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17 Unique Things To Do in Nara, Japan in 2024

I always thought there was little to do in Nara and that most people came here for a day trip from Kyoto or Osaka. There are plenty of unique things to do in Nara. The prefecture of Nara and its capital, Nara city, is a delightful destination in the Kansai Region known as the cradle of Japanese civilization.

Nara isn’t simply a stop for a day trip from other popular cities like Kyoto or Osaka. You could easily spend a week there, eating around the city, hiking in the nearby sacred mountains of Wakakusayma, visiting Buddhist temples and museums, and soaking up the beauty of a city inhabited by adorable wild deer!

Having spent five days in the Nara prefecture before heading up to see places to visit in Hokkaido, here’s my pick of the top things to do in Nara for the adventurous visitor.

Disclaimer: The most famous temples in Nara aren’t detailed in this post because any Google search will lead you to them. I’ve tried to concentrate on some of the more UNIQUE things to do in Nara. Remember, you’ll need FAR MORE than just a day trip to see the true beauty of this beautiful region.

VIDEO: Unusual Things to Do in Nara

What to Eat in Nara

As with every region in Japan, there are certain specialty foods for which Nara city and Nara prefecture are famous. If traveling here for a few days, you should research the best restaurants to try each of these delicious dishes. Here are some staple things to eat in Nara:

  • Manju steamed buns: You will find a lot of cute sweet shops in Nara city, especially in the older, more traditional parts. Here, you can taste yummy Manju or steamed buns with sticky fillings.
  • Somen noodles: These delicious hand-stretched noodles are a must-eat Nara dish. While they did originate from China, they are now a popular food in this region.
  • Narazuke pickles: A specialty pickle loved by the people of Nara made from fresh fruit and vegetables and pickled in a mix of sake and mirin.
  • Kakinoha sushi: Every city in Japan is famous for its sushi in some form, and Nara is no different. The rice and raw fish are wrapped in a persimmon leaf instead of seaweed, making it unique.
  • Asuka nabe: I ate this twice while in Nara prefecture, and it’s a hot and welcoming dish, especially during the cold winters. It’s a hot pot full of vegetables and meat and uses chicken broth and milk as the soup base.

Where to Stay in Nara

If you’re doing a one or two-day trip to Nara city, the best place to stay in Nara would be a super central hotel or hostel close to the station and Nara Park. I stayed in a fancy hotel called “Nara Hotel,” sometimes called “Nara Royal Hotel,” as it welcomed many important figures and members of the Japanese Royal family.

Right next to this hotel, though, I spotted many great hostels and cheap guest houses within walking distance from the Kintetsu Nara Station. The tourist information office in town is handy, and the staff speak excellent English and can give you some advice or recommendations if you arrive without a booking.

Nara Japan Map

As you can see from the map of Nara below, the area is close to the famous cities of Osaka and Kyoto, and it’s very easy to do a day trip here by train via the JR Nara station or the Kintetsu Nara Station.

Nara Prefecture is much bigger, and there are many more amazing cities than just Nara to discover when visiting this region. Examples include Doragowa Onsen, Asuka, and Kashihara, all mentioned in this guide.

nara-japan-map

Free Things to Do in Nara

Like all Japanese cities, visiting Nara can be an expensive affair. However, you can see the city on a budget, as there are so many fun and free things to do in Nara.

You will see in the list below that half the things listed are free. Other activities can be made free by not hiring a guide, visiting the deer but not feeding them, or simply photographing the outside of temples and palaces instead of doing a tour.

Nara Park, many temples, shopping streets, markets in Nara, and the forest are all fun free places to visit in Nara.

Unique Things to Do in Nara, Japan

Ready to see what to do in Nara? From the steamy onsens to the yummy food, here are some awesome and unique places to go in Nara, Japan.

1. Forest Bathing in Kasugayama Primeval Forest

Let’s start with something I’ve only ever heard of or experienced in Japan. Suppose you want to return to nature and explore the mountain and forest right on Nara’s doorstep. In that case, you can sign up for a “Forest Bathing” experience in Kasugayama Primeval Forest in Nara, within walking distance from Nara Park.

A qualified guide will take you on a three to four-hour hike through the forest. The guide will explain the benefits of being back in nature, allowing you to inspect plants and insects up close with a magnifying glass. You will be encouraged to lie down on the soft, cushion-like bed of moss, close your eyes, and listen to the sounds of the forest.

You’ll be treated to lunch from a local (and famous) bakery and hot tea to warm you up on your way back down — which was much appreciated as I visited during January, and it was cold.

Top Tip: If you’re interested in more quirky activities like this, then visiting Sado Island with my Sado Island travel guide will be a treat.

forest-bathing-nara

2. Do a Farm Homestay in Asuka

While many encourage others to do a temple stay and stay in an onsen hotel in Japan, only some people opt to do something as unique as a rural farm stay. I signed up to do this in Asuka, and my hosts couldn’t be more welcoming. A husband-and-wife duo who had moved from Osaka to Asuka as they craved a simpler life and a better upbringing for their only son.

They grow vegetables on their small farm, the husband enjoys hunting deer (lucky he stays away from Nara Park), and they welcome guests with open arms. You’ll sleep inside their home, sharing a room with others if there are other guests — in a traditional Japanese style with many blankets and thin mattresses on the floor.

The food is phenomenal — the host trained as a barista in Tokyo knows her coffee — so you’ll leave after a night’s stay having had an absolute feast for dinner and a simple but delicious Japanese breakfast, served on a low table while sitting cross-legged on the floor.

This is a very authentic and unique experience and definitely ranks as one of my top things to do in Nara, Japan, especially if you want to interact with locals and explore an area not frequented by international tourists.

asuka-hometstay

3. Meet the Deer in Nara Park

One of the most prominent and popular things in Nara to do is visit the Nara Deer Park — but no matter how many people write about it or take photos of these adorable deer, it will remain an extraordinary activity. Over 1,500 wild deer are roaming Nara, and the story of how this city became home to so many deer is an interesting and mystical one.

A deity enshrined in Kasuga Taisha Shrine, one of the other prominent places to visit in Nara, is Takemi Kajichi no Mikoto, who is said to have ridden to Nara upon a mystical white deer from Kashima Shrine in Ibaraki Prefecture.

Because of this legend, the deer were considered divine and sacred, and right up until World War II, killing a deer in Nara was punishable by death. That all changed, and now the deer are seen as natural treasures, and locals appreciate that the deer are the main draw for tourists and thus really value their presence.

You can buy deer crackers from vendors in the park and feed the deer with caution, and if you bow your head to the deer, they bow their heads right back in the most adorable way.

Top Tip: If you don’t want to tour all these places alone and would like more info, I recommend finding a local guide to show you the best sites in Nara. This like a local customizable guided tour is a great option.

nara-park-deer

4. Eat Traditional Hot Pot

Japanese hot pot is a famous dish in the Nara Prefecture and all over Japan during the cold winter. You can’t travel to Nara without enjoying one of these delicious, warming meals.

I had a few different hot pot dishes in Nara and loved how you could choose what type of meat went into it — from duck to beef to pork. There are also all the stunning additions, like big bowls of vegetables, a plate of meat, some sauces, and a few side dishes such as fish, rice, and raw marinated vegetables. You sit and wait while your dinner cooks slowly right on the table in front of your eyes. Enjoying an ice-cold beer with any hot pot is often customary in Japan.

asuka-hot-pot

5. Explore Kasuga Taisha Shrine

You can’t travel to Nara and not visit the KasugaTaisha Shrine — one of Nara’s most famous attractions and the reason Nara is overrun with deer, as explained earlier in the article.

This extremely important and architecturally stunning shrine also has many activities to offer visitors.

Apart from roaming around and petting or bowing to the inquisitive deer that roam the shrine grounds, you can admire the thousands of stone and bronze lanterns that worshipers have donated.

You can also explore the botanical gardens, walk up to the nearby Kasuga Primeval Forest, or visit the museum on-site.

6. Stay at the Royal Nara Hotel

If budget isn’t an issue, you must stay at the Royal Nara Hotel mentioned earlier. This historic hotel is renowned for its five-star service thanks to its many distinguished guests, such as past emperors, members of the royal family, and many celebrities and international presidents.

Aside from the lavish rooms, excellent service, and beautiful decor, you’ll also find a piano once played by Albert Einstein sitting in the hotel drawing room.

The food in their restaurant is mouth-watering. I ate both dinner and breakfast here, and simply walking (or sleeping) in the footsteps of so many great people is a privilege in itself.

here-to-stay-in-nara

7. Go Shopping in Higashimuki

Like all great cities in Japan, both big and small, Nara has a lively shopping district. Even if you’re just window shopping or keen to experience the energetic atmosphere in the area, I highly recommend spending an afternoon shopping in Higashimuki.

There are some super funky shops, including one selling magnets and other small trinkets where everything is food-themed and hand-made to look like miniature food items. You can stop by to see locals making traditional rice sweets like mochi from famous sweet shops like Nakatanidou, which is famous in this region thanks to the art of mochi pounding.

From sweet shops to souvenir shops, themed cafés, vintage clothes shops, and costume stores where you can don traditional Kimonos and walk the streets of Nara, this district is a top Nara attraction.

8. Do a Temple Stay

Out of all the fantastic things to do in Nara, sleeping the night in a Buddhist temple will forever remain my favorite. I was speechless after the head priest showed me to my simple room, and I opened the balcony door to be greeted by one of the most magical views I’ve ever had.

I loved eating the perfectly color-coordinated vegetarian temple food, attending morning prayers before sunrise, wandering the temple grounds, and even watching an extraordinary fire prayer ceremony at five o’clock in the morning.

I made a video about my experiences, showing how beautiful Gyukuzoin Temple is — not to be mistaken with Kofuku Ji Temple. The video shows exactly why everyone should add this activity to their Japan bucket list.

DSC07126

nara-temple-stay

9. Get Lost in Super Cute Naramachi

Naramachi District was by far my favorite area in Nara city. I loved getting lost down the narrow streets. The things to see in Nara’s Naramachi District were delightful, from hand-pulled rickshaws to popping into tiny, nondescript house museums, trinket shops, and artists’ galleries or simply just wandering and absorbing the atmosphere.

This area is the former merchant district in Nara, which explains why there are so many beautiful houses and buildings. You’ll feel as if you have traveled back in time as you pass by men in traditional dress, exquisitely decorated house fronts, small temples, and sweet shops with pretty red lanterns hanging on strings outside. This is the Japan of your dreams if your dreams are the same as mine.

10. Explore the Magical Dorogawa Onsen

I spent my first day in Nara at the Dorogawa Onsen, wandering the quiet streets lit at night with beautiful strings of lanterns. It is famous for the local hot springs, the small temple in the village, and the numerous brightly painted bridges that crisscross the river, joining one side with the other. Dorogawa Onsen is a unique place to spend one day (and maybe one night) in Nara.

You can hike up the nearby suspension bridge, one of the largest in Japan, that crosses the beautiful Mitarai Valley and has gorgeous views of the town. It’s quite a sacred area, with many pilgrims coming to hike here.

The surrounding mountains contain mining trekking paths and stunning rivers and waterfalls best explored in spring or summer in Japan.

doragowa-onsen-nara

11. Stay In an Onsen Ryokan

Staying in an Onsen Ryokan, a traditional-style Japanese hotel where you sleep on the floor and enjoy a shared bathhouse in the basement, is a must while in the Nara Prefecture. I had the pleasure of staying in one for a night while in Dorogawa Onsen, a small village famed for its hot springs and the sacred mountains that surround it.

The entire experience was one I will never forget, from wearing the Pyjamas they supply, bathing naked with other guests, sleeping on a mattress on the floor being treated to an amazing hot pot dinner to warm the soul. See my video below to understand more about my experience there.

12. Visit the Nara Cultural Centre

I accidentally discovered this place when walking from the Nara Hotel to the train station, but I was so glad I did. The Nara Cultural Centre and Tourist Information offered many free activities I loved.

For kids, there’s origami, coloring and even Japanese calligraphy lessons — while for adults, you can dress up in funny sumo suits or a kimono for free and do a fun photo shoot. They also have a luggage storage facility, free Wi-Fi, and tonnes of information about places to visit in Nara, which could be helpful.

It is well worth visiting. There are many other places in Nara where you can get dressed up in cultural costume — and you can even book a local culture and heritage tour to see more of the city.

Tip: Look at our train etiquette guide for traveling by train in Japan.

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13. Visit Kasihara Shrine

I visited many shrines and temples while exploring Nara Prefecture, but this one was my favorite. It was not necessarily because it was more beautiful or impressive than the others, but because there were fewer tourists around (in fact, I believe I was the only tourist there), which made the experience a lot more authentic.

The shrine was also next to a large lake you could walk around, which was very peaceful, and the town itself is a pretty nice place to walk around if you have some free time.

I even made a video about my visit there and some etiquette for visiting a shrine in Japan.

14. French Cuisine at L’Auberge de Plaisance

One of the most unforgettable meals I ate while in Japan was at the phenomenal L’Auberge de Plaisance — a French and Japanese fusion restaurant with panoramic views of Nara.

This is a pretty fancy restaurant. I certainly felt very underdressed, and at one stage, I was so unsure of what I was eating or how to eat it that I had to call over the waiter and ask for help.

They serve a set seven-course lunch menu, and I promise you won’t need to eat for the rest of the day. The presentation and taste of each unique dish were exquisite, and I honestly think this was one of the most memorable meals I had during my 16-day trip across Japan.

It is a little pricey but would be ideal if you are looking for someplace special to break the budget for one day or a special occasion like a birthday, honeymoon, or anniversary.

what-to-eat-nara

15. Try Some Famous Asuka Nabe in Nara

One of the must-try culinary dishes that originate in Nara Prefecture is the Asuka Nabe, which is similar to most Japanese hot pots except for its addition of milk in the broth. A very soothing dish in winter, I had the pleasure of tasting this dish at my homestay in Asuka — and was delighted to learn later this is where the dish is most famous.

16. Visit the Hana Hana Small Animals Pet Café

I’ve always been a huge fan of themed cafés, and if you’re looking for what to do in Nara, Japan, that isn’t all onsens, deer, and temples, you’ll love Hana Hana Café. While most themed cafés in Japan can be found in cities like Osaka and Tokyo, I discovered this cute small animal café a short distance from the Kintetsu Train Station in Nara City.

You pay a small fee to enter, buy a coffee or small snack, and check out their array of small animals, including ferrets, puppies, rabbits, hamsters, and cockatiels. You pay an hourly fee of 1500 yen with an inclusive drink.

17. Visit Buddha’s Nostril.

If you have some spare time and want to participate in one of the weirdest things to do in Nara Prefecture, you can visit Buddha’s Nostril. Located inside Todai-ji Temple, this hollowed-out piece of wood is said to symbolize the nose of Buddha.

Visitors who crawl through the small holes at the bottom, the nostrils, are said to find a degree of enlightenment. The Todai-ji Temple is also a beautiful place to visit, as you can see Buddhist art scattered around the great Buddha hall and enjoy the peaceful atmosphere.

todai-ji-temple-2672649_640-2

Nara Things to Do Frequently Asked Questions

Now that you’ve seen my list of things to do in Nara, you probably have some questions. Luckily, I’ve answered some of the most asked ones below.

Is Nara Worth Visiting In the Winter?

Yes, Japan in winter offers its unique atmosphere, which couldn’t be more accurate in a place like Nara. You’ll find it easy to cozy under a Kotatsu (Japanese heated table) while enjoying traditional winter dishes like hotpot and somen.

What Makes Nara Special?

The Buddhist temples, deer population, and UNESCO World Heritage Sites play a significant role in what makes Nara special. However, it is also the prefecture’s ancient history that makes it stand out. Be sure to visit the Nara National Museum to learn more about this cradle of Japanese civilization.

What Is the Best Time to Visit Nara?

While choosing the best time to visit should be based on personal preference and your own budget and time requirements, autumn in Japan is an ideal time to visit Nara if you like warm hot pot, onsens, and pretty views.

Things to Do in Nara: Wrapped Up

There you have it: what to do when visiting Nara, Japan. With all the captivating Nara attractions, it’s a wonderful getaway for those looking to head off the beaten track and experience some authentic and historical elements of Japan.

Up Next: Look at these unique things to do in Niigata.

This article was compiled thanks to a sponsored trip funded by Nara Prefecture. You can find more information about visiting Nara at the official site here or their sightseeing website. #VisitNara 

Last updated on January 26th, 2024 at 10:13 am

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