In recent years it can be argued that Kyoto has become Japan’s number one tourist attraction. Also being one of my favourite places to visit I think that the city’s appeal is probably the fusion of traditional and modern Japanese culture, which can’t be found in many other towns or cities in Japan. Whilst there is a lot of history and great places to see in Kyoto, there are two places relatively close to the old capital which I feel are often over looked. These are Nara and Uji.
Nara is about an hour’s train ride south of Kyoto and was the capital of Japan, before it was moved to Kyoto in 794, for just over eighty years. Despite the fact that Nara is much smaller than Kyoto, it still has many heritage sites.
One of the most well-known of these is probably Hōryū-ji. A temple which consists of the oldest wooden structures in the world. It is located in a town, Ikaruga, which is ten minutes by train from Nara city. Part of the temple is a huge museum, which is full of artefacts which were once displayed in the temple, as well as the history of the location itself.
Another is the statue of the giant wooden Buddah which is located in Tōdai-ji. Again, Tōdai-ji is a large wooden temple, but is located in Nara city. It is difficult to describe just how big this statue actually is, suffice to say that one of the Buddah’s hands is roughly the height of a person. The temple is approximately a 20-30 minute walk from the centre of the town, through Nara Park which is full of deer.
The deer in Nara are, as deer supposedly are in other parts of Japan too, sacred. They are believed by many to be messengers of the Gods and, in Nara at least, are protected. Despite the fact they are wild animals, they are relatively friendly, although there are many signs warning people to be careful when approaching them as they can attack. They can also be quite greedy and as such enjoy being fed. Should you wish to do so you can buy crackers from the vendors situated in and around Nara Park and Kofuku Temple.
Another religious site in Nara city where you can also find deer and which is a pleasant walk away is Kasuga Shrine. The Shrine is probably the largest Shinto shrine in Nara and here also many deer can be found. But away from all the shrines is the old city, which is full of narrow streets and buildings in keeping with traditional Japanese architecture. There is also a large shopping arcade where you can purchase all the usual Japanese omiyage, or small souvenirs, as well as deer themed items and pickled vegetables, which Nara is famous for.
If you have time to visit Nara it’s definitely a nice change from the hustle and bustle of Kyoto. If you’re staying in Kyoto it’s even possible to do Nara as a day trip. A tip is to go to the tourist information and they will give you a map and draw a walking tour route you can take to see all the famous landmarks, as well as great views. Depending on your walking speed it probably takes the best part of the day.
Finally, if you also have a little more time between Nara and Kyoto is a small town called Uji. Uji is famous for two things. One is Byōdō-in, a Buddhist temple, which is very beautiful and one of the temples you can enter on a guided tour. Also on the grounds is a museum, where many artefacts from the temple are displayed, with explanations in both English and Japanese. The other is Genji monogatari, or The Tale of Genji. There is a museum in the town but it is quite a walk from the train station.
Other than the Museum and the Temple Uji also has a few shops and cafes, where you can sample many Japanese sweets and delicacies.
If you are planning a trip to Kyoto and, like me, enjoy visiting temples then Nara and Uji are excellent places to visit along side Kyoto.