Nara is the destination for one of Japan’s most famous experiences… feeding the deer!
This animal attraction is unique as these wild sika deer are free to roam Nara Park as they please. The 1000+ deer within the park have become accustomed to humans and are happy for visitors to feed them special crackers as they wander around.
I had a fab time feeding the deer in Nara Park, but this area has even more amazing attractions – there’s also a huge concentration of historic Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, some holding the title of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Nara is easily accessible from Kyoto or Osaka and makes a great day trip from either of these cities. Here’s how to feed the deer in Nara plus my suggestions for the perfect Nara sightseeing itinerary!
How to get to Nara from Kyoto:
We ended up getting a JR local train on the Nara Line to Nara Station, which took 1 hour and 15 minutes. We realised on the way back to Kyoto that there is a limited express train between Kyoto Station and Kintetsu-Nara Station which is actually much faster! It costs a little more but only takes 50 minutes so its definitely worth the extra yen to save travel time.
If you are travelling on the JR Rail Pass, then you will have to go with the longer JR Nara Line option.
1 – Nandaimon Gate of Todaiji
2 – Todaiji Temple
3 – Nigatsu-do Temple
4 – Todaiji Hokkedo (Sangatsudo)
5 – Kabuga-Taisha Shrine
6 – Snack spot
7 – Yoshiki-en Garden
There are a few ways to see Nara; you can do it on your own using the above walking itinerary, or you could so a cultural day tour from Kintetsu-Nara Station. I chose to do it on my own, but I think a tour would be a great option for anyone who is interested in learning more about Nara’s histroy from an English-speaking guide.
You will probably want to feed the deer right away – it was definitely my top priority! This task is pretty easy as the deer are literally everywhere. It’s likely that you’ll see some on the walk from the train station to the park entrance, though it’s better to wait until you get inside the park to feed them and take photos.
There are plenty of vendors inside the park entrance selling small packets of special deer crackers for around 150 yen. These treats are made from wheat flour and rice bran, which compliments the natural diets of the deer. They contain no sugar to ensure the animals stay healthy, and some of the profits from these cracker sales go towards a deer protection foundation.
Purchase some of these crackers (do not feed them human food!) then use the treats to lure the deer towards you for a photo. The deer may also bow to you if you are holding crackers – they use this trick to impress you!
Once you’ve fed the deer, move on to do some sightseeing. If you want, you can even do a kimono rental for this day of activities which would be a truly Japanese experience!
For your first official attraction, walk towards the Nandaimon Gate of Todaiji. This impressive gate was built in the 12th century and has two massive 8.5 metre (28 ft) statues of guardian deities. This gate is the largest temple entrance gate in Japan.
Next, walk to Todaiji Temple – situated just a short distance from the gate. The Great Buddha Hall in this temple houses a gigantic 15 metre (49 ft) bronze buddha statue. The hall itself was once the world’s largest wooden building!
There are plenty of restaurants around the park entrance, but there are only a handful of food options inside the park itself. We ended up going to a noodle restaurant, but unfortunately I didn’t have the best experience – my curry meal, which I thought was vegetarian, came with beef mixed in to it (even though it wasn’t mentioned on the menu) and I found it difficult to convey that I didn’t eat meat to the waiter. My replacement meal was a weird and not particularly tasty green tea rice soup! Rob really enjoyed his udon noodle dish though so it may have just been unlucky on my part.
If you don’t want a restaurant lunch, I’d suggest picking up a bento box or something similar from one of the cafes on your way in to the park, then you can stop for a picnic lunch whenever you feel hungry.
There plenty more shrines and temples to see inside Nara Park. Nigatsu-do Temple is a great one to visit as it has an elevated balcony with amazing views looking over the historic rooftops to the city of Nara. You can wander around the grounds and balcony without having to pay an entrance fee.
Next door is Todaiji Hokkedo (Sangatsudo). While this is not the most impressive building from the outside, it’s actually the oldest building in the Todaji complex built in 733 AD. You can pay 600 yen to enter the temple and view its historic statues of warrior kings and guardians.
The walk to Kasuga-taisha Shrine takes around 10-15 minutes, but much of it features lovely forest pathways lined with moss-covered stone lanterns. The areas around this shrine can be visited free of charge, though there is also a paid section where you can get a closer look at some inner parts of the building.
On your way out of the park, stop for an afternoon snack. I chose a matcha softcream complete with a Nara-themed deer biscuit! You could also try a Japanese shaved ice treat if it’s a hot day.
Before you leave Nara, stop in at Yoshiki-en garden. This Japanese-style zen garden is free to enter for international tourists and is a quiet place to enjoy some space away from the crowds. I sat here to meditate in the moss garden for 10 minutes and felt totally relaxed afterwards!