Nara lies nearly due south of Kyoto and is an easy daytrip. Both JR and Kintetsu trains run to Nara, but the Kintetsu makes the most sense if you’re not tied to a JR Pass. The Kintetsu station sits just outside Nara Park which contains not only the Todaiji Temple with its enormous Buddha, but also herds of sacred deer.
You can’t buy the tickets for the Kintetsu trains at the machines downstairs in Kyoto Station. Instead, take the escalator up to the second floor (Look out the windowed alcove to your right at the top for a great view of Kyoto Tower.).
Then go to the end of the long hall to your left. Signs will direct you to turn right to the Kintetsu ticket counters which will be on your left inside a small glassed-in area. The woman at the door spoke English and came over to help complete our purchase of roundtrip tickets (1240 RT; 620 one-way). There are no reserved seats on this metro-like train. There’s a faster 35-minute Kintetsu with reserved seats for nearly twice as much. Kintetsu accepts credit/debit cards with a PIN only. The time varies slightly by train, but runs generally 45-50 minutes. If you want to use the JR, the time is about the same (and it costs 710 yen each way, if you don’t have a pass), but you are dropped off at a station about a 20-minute walk from Nara Park.
The star of Nara Park is Todaiji Temple with its huge Buddha statue, Diabutsu, the second largest in Japan. You approach the temple through the ancient wooden Nandaimon Gate.
Inside the temple complex, the Daibutsuden or Great Buddha Hall is the largest wooden structure in the world. Dating back only 300 years, its predecessor was even larger. Scale models behind the Buddha statue let you see the evolution of the temple. At one time, two large pagoda flanked the Daibutsuden, but they are no longer standing. Fire–due to war, accident and natural causes–has destroyed most Japanese temples at one time or another. Religious purification also leads to the dismantling and rebuilding of certain temples.
The Daibutsu and his attendants are awesome sights, the sheer size hard to convey in photos. In addition to the models of the building behind the statues, there is also a column with a narrow hole in the bottom through which people were lining up to try to crawl through. Supposedly, this brings good luck (but a failed attempt could be really terrible luck).
Protected as sacred, deer roam everywhere eager for the “deer cookies” sold at 150 yen/pack. The deer can get aggressive and the warning signs are funny. I found the primary hazard of feeding them is that deer hooves hurt on sandaled feet. The two I fed were pushy, so I had to keep backing up to keep from getting stepped on a second time. When I turned away to break the cookies into pieces, one even pulled on my skirt. Sacred deer spit. Must be auspicious.
Up a hill behind and to the right of Todaiji as you face it, is a path that wanders to a huge bell, rung every night at 8pm. Continuing on past the bell, a flight of lantern-lined stairs to the left leads to Nigatsudu Hall. This structure is one of the most interesting in Nara Park allowing you to wander its big deck for free, taking in the view over Nara, shrines and a small waterfall.
We walked beyond Nigatsudu and up Wakakusayama Hill (a wide grassy expanse with yet more deer) to Kasuga Taisha Shrine. The shrine sits in an ancient forest. The building is large and houses many brass lanterns, but we weren’t tempted to enter. The draw of this magical place to me is the 3000 stone lanterns that flank every path leading from the shrine down toward the center of the park. The sight is incredible and I can only imagine how enchanting it must be when lit at night, which happens during festivals in February and August.
As predicted by the nice lady at the Information desk in the Kintetsu Station, our leisurely wanderings through Nara Park took about 3 1/2 hours, including a stop for lunch at a noodle restaurant near the Nandaimon Gate.