMy Profile

  16. Suruchi

    OMG! So many deer. I will surely go insane seeing so many of them. This place looks like an animal Temple city. Even the pothole has deer picture on it. The interesting is those red and white hangings. I will love purchasing them as a souvenir. Interesting and enjoyable post.

  17. blair villanueva

    Japan is very interesting and you’ll find it kind of magical too! They’ve successfully incorporate both the old and new culture, and you’ll never get tired of it 🙂

  18. divsi

    Ah Fabulous. Love the tete a tete with the deer and the temple architecture! <3 Had never heard about Nara before. Thanks for this comprehensive guide 🙂

  19. Mimi

    I love Japan so much, can’t believe didn’t get to do this, totally didn’t know. Nara is like a great mix of nature, wildlife and culture! Temples and everything has a huge charm, have to goooo!!

  20. ASKSonnie

    “leaving you a giggling mess surrounded by Japanese schoolchildren who are all laughing at you”

    I’m imagining what kind of mess you’ve been that kids find it hilarious, haha! I’m not sure how far Nara is from Tokyo, but I will include this our itinerary should we have a chance to visit Japan.
    ASKSonnie recently posted…HR 101 Mentoring ProgramMy Profile

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