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Nara, Japan

Nara (奈良) [1] is an ancient capital city in Nara Prefecture, Kansai region of Japan.

Overshadowed by its more famous neighbor Kyoto, Nara is omitted from many a time-pressed tourist's itinerary. However, Nara is home to many important scenic and historical sites, and today preserves its main sights much more attractively than Kyoto within Nara Park and neighborhoods like Naramachi.
[edit] Understand

Along with the development of Heijyōkyō (平城京), the capital of Japan between 710-784 AD, Nara flourished under the influence of Buddhism, leading to the creation of an enormous number of cultural assets, buildings and books, many of which are preserved today. Nara has the largest number of buildings designated National Treasures in Japan.

While the Heijyōkyū Palace (平城宮) site turned into plain fields after the capital was moved to Kyoto, the shrines and temples were left on the east side of the palace (called Gekyo (外京)), and Buddhism remained influential throughout the following centuries. Another part of the area developed as a merchant town, notably in the Edo period, known as Naramachi (ならまち) today.
[edit] Get in
[edit] By plane

Nara does not have its own airport, so most visitors arrive via Kansai International Airport, or Osaka's Itami Airport.

From Kansai Airport, Airport Limousine buses run to the two Nara train stations every hour (¥1800, 1 1/2 hours). More frequent service is available by rail: If you have a Japan Rail Pass, you can take the Haruka limited express to Tennoji station and then transfer to the Yamatoji line for the run to Nara (¥2390, no charge with rail pass). Otherwise, it's cheaper to take the Nankai Railway's Kūkō-Kyūkō (空港急行) express train to Shin-Imamiya, and then take the JR Yamatoji line from there (¥1510). Both trips take around 1 1/4 hours with good connections.

Limousine buses connect Itami Airport to the two Nara train stations for ¥1440; the ride takes about one hour.
[edit] By train

From Kyoto station, both the JR Nara Line and the private Kintetsu Kyoto Line will get you to Nara quickly. The Kintetsu Nara station is better located than the JR Nara station, but unless you want to take an all-reserved Tokkyū (特急) train which leaves twice an hour and runs to Nara in 35 minutes, you will have to change at Yamato Saidaiji (get onto a Kyūkō (急行)) for the last hop into town. The latter takes about 50 minutes depending on connection at Yamato Saidaiji. The trip will cost ¥610, plus an extra ¥500 on the Tokkyū. For Japan Rail Pass holders, JR's Miyakoji Kaisoku (みやこ路快速) runs from Kyoto to Nara in as little as 41 minutes (¥690, no charge with rail pass).

The fastest route from Osaka is to take the private Kintetsu Nara Line from Namba station. Kaisoku-Kyūkō (快速急行) trains run to Kintetsu Nara in 35 minutes (¥540). For Japan Rail Pass holders, JR runs two Yamatoji Kaisoku (大和路快速) trains each hour from Osaka, Tennōji, and intermediate stations on the Osaka Loop Line. The run to Nara is 44 minutes from Osaka and 31 minutes from Tennōji (¥780 and ¥450 respectively, no charge with rail pass).

If travelling between Kyoto, Nara and Osaka explore the Kansai thru-passs which enables unlimited travel for 2 or 3 days on private railways, buses and subways (not-JR) within the Kansai area.
[edit] By bus

As Nara is a major tourist attraction, there are a good number of buses that run between Nara and other locations throughout Japan, which can result in significant savings when compared to train fares.

The JR Bus Group (Japanese Website) is a major operator of the routes from the Tokyo area to Kansai. Buses to Nara operate via the Tomei Expressway (to/from Tokyo Station), and make a stop at Kyoto Station enroute. Seat reservations for JR Buses can be made in train stations at the same "Midori-no-Madoguchi" ticket windows used to reserve seats on trains.

You can receive a discount of between 10 and 35 percent off the cost of the ticket if reservations are made at least 21 days in advance on most routes.

The Japan Rail Pass is NOT valid on buses running between Tokyo and Nara. However, you can take a bus into Kyoto Station, which is covered under the pass, and change there for rail service on the JR Nara Line for the final run.

The following overnight services are available: (Current as of June 2006)

* The Dream Nara departs Tokyo Station every night at 22:00, with the returning service leaving Nara at 22:10. The cost is ¥8400 one-way and ¥15120 round trip.

* The Seishun Dream Kyoto-Nara departs from Tokyo Station every night at 21:50, with the returning service leaving Nara at from Kyoto at 21:10. This bus costs ¥5000 one-way and ¥9500 round trip. The notable difference is that the Seishun bus uses four-across seating found in standard buses, while the other uses more comfortable and wider three-across seating.

Both of these services reach Nara in about 9 1/2 hours.
[edit] Get around

The World Heritage Loop Line Bus Ticket [2] provides unlimited bus rides of the World Heritage Loop Line as well as any commuter lines in the designated area for ¥800 (adult) or ¥400 (children less than 12 years old) per day.

It is recommended to take buses for visiting Heijōkyū Palace Site, Tōshōdai-ji Temple and Yakushi-ji Temple.

Once within Nara Park, you can simply walk to almost all the other major sites.
[edit] See

If you only have one day to spend in Nara, focus on Nara Park. With more time, though, there's more to see. Three days in Nara provides suggestions for longer trips to the area.
[edit] In Nara Park
Yakushi Nyorai, Buddha of medicine and healing, at Todaiji
Yakushi Nyorai, Buddha of medicine and healing, at Todaiji
Lanterns at Kasuga Taisha
Lanterns at Kasuga Taisha

Most of Nara's sights, including temples, shrines and famously mercenary deer, are concentrated in Nara Park (奈良公園 Nara-kōen), a wide, pleasant space of greenery. According to legend, the god of the Kasuga Taisha came riding a white deer in the old days, so the deer enjoy protected status as envoys of the god; however, based on their current behavior, either the deer have lost the job, or the god has taken an extremely passionate interest in biscuits from tourists (¥150), empty food wrappers and harassing shopkeepers.

* Tōdai-ji (東大寺) is home to the Daibutsu (大仏), the largest Buddha statue in Japan and one of the largest in the world, appropriately, the Daibutsu-den, which houses it, is said to be the largest wooden building in the world. It's listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The giant front gate, Nandai-mon, is guarded by two fierce, awe-inspiring protectors. (It's also swarmed by deer, who know this is the best place to come looking for a hand-out.) Through the gate is a stone path leading to the outer walls surrounding the Daibutsu-den. Follow the signs to the left to enter the inner courtyard; if you happen to have a stick of incense with you, join the crowd around the incense offerings before you head onward.
o The Daibutsu-den (8am-4:30pm Nov-Feb, to 5pm Mar / Oct, 7:30am-5:30pm Apr-Sep; admission ¥500) also contains four other giant statues. Once you've taken in the Daibutsu itself, walk around it to the left to see the other statues, as well as a few old tiles and leftover relics. There's a stand inviting you to sponsor a tile in order to help with the upkeep of the temple, and English-language fortune scrolls (omikuji) are on sale year-round. Take a final look at the Daibutsu as you leave; don't let the souvenir stand be your last memory of this incredible sight.
+ Just before the souvenir area, behind and to the right of the Daibutsu, is a wooden column with a small hole carved through the bottom. Enlightenment is reportedly promised to anyone who can squeeze through this hole. In practice, this means a lot of kids have enlightenment in store (thanks in part to other kids who kick their feet to "help" them through), and all but the skinniest adults can only look on in envy.
+ To the right of the entrance to the Daibutsu-den is a statue of the Yakushi Nyorai. Though a bit scary-looking on first glance, it's actually a Buddha of medicine and healing. Touching a part of the Yakushi Nyorai and then the corresponding part of your own body is said to heal any ailments you have there.
* Kōfuku-ji (興福寺) (9am-5pm; admission to the Eastern Golden Hall ¥500) [3] has a three-story and a five-story pagoda; historically, the latter has contended with Kyoto's Toji for the title of Tallest Pagoda in Japan, although Kofuku-ji seems to have surrendered for now.
o Sarusawa-no-ike (猿沢の池) This small pond at the east end of Sanjō-dōri with Nara Park behind or Naramachi to its south is a very popular viewing spot for Kōfukuji.
* Nara National Museum [4] has one of the world's best collections of Buddhist art and changing exhibitions. The National Treasure Hall has an impressive collection of statues. Entrance fee ¥500.
* Ukimidō (浮見堂) A hexagonal building built on Sagi-ike (鷺池) Pond in Nara Park so that it appears to float on water.
* Kasuga Taisha (春日大社) is worth a visit for the beautiful approach, through the Kasuga-yama Primeval Forest (see below), more than the temple itself. What Kyoto's Fushimi Inari Taisha is for torii, Kasuga Taisha is for stone lanterns. Notice the giant rack of sake barrels near the front gate and the fountain-statue of a giant buck. The temple is occasionally closed for services, but a walk around the outside is likely to be no less rewarding.
* Kasuga-yama Hill Primeval Forest (春日山原生林) is a gorgeous hill and wild, undeveloped forest leading to Kasuga Taisha and some of the other sights in Nara Koen. The path is clearly marked, though, so don't worry about getting lost. It's a magical, quiet walk at any time of day. If you're determined to feed some deer, save your biscuits for the ones out here instead of the loafers by Todai-ji.
* Isui-en Garden (依水園) (9:30AM-4PM, Entrance fee ¥650) [5] is located on the way to Kasuga Taisha Shrine from Kintetsu Nara Station. Enjoy the magnificently arranged garden with full of flowers, surrounded by all the rest of Nara Park.
* Shin-Yakushi-ji (9am-5pm; admission ¥500) can be reached through the forest; follow the signs from Kasuga Taisha. It's a single hall with twelve ferocious warrior statues (each with his own collection plate) standing guard by a Buddha of healing. The statues are quite impressive; this is as well-protected a Buddha as you're likely to find.

[edit] Other sights

* Nara City Museum of Photography is near Shin-Yakushi-ji, a couple blocks outside Nara Park. The steel-and-glass building sits as if reflected upon the linear pond that surrounds it. Inside, there are reasonably interesting exhibits of photography on local subjects like the Mount Wakakusa Fire Festival (see below).
* Yakushi-ji Temple (薬師寺) (9am-5pm; admission ¥500) [6]
* Gangō-ji Temple (元興寺)
* Heijōkyū Palace Site (Nara Palace Site) (平城宮跡)[7] (Suzaku Gate(restored) (朱雀門), Daigoku-den (under restoration) (大極殿))
* Tōshōdai-ji Temple (唐招提寺)
* Nara Century Hall, next to JR Nara station. Events, concerts, and musicals. Sometimes a flea market is held in front of the hall.

[edit] Do

* Naramachi is ten minutes on foot south of Kintetsu Nara station. The neighborhood, originally founded in the 8th Century when Heijōkyō was the capital of Japan, today contains several small museums, machiya (町家) (traditional Japanese merchant houses from Edo Period), unique cafes and restaurants and much more. (David Bowie is rumored to have owned a house here.) It's well worth the time to stop and do a tasting at Harushika (春鹿), Naramachi's fabulous Nihon-shu (sake) brewery.
o A morning walking tour (Naramachi Walker) leaves from the Tourist Information Center on the ground floor of Kintetsu Nara Station at 9:30. It's led by a professional English-speaking local guide. You will see old "machiya" houses and lively local alleys full of interesting sights. This area is not easy to see unless you know where to go. Seeing the area with a local guide is desirable. Tours cost ¥2000( ¥1500 for students, children under 15 free) and are available every Saturday in April-July and Sep-Nov, running from 9:30am to 12:30pm. No reservation required; just meet the guide by 9:25am in front of TIC at Kintetsu Nara Stn. The tour ends near Kasuga Taisha (or Kasuga Grand Shinto Shrine) in Nara Park. URL:http://www.eonet.ne.jp/~naramachiwalk
* Mount Wakakusa Fire Festival (Wakakusa-yamayaki), Nara Park - Wakakusayama. Night before second M on New Year, dry grass on the slopes of this mountain is set on fire by two temples. (Planned on 13 Jan for 2008.)
* Shuni-e (Omizu-tori) (修二会 (お水取り)), Nigatsu-dō of Todai-ji Temple (東大寺二月堂.) At nights every 1-14 Mar. An annual Buddhist memorial service that has been carried out first in 752 AD and continues today without one single break. Priests will run around the Nigatsu-dō carrying 1m large fire torches.
* Nara Tōka-e (なら燈火会) is a light festival held 6-15 Aug every year. 10,000 candles illuminate the area around Nara Park and major temples.
* Deer-horn Cutting Ceremony, at Roku-en (鹿苑) inside Nara Park. Every Oct. The deer have their horns cut to prevent people from being injured.

[edit] Learn

Three organizations offer free tours in English:

* Nara YMCA Goodwill Guides 0742-45-5920 (eggnaraymca@hotmail.com) [8]
* Nara Student Guide 0742-26-4753.
* Nara S.G.G. Club 0742-22-5595. [9]

[edit] Work

Nara features the typical range of English conversation schools, including a prominent NOVA near the Kintetsu station.
[edit] Buy
[edit] What to Buy

narazuke (奈良漬). A local specialty pickle made of various vegetables and fruit, traditionally melon cucumber (瓜 uri). The distinctive strong flavor comes from the use of sakekasu, the sediment of sake fermentation, and the pickle also has some residual alcohol. Shops are found on any of the shopping areas listed below.

Handmade writing brushes (fude,筆) and ink (sumi,墨). Nara is famous for its calligraphy brushes called Narafude (奈良筆), which are available in the specialist stores on Sanjō-dōri Avenue. However, as these brushes are made with a special kind of animal hair, they are expensive and rare, and customers will need to make a specific request for them. Other brushes sold in the specialist stores will be less expensive than Narafude, but still generally of reputable quality.

Nara Sarashi (奈良晒), or Nara fabrics, is another traditionally artisanal product of Nara. Originally made of boehmeria variation plants in the older ages, cotton has become the major material since Edo Period, mainly due to availability and cost. Towels, handkerchiefs, blankets, blinds and many other cloth material products can be found in stores located on Mochiidono Shopping street or in Naramachi area.
[edit] Where to Buy (Central City)

* Higashimuki Shopping Street (東向き商店街), a covered shopping arcade of about 250m stretching south from Kintetsu Nara Station, where many souvenir shops as well as restaurants can be found.

Yamazaki-ya (山崎屋) 5 Higashimuki Minamimachi (along the covered Higashimuki Shopping Street) 0742-22-8039. A well-known purveyor of narazuke.

* Mochiidono Shopping Street (もちいどの商店街), another covered arcade further into south, connecting from Higashimuki Shopping Street, is the main street leading to the center of Naramachi.

* Sanjō-dōri Avenue (三条通り), most shops are located within the apporx. 800m zone, between JR Nara Station and sounth end of Higashimuki Shopping Street, of this Avenue. Many souvenir shops, traditional writing brush (fude,筆) and ink (sumi,墨) stores, narazuke stores as well as various bars and restaurants are located on this avenue. Most of the major banks are found on this Avenue, too.

[edit] Shopping Malls

* Nara Family, 3 minutes walk from Yamato-Saidaiji station, [10]. One of the largest shopping malls in Kansai.

[edit] Eat

A local specialty is kaki-no-hazushi (柿の葉ずし), or sushi (usually mackerel and/or salmon) wrapped persimmon leaves, which actually originates from nearby Yoshino. Kudzu from Yoshino too is a very renowned product of Nara, which is used for making various food ranging from kudzu noodles (葛切り kuzu-kiri) to Japanese sweets (和菓子 wagashi). The thin wheat noodles (somen) from Miwa region (三輪そうめん Miwa sōmen) has a long history as old as Nara; the noodles are served either hot or cold.

* Sanshū-tei (三秀亭) (in the Isui-en Garden, 依水園) is worth a visit more for the attractive old house and garden than the menu, which consists of two very traditional dishes: mugi tororo (plain rice with ground yam, ¥1200), and unagi tororo (the same with grilled eel, ¥2500). Open 11:30AM-1:30PM only, daily except Tuesday.

* Hiraso (平宗), 30-1 Imamikadocho (south of Sarusawa Pond), 0742-22-3900 10AM-8PM Closed on M. [11] (Japanese only) A nice sampling of local foods such as kakinohazushi and chagayu ("tea gruel", but it tastes better than it sounds) are included in dinner sets miyoshino and heijou, around ¥2500. English picture menu available.

* Udon-tei (うどん亭), 6 Higashimuki-Nakamachi (inside Higashimuki Shopping Street arcade), 0742-23-5471 Daily 11AM-8:30PM. Served udon (thick wheat noodles) in various ways, hot or cold, plain or with tempura, etc, mostly less than ¥1000. Always fully packed with local people at lunch times. Suitable for time-savers and relatively small appetites. Sample display at front of entrance.

* Okaru (おかる), 13 Higashimuki-Minamimachi (inside Higashimuki Shopping Street arcade), 0742-24-3686 11AM-9PM Closed on W except if Holiday. A restaurant specialized in okonomiyaki (お好み焼き), the pan-fried cabbage cake with selection of meat. Okonomiyaki is definitely shortlisted on Kansai people's most beloved dishes. ¥530-1400. English menu available. Samples displayed at front.

* Yatagarasu (やたがらす), 13-1 Hayashi-kōji-cho, 0742-20-0808. Daily 5PM-0AM. Fresh poultry from local farms cooked and served in many different ways (eg. grilled, fried, even raw) with a variety of either local or other regional sake available. Budget around ¥2500 depending on your appetite.

* Nara Shōya (奈良庄屋), 48-5 Takama-cho (Keiwa building B1F), 0742-24-2151. Daily 11:30AM-2PM, 4:30PM-11PM. A branch of large chain pub restaurant with traditional food like raw fish (さしみ sashimi), sushi, tempura, yakitori available. Though little (except for sake) is Nara local, quality of food is excellent for a chain type of restaurant. The restaurant is always filled with a dynamic, yet agreeable mood.

[edit] Take-out

Alternatively, you can take out kaki-no-hazushi, which is actually very popular for domestic travellers. There are three kaki-no-hazushi stores that can be easily spotted around Kintetsu Nara Station. Packages of various size and combination are available.

* Hiraso (the same brand as mentioned above), close to the north entrance of Higashimuki Shopping arcade, next to a bakery called Douce.
* Nakatani Honpo (中谷本舗), inside the Kintetsu Station concourse.
* Honpo Tanaka (本舗たなか), in front of Bus terminal & Taxi zone above Kintetsu Nara Station.

Otherwise, a take-out sushi store, again in the Kintetsu Nara Station concourse named Maruchū (丸忠) has a selection of prepared packages ranging ¥400-1000 with good quality.

Another well-known culinary product is shika-senbei, a rice cracker sold around Nara Park. Don't try eating it yourself though — it's meant for the deer!

Note that closing times are generally as early as 10 PM in Nara.
[edit] Drink

Yamato-cha (大和茶) is the locally produced Japanese green tea which is healthy and tasty. There are also numerous sake brands, among which is Harushika brand, produced by one of the oldest existing sake breweries in Japan.

* Kuramoto Hoshuku (蔵元 豊祝), 28 Higashimuki (Nara Kintetsu building B1F / in the Kintetsu Nara Station concourse), 0742-26-2625. Daily 11:30AM-2PM, 4PM-9PM. Directly operated by a local brewery Nara Toyosawa. "Sake testing Set" (利き酒セット kikizake-set), including three small glasses of different homebrew sake by the brewery at ¥350. "Hoshuku Set" is a mini combi set with either a glass of Hoshuku brand sake or beer plus small snack dishes at ¥500. A popular drop-by place for people commuting back home on Kintetsu lines.

[edit] Sleep
[edit] Budget

* Ryokan Seikansō (静観荘), 29 Higashi-Kitsuji-cho (15 minutes south of Nara Kintetsu station, along Mochiidono Street), 0742-22-2670 (fax 0742-22-2670 , seikanso@chive.ocn.ne.jp). Tatami mats, classical architecture, and a well-kept inner garden feature in this traōditional ryokan. The rooms are showing their age, but each features a samovar for tea and a small room with a table overlooking the garden. The shared bathrooms have been recently remodeled. Japanese/Western breakfast for ¥700/450 is served in the tatami dinning room. The manager speaks limited (but sufficient) English. ¥4200/person.
* Ryokan Matsumae, 28-1 Higashi-Terabayashi-cho, Nara, Nara Pref. 630-8362, ☎ 0742-22-3686 (hanami626@yahoo.co.jp, fax: 0742-26-3927), [12]. Located off Sanjo-dori, close to Sarusawa Pond and Gango-ji, about 7 minutes from Kintetsu Nara station or 15 minutes from JR Nara. The owners profess to be "familiar with Buddha statue carving" and calligraphy. ¥5250-5750 1 person without/with bath, ¥8820-9450 2 people, ¥13,230-14,175 3 people.

[edit] Mid-range

* Hotel Fujita Nara (ホテルフジタ奈良),47-1 Shimosanjō-cho (on Sanjō Avenue), 0742-23-8111 (fax 0742-22-0255)[13] A modern western style hotel, very conveniently located in the middle of JR and Kintetsu Nara stations. ¥7500-18000/room (wide variety of reservation/price plans available)

* Nara Washington Hotel Fujita Nara (奈良ワシントンホテルプラザ),31-1 Shimosanjō-cho (on Sanjō Avenue), 0742-27-0410 (fax 0742-27-0484)[14](Japanese only) A nationwide chain hotel of modern western style. Convenient location. All rooms equipped with free Internet access. ¥6900-16500/room

* Tempyō Ryokan (天平旅館), 9 Higashimuki-Nakamachi (situated inside the Higashimuki Shopping Street arcade) 0742-22-0551 (fax 0742-22-0553) [15](Japanese only) Budget type accomodation with both Japanese and western style rooms available. ¥6500-8000/person

[edit] Splurge

* Kikusuirō (菊水楼), 1130 Takabatake-cho, 0742-23-2001 (fax 0742-26-0025) Typical Japanese-style deluxe ryokan inn. ¥+/-40000/person depending on days and season.

* Nara Hotel (奈良ホテル), 1096 Takabatake-cho, 0742-26-3300 (fax 0742-23-5252)[16] Classic westernized style hotel of de luxe class, since 1909. ¥12000-90000/room.

* Hotel Nikko Nara 8-1 Sanjō-Hommachi (close to JR Nara Station) 0742-35-8831 (fax 0742-35-6868)[17] A JAL (Japan Airlines) group chain hotel. ¥10500-27000/room

[edit] Contact

Tourist information centers operate in Nara:

* Nara City Tourist Information Center (on Sanjo-dori) 0742-22-3900. 9 AM to 9 PM

* JR Nara Station 0742-22-9821. 9 AM to 5 PM.

* Kintetsu Nara Station 0742-24-4858. 9 AM to 5 PM.

* Sarusawa Pond 0742-26-1991. 9 AM to 5 PM.

[edit] Cope
[edit] Stay safe

The deer in Nara Park tend to be friendly and perhaps overly eager to eat shika-senbei (¥150) biscuits from the hands of tourists. Small children may be frightened to have the suddenly manic deer coming after them, so it may be best to feed the deer yourself and let the kids watch. While in the Kasuga-yama forest, steer clear of any deer which still have their antlers. They can be aggressive and their antlers can injure you.

If you are allergic to pollen, beware: the heaviest cedar pollen fluctuation in this area is usually from mid-February to April.
[edit] Get out

As the center of a plain dense with history, Nara makes a good hub for exploring the vicinity.

* Hōryūji (法隆寺) — A World Heritage site with an ancient temple complex housing some of the oldest existing wooden buildings in the world
* Kashihara (橿原) — the site of Japan's capital city, Fujiwarakyo (藤原京), before Nara.
* Imai (今井町) — part of contemporary Kashihara City, preserving full of old merchant houses dating back from Edo period.
* Asuka (飛鳥) — the homeground of Japan's earliest historical capital city, Asukakyo (飛鳥京)
* Yoshino (吉野) — the mountain area which comprises a part of another UNESCO World Heritage, and possibly Japan's most famous cherry blossom viewing spots

permalink written by  garisti on April 1, 2008 from Nara, Japan
from the travel blog: Viaje por Asia
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