How to Nara: Taming deer and other travel tips

© Nara Prefecture Visitors Bureau

The world’s largest bronze Buddha statue, UNESCO acclaimed historical temples and shrines, free roaming deer – all of those and more you can find in Nara, the political and religious heart of old Japan. Nara is located in the picturesque Kansai area, not too far from the historic capital Kyoto, and Japan’s nightlife HQ, Osaka. To make your Nara adventures as smooth as possible, we have prepared a short guide that will help you avoid common mishaps. Tip #1 - careful of the crackers, they're probably not meant for you….

© Nara Prefecture Visitors Bureau

Oh deer!

Let's start with Nara’s celebrity animals. Home to over 1,000 deer, the Nara Deer Park is the perfect place for a meet and greet. According to the legend, the deity enshrined at Nara’s Kasuga Taisha Shrine rode on a deer all the way from Ibaraki north of Tokyo to Nara. As a result, for centuries, deer have been protected from harm and believed to be god’s helpers. 

Nara’s deer love visitors; they will pose for pictures, follow you around…all of this just to munch on some deer crackers! You can get ‘shika senbei’ deer crackers from street vendors operating along all of the main roads. Deer lose interest once you’ve run out of sustenance so use your crackers wisely and don’t get intimidated by a larger crowd of furry followers. Treat deer with respect and follow all of the local guidelines to enjoy Nara’s celebrities to the fullest. As ravenous as they get, make sure to only feed them with deer crackers and protect your own snacks from sneaky deer because they can't digest human food. 

© Nara Prefecture Visitors Bureau

Every April, pregnant does (female deer) move to Roku-en Deer Centre where they give birth to little fawns which you can eventually say hello to in June. Once they have grown enough, the fawns leave Roku-en and debut in Nara Park where you can watch them strut behind their mothers.

Another fascinating deer event is ‘deer calling’ or shikayose which takes place on winter mornings at 10am from February to mid-March and every Sunday in the summer months (we recommend looking for more information here). Upon hearing the sound of a horn, deer come out of the forest and gather next to the musician. This tradition originated in the late 19th century and it’s popular among locals and visitors. In the past it was only held in winter when there is less food available for the deer and that's why once they've gathered, they are rewarded with acorns.

© Nara Prefecture Visitors Bureau

Visiting in October you might have a chance to see the deer antler cutting ceremony which happens in a stadium not too far from Kasuga Taisha. This event originates from the Edo period (1693-1868) and is organised to maintain safety and help people and deer co-exist peacefully.

The big transport question

Before we can share the best ways to reach Nara we need to ask you one key question: are you going to travel with a JR Rail Pass? Depending on the answer you can take two train lines from Kyoto or Osaka so make sure to bear this in mind.
If the answer is yes then head straight for the JR Nara line at Kyoto Station where you need to take the Miyakoji Rapid Train which will take you to the JR Nara Station. It takes around 45 minutes so you can relax on the way and watch the stunning views - there will be temples and farms on the way! Always double check if you really are on the right train as the local one will take an additional 25 minutes. Travelling from Osaka, take JR Yamatoji Line’s Rapid Service which takes around 50 minutes.
JR Nara Station is a comfortable 30 min stroll away from all of Nara’s main attractions. You can also take the bus or one of the local taxis.

© Nara Prefecture Visitors Bureau

For those without a JR Rail Pass we have good news, you have a choice between the JR Nara Line and the Kintetsu Kyoto Line. Taking the latter line, you can even reach Nara from Kyoto in 35 minutes, if you take the Kintetsu Limited Express! The cheaper alternative is their ordinary express train which takes up to 50 minutes. If you’re coming from Osaka, you can take the Kintetsu Nara line where you have a choice between a Rapid Express and a Limited Express. The travel time is really similar for them so we recommend the cheaper Rapid Express. This line’s final stop is the Kintetsu Nara Station which is more centrally located, a 10 minute walk away from Todaiji Temple with the Great Buddha.

Don’t sweat it! 

We have one top tip for every visitor: opening hours of certain attractions like Todaiji Temple depend on the season where they are usually open for longer in the warmer months between April and October. Make sure to always check the opening hours and last entry on the official websites! If you do end up arriving a bit late and you are not sleeping over in the area, hail a taxi to save time, the ride won’t be too expensive. 

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