While you’re in Kyoto or Osaka, make sure to leave some time to visit Nara, Horyu-ji and Uji. Nara was founded in 710 CE as Heijo-kyo (Citadel of Peace) to serve as the permanent capital of Japan. This lasted for 74 years until emperor Kammu decided to move the court out of Nara due to ever growing intrigues. These years left Nara with some magnificent history and sites.
You can do this day trip either from Kyoto or Osaka. It’s around an hour by train from both cities. It is slightly faster when you travel with the private rail companies and a little bit longer when you opt to travel the whole way with JR. This last option would save you money if you have a JR rail pass.
Everything in Nara is open from 9 a.m., many sites open even earlier. So, if you want to beat the crowds, leave early. If you want to be extremely time efficient and don’t mind getting up really early. Then start at Horyu-ji when you’re coming from Kyoto or Uji when travelling from Osaka.
The temple complex Kofuku-ji is a 15-minute walk from the station along Sanjo dori. You’ll pass some coffee shops and convenience stores along the way, nice if you need to pick up breakfast or lunch.
The temple complex of Kofuku-ji was established in 669 CE and moved to its current site when Nara became the capital in 710 CE. It remained an important temple complex for centuries until a gradual decline in power beginning in the 15th century. The temple was a victim of the Meiji restoration as many of its buildings were torn down and many of its valuables were lost.
The highlights of the complex are the five-storey pagoda, the Tohon-do with its statues and the modern Kohuihokan. The Kohuihokan houses the saved treasures from the destroyed buildings. The hall will reopen on 1 January 2018 after a yearlong restoration period.
Nara-koen is a large park which houses most of the major sites in Nara. Beside the ancient sites, the deer are another attraction. But beware of them when eating or when with little children since they can be really intrusive.
Nara National Museum
Make your way through the park towards Nara National Museum. This museum has a large collection of statues and national treasures. Check their website to see what’s on display since only a small part of the collection is on display at the same time.
Just north of the museum, behind Nandai-mon, lies Todai-ji, the main attraction of Nara. Emperor Shomu founded this temple complex in 745 CE. Most people come here to see the Daibatsu (Great Buddha) and its hall, the Daibatsuden. The magnificent Daibatsuden was the biggest wooden building in the world until 1998. The current structure is a reconstruction from 1709, only two thirds of the original size. The Daibatsu itself is 15 metres high and was originally casted in 752 CE. Not much is left of that original statue due to fires and earthquakes, but it remains a marvel anyway.
Head eastwards to get a nice view of Nara from Nigatsu-do. There, you can also visit Nara’s oldest remaining building, Sangatsu-do dating from 729.
From here it’s a nice walk through the park along lantern-lid paths towards Kasuga Taisha. Kusuga Taisha is an important Shinto shrine that was founded in 768. As you continue southwards you’ll pass numerous other Shinto shrines until you exit the park.
It’s a short walk to the 1300-year old temple of Shin-Yakushi-ji. Which houses some interesting statues. From here it’s a 30-min walk back to the train station.
Take either the bus or the train to Horyu-ji. It will take you between 40-60 minutes to get there.
Even according to Japanese standards, Horyu-ji is an ancient site. Prince Shotoku built Horyu-ji in 607 CE as one of the earliest Buddhist sites in Japan. It burnt down in 670 CE but was quickly rebuilt. Today it’s home to the oldest Buddhist building in Japan. Aside from that, Kon-do (Golden Hall) is also the oldest wooden structure in the world. The various temple buildings house some great early Buddhist statues.
Exit through the northeast gate, for a visit of Chuyu-ji. Chuyu-ji is a sixth century nunnery which served as residency for Prince Shotoku’s mother. A highlight of the complex is the Miroku Bosatsu statue from the early seventh century.
Take the bus back to the station and take the train back to Nara and continue towards Uji.
When you arrive in Uji, exit the station and head towards the river. As soon as you’re near the bridge, you’ll see a statue dedicated to Murasuki Shikibu, writer of the Tale of Genji. The last ten chapters of this 11th century novel are set in Uji. You can learn more about this book and the last chapters in the Tale of the Genji museum across the bridge.
We don’t cross the bridge, but go right along the river. Since Uji is the tea capital of Japan, you’ll find plenty of tea shops here. They sell tea in all price classes. Due to the light weight and the sturdy packaging of the tea, it makes for an ideal souvenir or gift.
Soon you’ll come upon the entrance to Byodo-in. This temple complex was founded in 1052. The oldest remaining building in the complex is Hoo-do (Phoenix Hall) which dates from 1053. The official name is Amida hall, after the Amida Buddha statue it houses. You can see the building on the 10-yen coin.
After exiting the temple complex, continue along the river until you’ll find the tourist office. The tourist office exploits a traditional Japanese tea house. Here you can enjoy a traditional Japanese tea ceremony and finish your day in style.
If you’re looking for tips for Kyoto, read our 2-day itinerary.