You will soon discover that Nara Prefecture is more than just deer, parks and temples.
Of course, these are the main attractions to be found in Nara city on a day trip. However, this guide is all about spending some more time in and around Nara Prefecture as a whole.
Nara Prefecture is located in central Japan, south of Kyoto. You can easily reach Nara from Osaka, Kobe or Kyoto which are short journeys away.
You can even get the highspeed Shinkansen train from Tokyo to Osaka in a few hours and then grab a local short distance train to Nara. Loads of easy ways to add a visit to Nara on your trip around Japan.
Nara Prefecture feels like taking a step back in time as many of the buildings, food and traditions are at least a few hundred years old.
Nara was the original capital of Japan and you can still discover many of its old-time charms in the area without the busy crowds of Kyoto or Tokyo.
Join me as I travel around the prefecture of Nara. You can follow my one-week itinerary, and explore this ancient land of Japanese traditions.
My journey starts in the cosy foothills of Yoshino
First my journey started in Tokyo from where I travelled to Osaka on the Shikansen and then took a connection train to the UNESCO city of Yoshino.
Why not travel in style from Osaka to Yoshino and reserve a seat on the Blue Symphony Kintetsu Railway line.
This musical train will play a different song for you at every stop and welcome you on board with music. Be sure to also check out the dining cart and the impressive scenic views.
A perfect start to your journey to Nara.
Yoshino is a pretty town located up in the hills, and you can either hike up there from the train station or take the ropeway to the top.
From here it’s easy to navigate as most of the attractions are located along one road.
You can take the public bus all the way to the top of the mountain and then walk back down or enjoy some hiking with a wide selection of hiking paths to choose from.
The views around Yoshino are stunning.
Yoshino is most famous for being a popular spot around April when it’s cherry blossom season but why not get the town to yourself and enjoy the autumn foliage colours which are just as equally impressive.
Visit one of the guest houses along the way and try a delicious tray of soba noodles and a refreshing green tea whilst enjoying the breathtaking view from your table which many of the restaurants will have.
Walk along Mt. Yoshino National Park which is a UNESCO World Heritage site and pay a visit to the temple of Kinpusenji which houses an impressive display of three blue skinned statues of Zoe Gongen in the Zao-do hall.
The three statues are over 1300 years old and measure up to seven meters in height.
Where to stay in Yoshino: Ryokan Kato
For the night I checked into Ryokan Kato which is perfectly located close to the ropeway.
I liked this Ryokan a lot as the design has a focus on the nature and you will find a lot of wood art as well as a cosy open fire to enjoy there.
The onsen is also a lovely and welcoming feature, and they have both indoor and outdoor baths to enjoy in the idyllic setting.
Your stay will also include a mountain view breakfast and a dinner setting with local dishes for the area, such as Kasumi Hotpot. This meal features a delicious broth thickened with the starch of kudzu and sushi wrapped in leaf.
Next on my trip, I will visit the town of Asuka. It is easy to take a local train from Yoshino to Asuka in less than an hour.
Exploring the rice fields of Asuka
Asuka is a farmer’s paradise – a lot of the local produce is grown here.
From the train station you can easily walk to the farmers’ market to explore all the locally grown fresh produce. This can be a fun place to pick up some lunch if you wish to do a picnic.
It’s popular to rent a bike in Asuka. Many cycling paths lead to all the popular spots and take you through the scenic rice fields and mountain backdrops.
There are many bike rental shops at the train station where you can rent a set of wheels for the day.
If you’re looking for something to do, why not cycle through the countryside to Kawahara-dera temple?
The Buddhist temple was established during the Asuka period in Asuka, Nara Prefecture, Japan.
Excavations have revealed a large-scale complex which included two kondō, a pagoda, extensive priests’ quarters, and roof tiles that are among the most beautiful in Japan.
At the temple, you can try your hand at sutra copying. This is the birthplace of this activity which was created in 720, according to Nihon Shoki.
After your visit to the temple, you can opt for a lunch menu option with delicious dishes from the local area.
Where to stay in Asuka: farm stay Tormaryanse
Check into cosy farm stay Tormaryanse Asuka which offers a unique Japanese style sleeping arrangement (remember to pack your PJ’s). The guest house offers local food produce from the farmers in the region for breakfast and dinner, which makes this a tasty stay indeed.
This is a fun and unique way to have a look into a local home in Japan.
I can highly recommend this if you’re looking for something more local than a hotel for a great price considering the tasty food is included in the cost.
If you’re looking for a light break then be sure to check out Coccolo Cafe Asuka that is located within short walking distance from the train station. Look out for the vintage Fiat 500 out at the front.
With a rice field view and comfortable setting, be sure to sit back, relax and grab a nice cup of coffee. They also have a set menu for those with a sweet tooth.
Sakurai and Tanzan jinja Shrine
Tanzan Shrine is located in the mountains south of central Sakurai and to the east of the Asuka region.
Visitors may feel that the shrine seems more like a temple, and indeed for most of its existence it was.
Originally known as Tonomine Temple, it was converted into a shrine during the Meiji Period.
Worth a visit if you happen to be exploring Nara Prefecture in the Sakurai area.
L’Auberge de Plaisance is a small inn with just nine guest rooms and suites.
It is situated on the edge of the city of Sakurai, in an area steeped in history and culture. The inn is set in a beautiful rural landscape where the only sounds are of birdsong and gentle breeze. Enjoy the fine cuisine prepared with fresh local ingredients.
Enjoy some sake in Miwa
The town of Miwa in the Nara area is said to be the origin of sake brewing in Japan. Imanishi Sake Brewery is the last remaining brewery in the area after over 350 years, and it is still run by the same family.
The brewery uses spring water from Mt. Miwa and local rice.
If you would like to try some sake, you can find sake tasting and sake ice cream next to the train station to enjoy on your visit.
Miwa is also home to the Miwa somen cold noodle, the famed product made from flour, salt and soft water and worth a try on your visit.
Locals recommend this somen restaurant, Miwa Somen Senju-tei, known for its fine noodles and nyumen, hot noodle soup. No need to make a reservation.
Nara is perfect for exploring temples in the autumn. Founded in 607, Horyuji Temple is one of the oldest in the area, and it was designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1993.
It is one of the country’s oldest temples and contains the world’s oldest surviving wooden structures.
Do spend some time exploring this site. You can even take a free guided tour in English with one of the volunteers that can be found at the welcome desk.
The ancient city of Nara
Nara is the capital of Japan’s Nara Prefecture. The city has significant temples and artwork dating to the 8th century when it was Japan’s capital.
Nara is most popular for the local wild deer which roam around Nara Park, and you shouldn’t miss out on meeting the friendly locals.
You can explore Nara Park for the whole day so be sure to plan your time wisely to fit everything in.
According to legend, a kami (shinto spirit) called Takemikazuchi-no-Mikoto arrived in Nara riding on top of a white deer. Since then the deer became considered messengers of the kami, and the city treated the deer as divine and sacred beings. The deer are welcome to roam as they wish in the city.
Be sure to bow at the deer and watch them politely bow back.
If they do bow back, be sure to purchase some special deer friendly cookies to reward the deer for their kind gesture.
No one knows how or why this started to happen but the deer have taken to the act and you can find many deer cookie vendors around Nara park.
On the park’s east side is the Shinto shrine Kasuga Taisha, which dates to 768 A.D. and has more than 3,000 lanterns.
Within the park, you can find Tōdai-ji Temple which is home to the 15-meter-tall Daibutsu bronze Buddha.
To the southwest, the 7th-century Hōryū-ji Temple complex is built around a towering wooden pagoda.
In the spring, the slopes of Mt. Yoshino are covered with thousands of blooming cherry trees, but you can also enjoy the landscape in the autumn as the colours are still rather magical for the colder climate.
There are many trails and waterfalls in the Mitarai Valley which are also worth visiting.
Nara is rather deer friendly!
Making traditional sushi at Hiraso
Nare zushi is the origin of the sushi dish in Japan, and it is still popular in Nara where the practice has been used since the ancient times.
People used to wrap the fermented fish and rice in a persimmon leaf which has many benefits, such as improving the flavour and preserving the fish for a long period of time.
Enjoy making Kakinoha zushi at Hiraso restaurant which runs workshops for visitors who wish to learn the ancient art of sushi making.
Hotels in Nara, Japan: Nara Visitor Centre & Inn
If I could offer one piece of advice to visitors to Nara, it would be to stay overnight in the city.
It’s a popular option for visitors to visit Nara as part of a day trip but exploring Nara during the peak times can become rather crowded.
Why not stay for the night and explore Nara when it’s less crowded? You can have the place to yourself in the evening and in the morning before the busy visitor hours.
Stay at the charming Nara Visitor Centre & Inn which is put together by the government of Nara Prefecture. This place welcomes visitors from all over the world to stay in the city.
I found the Nara Visitor Centre & Inn great value for money, and the rooms had a wonderful view with a traditional Japanese setting in a great location.
The place is full of additional facilities for guests such as an onsen, a laundry room and a baggage storage as well as friendly staff and a whole host of cultural activities to take part in such as learning about the art of Japanese tea ceremony or origami workshop.
Stay a night at a temple: Shukubo Gyokuzou-in
After visiting a lot of temples in Nara, I thought I would try something different for my last night in the prefecture.
Did you know that in Nara, you can stay in a temple! Gyokuzoin is a temple which boasts a history of more than 1,000 years.
Here, you can explore the deep history of Japan. You can also enjoy praying sessions.
Your stay will include a vegetarian Buddhist style breakfast and dinner as well as a traditional ryokan style guest house stay with access to an onsen.
You can also attend and participate in a religious ritual during your visit called goma-gyo at a temple following Esoteric Buddhism on Mt. Shigisan, Nara.
Goma-gyo is a fire ritual performed in Esoteric Buddhism. It aims at rarefying earthly desires by burning an offering of goma, normally a stick of wood.
You can also listen to a holy Daihannya-sutra chanting which is normally held before sunrise and breakfast which is a great way to start your day in Nara.
Head to Katsuragi for sumo wrestling training
Why not stop off in Katsuragi to learn more about Japan’s national sport, sumo wrestling?
Katsuragi in Nara is said to be the birthplace of sumo around 2,000 years ago.
Here at sumo school, you get to learn from amateur sumo wrestlers about the rules, traditions and techniques before giving it a go yourself.
This modern museum features a full-sized ring where you can try wrestling in real sumo pants called “mawashi.”
Be sure to check out the museum collection of items related to the sport.
Turns out I’m not that good at sumo wrestling but it was super fun to try and meet the professionals. A wonderful experience to try in Nara, Japan.
Thank you for reading about Nara Prefecture
Appreciate your time stopping by and reading all about my trip around Nara prefecture in Japan for a week.
It truly was an awesome experience and great to see such a different and ancient side of Japan without the crowds.
If you would like to explore around the region of Nara, I hope you found this blog post helpful. If you have any further questions, be sure to send me an email or tweet and I will be happy to help.
Enjoy your time travelling around Japan and Nara!