In the far northeastern area of the city near the border with Kyoto Prefecture Nara's Yagyu area is home to a large iris garden. There are paths throughout the garden so it's good for a stroll when the flowers are in bloom. The garden is open from May to early July. Mid-June is typically when the irises here are at their best. I came a bit late in the season, so I didn't get to see as many irises, but it was still pretty and there are some nice hydrangea. It makes a nice stop for anyone exploring the Yagyu area during the early summer months.
Entrance is 650 yen.
Naramachi (literally Nara Town) is laid out around Gango-ji Temple (one of the 8 features of the Nara UNESCO World Heritage Site), south of the Sarusawa-no-ike Pond. The temple was founded in the late 8th Century, and was once one of the premier Nara temples. The temple burned in the 15th and 19th Centuries, and after the second fire, a merchant's town--Naramachi--grew in what was once the temple grounds. Several building from the original temples survive, including a 13th Century monks' dormitory, which is now a temple building.
One of the unique features of Naramachi are the machiya. There are long, narrow buildings constructed to avoid taxes, which were calculated based on street frontage. The buildings were built mostly as shops and houses, and many are still open to the public today.
Nara is home to several thousand sika deer, or spotted deer, many of whom are as tame as house pets, allowing visitors to feed and pet them, as well as take photographs with them. Buy some shika sembei" (deer biscuits) to give the animals a healthy treat, but be warned, they may try to steal other snacks from your pockets, like papers and candy.
In Nara, the deer are believed to be messengers of Shinto gods, so they are revered and protected.
Heijō Palace located on the western outskirts of Nara is one of the "Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara," a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Heijō Palace was the Imperial Palace of Japan from 710 to 784 AD, known as Japan's Nara period. The palace was designed after Chang'an (present-day Xi'an), China's capital around the same time Nara was capital of Japan.
When the capital was moved to Kyoto, the buildings were abandoned and were destroyed by the 12th Century; however, the foundations were preserved, to be rediscovered by archeologists in the 1950s.
The Jubei Cedar is considered to be a symbol of the Yagyu area and its history. The cedar is believed to date back to the time when the famous local samurai Jubei Yagyu left the area to do work elsewhere. He served Tokugawa Iemitsu and Tokugawa Hidetada. He eventually returned to Yagyu and opened his own training dojo.
At some point the tree was struck by lightening, so it is barren and dead, yet it still stands tall. You can see it easily from the road however, there is also a path that takes you right to the tree.
Nara park is a huge city park in which the major historic sites of Nara are preserved. The park is also home to a large population of deer that are considered sacred. The deer are quite tame and numurous vendors sell food to feed the deer.
Kasugayama Primeval Forest is located on the hill behind Kasuga Shrine. Because of its ties with the shrine, the mountain and forest are considered to be sacred. Since the year 841 logging and hunting on the hill have remained illegal, making it home to a variety of flora and fauna.
Visitors can hike one of the trails that go up the hill. The trail itself is paved, which is convenient but admittedly spoils a bit of the "untouched for thousands of years" appeal. Still, you can appreciate the many old trees, possibly see some wildlife, and try to spot some of the old spiritual monuments, such as Jizo and other stone carved statues. There is also a waterfall on one of the trails (smaller falls can be found on the other trail). Also, most of the forest is off-limits even to hikers, so they definitely have made real efforts to protect the forest.
If you want to see the main sites in the forest, it will likely take at least a half-day. I went down from where this forest and mountain meet the Wakakusayama Mountain trail, so I did not actually see a lot of the sites which were along the longer path. Even so, it took about 40 minutes to walk down.
Kasugayama Primeval Forest is registered as one of Nara's World Heritage Sites, so those interested in these should not only visit Kasuga Shrine but also venture beyond it into the forest to see this lesser-explored World Heritage Site.
Mount Wakakusa is the hill that overlooks Nara's historic center. During times of the year when it is open it makes a nice hiking course. The hiking trail takes you around the face of the hill that is burned during the Yamayaki festival up to the three "peaks". There are lookout areas that offer great views of Todaiji Temple, Nara Park, and even Heijo-kyo Palace and the distant mountains. The views of the mountain itself from the upper part are also really scenic. Even up here you can still find deer from Nara Park.
If you enter from the bottom of the hill (there is an upper entrance at the top with a parking lot for those who drive here) you can go back down via Kasugayama Primeval Forest or just go back the way you came. From the bottom to the highest point it takes 40 minutes or so to reach.
Entrance to Mount Wakakusayama is 150 yen.
Toshodaiji Temple was built by the Chinese priest Ganjin who is accredited with solidifying Japan as a Buddhist nation during the Nara Period. The Kondo (main hall), Kodo (Lecture Hall), and storehouses date back to the 8th century. Other structures date back to the Kamakura Period (13th century) while only the gate and Miedo Hall are modern structures. Within the buildings are impressive Buddhist statues. Toshodaiji houses many cultural treasures. Some that are not in the temples have been placed in a special hall that costs an additional 100 yen to see.
Toshodaiji Temple is among Nara's World Heritage Sites and although many people choose not to come, it's definitely one of the top sites in Nara! I was quite impressed, and the temple grounds are very large and pleasant to stroll around.
Entrance is 600 yen.
Omizutori is held every year from March 1 to March 14 at Nigatsu-do for over 1200 years. Every night they light toches and hang them out over the balcony of the temple. It is believed if the ashes fall on you, it is supposed to bring you happiness in the year. 'Omizutori' roughly translates to "Drawing of Water". That seems strange considering the main event is fire, but the actual Omizutori takes place on the 12th in which they draw water that is said to only flow at that time. The name given to the torch-lighting part is Otaimatsu however, over time people have come to call all the festivities Omizutori collectively.
Most days the lights are out and onlookers view the torches on the temple from wherever they are standing. On the 12th however, the event is slightly longer and onlookers are ushered along the path slowly, allowing you to see it up close (but you can't really stop moving to take pictures). On the 14th they light all the torches at once, so the event is short but probably most impressive.
On the 1st to the 11th and the 13th it begins at 7pm. On the 12th it starts at 7:30 and on the 14th it occurs at 6:30. If you want a good spot, be aware that you'll need to arrive well over an hour before the event pretty much any day. I went on both the 11th and 12th. The 12th is the busiest day and when I went, not only was it already crowded an hour before it started, the crowds were actually so much that people were turned away from 45 minutes before the event, so everyone gets a chance to see it on the 12th, if you come too late you will be shut out of the entire event.
I actually thought it was better on the 11th because the lights were kept out and you can watch the entire thing without being herded through. You just have to get there early enough, because once people are there, they don't move, so if you have a bad spot, you'll be stuck there. Also, you can go up in the temple afterwards.
Still, it's an interesting festival, having the torches lit and pounded inside an ancient wooden hall and certainly pretty to watch.
Wakakusa Yamayaki literally means "burning of Mount Wakakusa" and that's exactly what happens!
The festival takes place every year on January 28. It begins with a procession at 5pm from the Silk Road Exchange Hall. They slowly make their way to Nogami Shrine stopping along the way (around 5:15) to light the torches. At 5:35 they conduct a Shinto ceremony at Nogami Shrine.
A short but impressive fireworks display begins at 6:15 and then the main event in which they light the mountain on fire begins at 6:30. The speed of the burning and size of the blaze depend on how wet the grass is so it varies every year.
There are many places from which you can watch and different people prefer different places. To see the action up close, you can go to the foot of the mountain around Nogami Shrine. Many people choose to view it from the part of Nara Park near Todaiji and the Silk Road Hall. The area is large and still close. (Be careful of the trenches at the edges of the grassy area. Many people fall here and get hurt and/or break their cameras and belongings. It's dark and many people are looking forward following the crowds so they don't notice it until it's too late and Nara city seems to place all of their safety workers at the intersection so there are no signs or people to warn people about this).
Photographers often like to view from further away. The Heijo-kyo Palace grounds are one popular place for this as well as Yakushiji Temple which offers the view of the temple pagoda with the mountain burning in the background (although this year Yakushiji was undergoing rennovations so it was not a good spot).
In spite of the cold, this is an interesting festival and worth coming to see. It has a very long history, although the origins are not clear. It's also free!
The former residence of Naoya Shiga is preserved here in Nara. Naoya Shiga is not so well-known abroad, but in Japan he was a famous, influential writer in the early-to-mid-20th century. He lived here in Nara for nine years and wrote "Anyakoro" in this house.
Visitors are able to walk freely around the house (although there is a path outlined that visitors are supposed to follow). The path also leads outside so carry your shoes in the bags rather than leaving them at the entrance.
The supposed best room in the house was given to his wife, but the large windows looking out onto the garden from Naoya's study looked like the best to me; certainly inspiring for a writer!
Entrance is 350 yen.
Shin-Yakushiji Temple was built in 747. Yakushi Nyorai is the principal deity worshipped here. People pray to him for good health and this temple was built in hopes of healing Emperor Shomu. Although it is named the "New Yakushiji Temple", the outside actually more closely resembles Toshodaiji (this was just one of the temple layouts of that time though). Outside the main hall there is a small garden.
The temple's age is impressive but the main attraction here is inside; the statue of Yakushi Nyorai and the twelves guardian deities encircling him. The guardians in particular are interesting. They are all unique, standing in various poses with different weapons and facial expressions. They're quite interesting and probably after looking at them you'll find one that is your favorite. (You can't take pictures inside so my photos are of the outside only)
Entrance is 600 yen.
Human Powered Wheels, is little expensive since the one who is pulling is japanese. I recommend to take the short course for 10 mins and costs 3000 en... it will just do the job and its fun. I requested from the nice guy who was pulling the car to tell us about the history for Todaiji temple and it was fun guided tour.
The original garden was made in the 1670s as part of a subtemple of Kofukuji Temple but the garden you see today is the result of modifications during the early Meiji Period. The last major addition was the garden behind the main building, which was completed in 1899.
The first garden is centered around a pond. It was last modified during the Edo Period. For those unfamiliar with Japanese gardens, this part is a nice example of a typical garden. The garden in the back is more open and offers views of Wakakusayama Hill and Todaiji Temple in the distance. The garden was formed to look like a natural continuation of the hill, so a hill was created inside the garden, and I definitely think the merchant who added this section was successful in making his garden compliment the surroundings. It's a great view and an enjoyable walkthrough.
The garden is also accompanied by a small museum (Neiraku Museum), featuring the private collection of Junsaku Nakamura with artifacts from Japan, China, and Korea from the early Meiji Period to the 1950s.
Entrance to the garden is 650 yen.
After a disappointing stay at the Super Hotel in Kyoto, I thought that this branch would be similar...more
This is a grand old hotel and it's showing its age. The room was very large and furnished with good...more
This hotel is located in on foot-from Kintetsu "Nara" station 1 minute, and on foot 10 minutes from...more