Getting bored of Kyoto is almost impossible, but the Kansai area has a lot of other little gems that are perfect for day trips.
Nara is a cultural treasure that people often skip for lack of time, not knowing what they’re missing. Old Japanese capital, it’s the cradle of the classical Japanese civilization that we know and love today.
The main attraction in Nara are the deer. They will welcome you at the park and happily follow you around, especially if you have food (or paper, they seem to like paper maps a lot for some reason). You can buy shika senbei at the park for 150 yen and feed the animals, but, as all the signs mention, be careful! They look cute and all, but they can bite and kick and get moody, so avoid bothering them too much.
Next, Nara has a lot of temples. The super star among them is the Todaiji, even though all of them are nice.
The Todaiji is one of the most important Buddhist structures in Japan, home to the biggest bronze Daibutsu in the world. Inside the huge Daibutsuden Hall, other than the bronze statue, you’ll find smaller Buddha statues and the Heavenly Kings (my favourites). The Guardian Kings protect the 4 cardinal points: the fierce and intimidating look on their faces are fascinating.
And that’s not all, inside there’s also a wooden pillar with a hole in it, which apparently is the same size as the Daibutsu’s nostril. If you manage to pass through the hole, you’ll be granted enlightenment in your next life. There’s always a line-up (of kids, mainly) who try to squeeze into the hole, but you can definitely give it a try if you think you can fit.
The Todaiji complex includes many more smaller buildings, so I highly recommend taking a look around as well. Price: 800 yen
The Kasuga Taisha is the main Shinto shrine in Nara. The offering hall is free of charge, whereas you have to pay a small fee to enter the inner area. Once inside, you’ll find, among other things, a hall beautifully decorated with lanterns, as well as the Kasugayama forest behind the complex.
Price: 500 yen for the inner area.
Finally, take some time to immerse yourself in the traditional Japanese vibe of Nara machi, with its craft shops and cafes lined up in the narrow streets. From the amazing ceramics to the calligraphy prints, to the traditional tea houses, get a taste of the old Japan. Some houses have been opened to the public as museums, so that people can get a glimpse of how life was in the Edo period.
The main attractions in Uji, as far as I’m concerned, are two: the Byodoin and the Genji monogatari museum.
Genji Monogatari Museum
The Genji Monogatari is one of the most famous Japanese literary works. Written by the noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu in the Heian period (11th century), it narrates the life of Genji, son the emperor and his favorite concubine and pretty much the most handsome and gifted man ever born.
I liked the museum a lot, because it shows and explains very well how life was at the time in the higher spheres of society. Models of buildings, objects, tools, paintings, scrolls… if you’ve read the book, it will really help you visualize and contextualize the story.
The Byodoin is a truly incredible temple, the kind that captivates you so much that you can’t stop staring at it in wonder. Being a temple of the Buddhism of the Pure Land sect, its garden and architecture are designed to recreate the Pure Land Paradise. All the parts of the complex are impressive (especially the Phoenix Hall), but what really is mesmerizing is the whole picture together. I think I went around the garden 3 or 4 times, unable to walk away.
Price: 600 yen
Lastly, don’t leave Uji without a picture of the Ujibashi (Uji bridge): it makes a perfect shot for a postcard.
Both Nara and Uji are small enough that you can easily walk from one attraction to the other and back to the station.
Allow a full day to visit Nara and at least half-day for Uji (I would still recommend to take your time and stay for a full day).
I hope you’ll find the time to visit these two amazing places, they are really worth it 🙂
Questions or comments? Leave them below!
For more Kyoto and Japan goodness, take a look here.