Three Days in Nara: Discovering Six Ancient Temples – Ultimate Travel Guide

Despite having visited Nara several times before, I never stayed overnight, which limited my ability to thoroughly explore. This time, I decided to spend three days and two nights, venturing beyond the popular tourist spots.

Three Days in Nara: Discovering Six Ancient Temples offers an unforgettable journey into the heart of one of Japan’s most historically significant cities. This guide meticulously outlines a three-day itinerary, highlighting ancient temples, cultural insights, and unique experiences that await in Nara. Whether you’re a first-time visitor or returning for a deeper exploration, this guide ensures you capture the essence of Nara’s rich heritage and enchanting landscapes.

Accommodation Tips Near Kintetsu Nara Station

Visitors typically choose between accommodations near Kintetsu Nara Station and JR Nara Station. I opted for Kintetsu Nara Station for several reasons. Both JR and Kintetsu lines run from Kyoto to Nara, but the Kintetsu line offers reserved-seat express trains every half-hour with luggage space and fewer stops. The Kintetsu line’s stations are more densely placed and closer to many attractions, making it more convenient. The Kintetsu Nara Station is also nearer to the main sightseeing locations. I stayed at the Iroha Grand Hotel Kintetsu Nara Ekimae, the nearest hotel to Kintetsu Nara Station, which provided exceptional convenience.

Other recommendation

  • LuxuryFufu Nara, a boutique luxury resort nestled beside Nara Park, offers easy access to iconic sites like Todai-ji Temple and Kasuga Taisha.
  • Mid-rangeNara Hotel, a storied establishment that has welcomed royalty and dignitaries, located near the serene Nara Park.
  • Budget-friendlyIroha Grand Hotel Kintetsu Nara Ekimae, boasting an unbeatable location and comfortable accommodations, is an ideal choice for business and leisure travelers alike.

Exploring Nara’s Ancient Temples: A Three-Day Itinerary

Day 1: Starting Your Three-Day Journey in Nara

Travel from Kyoto Station to Kintetsu Nara Station. Check into Iroha Grand Hotel Kintetsu Nara Ekimae. Visit Naramachi area: Gangoji Temple, the Ruins of Gangoji Five-story Pagoda, Ruin of Gangoji Shotoin, and Naramachi Koshi-no-Ie (Lattice House).

Day 2: Continuing Your Discovery of Nara’s Ancient Temples

Explore Nishinokyo area (Yakushiji Temple, Toshodaiji Temple), and Ikaruga area (Horyuji Temple).

Day 3: Concluding Your Tour of Nara’s Historic Sites

Visit Nara Park (Nara National Museum, Todaiji Temple, Kasuga Taisha Shrine, and Kofukuji Temple).

My schedule had me arriving in Nara from Kyoto at 2 PM on the first day and departing Nara for Kyoto at 3:30 PM on the third day. This gave me one full day and two half-days to explore. The sights in Nara are grouped into four areas: Nara Park, Naramachi, Nishinokyo, and Ikaruga.

Nara Park

  • Todaiji Temple
  • Kofukuji Temple
  • Kasuga Taisha Shrine
  • Nara National Museum
  • Isuien Garden and Neiraku Museum
  • Yoshikien Garden


  • Gangoji Temple
  • the Ruins of Gangoji Five-story Pagoda
  • Ruin of Gangoji Shotoin
  • Naramachi Koshi-no-Ie (Lattice House)


  • Yakushiji Temple
  • Toshodaiji Temple


  • Horyuji Temple
  • Chuguji Temple
  • Horinji Temple
  • Hokiji Temple

Both Nara Park and Naramachi are within walking distance of Kintetsu Nara Station. Nishinokyo and Ikaruga, however, require a train journey and are best visited on the same day since they are in the same direction. A half-day each is ideal for Nara Park and Naramachi, while a full day can be devoted to Nishinokyo and Ikaruga. Remember, the museum is closed on Mondays.

Comparing Travel Passes

comparison chart of nara unlimited ride pass to use during Three Days in Nara

As is my custom, I searched for the best travel passes. Nara’s public transport system includes JR and Kintetsu railways, and Nara Kotsu buses. We traveled from Kyoto to Nara on day one and used various forms of local transport to visit different sites, returning to Kyoto on day three.

We compared several passes, including:

Ultimately, we chose the “Nara World Heritage Free Ticket (Nara/Ikaruga (1 day/2 day) course),” an under-the-radar pass that’s not even listed on the English version of the official website. This pass covers round-trip travel from Kyoto, Osaka, and other locations to Nara via Kintetsu, including local Nara transportation like Kintetsu trains and buses. Though we didn’t need the return ticket to Kyoto on our last day, the pass was still cost-effective, especially since we planned to visit the nearby Horyuji Temple.

You can buy this pass directly at the Kintetsu station’s ticket office. Priced at 2370 yen for two days, it easily pays for itself if you make round trips from Kyoto or Osaka within two days and include a visit to areas like Ikaruga.

Getting Around

We boarded the Kintetsu Express from Kyoto Station to Kintetsu Nara Station, staying at the conveniently located Iroha Grand Hotel Kintetsu Nara Ekimae, just a 2-minute walk from the station. The Kintetsu Express, which runs every half hour, features the “AONIYOSHI” scenic travel train—highly recommended for the journey between Kyoto, Osaka, and Nara. Given its popularity, it’s advisable to book express tickets in advance as the pass only covers the base fare.

Exploring Nara Park

Located at the foot of Mount Wakakusa, Nara Park spans a vast area where lively and friendly deer roam freely. The park encompasses nearby landmarks such as Kofukuji Temple, Todaiji Temple, Kasuga Taisha Shrine, and the Nara National Museum, covering an approximate total area of 660 hectares. The term “Nara Park” is commonly used to refer to this larger area that includes the surrounding temples and shrines. Nara Park is conveniently situated just a 10-minute walk from Kintetsu Nara Station.

Todaiji Temple

Todaiji Temple, synonymous with the Kegon sect since the modern era and a center for combined doctrinal learning during the Nara period, is a must-visit. Founded in the Heian period, its Great Buddha Hall, once the world’s largest wooden structure, shelters the largest standing bronze Buddha statue. The surrounding park also hosts Kofukuji, Kasuga Taisha, the Nara National Museum, Isuien Garden, and Yoshikien Garden, with deer freely roaming around. Plan around half a day to fully appreciate the park.

Nara National Museum

Situated in Nara Park, near Todaiji, the museum’s permanent exhibits, the Nara Buddhist Sculpture Hall and Bronze Gallery, feature hundreds of statues from the Asuka to the Kamakura periods. Highlights include two towering 5-meter tall Kongo Rikishi statues, temporarily housed here from Kinpusenji Temple until 2029. These are the second-largest such statues after those at Todaiji’s South Gate. Unlike the statues at the South Gate, which are viewed through a barrier, the museum’s statues are accessible for up-close viewing. Audio guides are available in multiple languages, enhancing the educational experience.

Kofukuji Temple

Integrated seamlessly with the expansive Nara Park, Kofukuji Temple, a principal temple of the Hosso sect and one of the Nanto Rokushu, requires no special admission fee. Most of its main buildings are reconstructions from later periods, despite its origins in the Asuka period (669 AD).

The temple is home to four National Treasures: the Five-story Pagoda, the Three-story Pagoda, the Northern Round Hall, and the Eastern Golden Hall. The Five-story Pagoda, originally built in 730 and rebuilt in 1426, is Japan’s second tallest wooden pagoda at 50.8 meters. The Eastern Golden Hall, which charges a separate admission, houses National Treasure statues including a wooden seated Manjushri and twelve divine generals. The Northern Round Hall, reconstructed in 1210, is not always open but hosts special openings in spring and autumn, housing four National Treasure statues. The Southern Round Hall, built in 1789, opens only on October 17th each year and also contains three National Treasure statues.

The temple also features a National Treasure Hall, which displays various significant cultural assets from the temple, including the famous Asura statue from the Nara period, a masterpiece of Tempyo carving made using the dry lacquer technique—a method originating from Tang Dynasty China that produces light-weight statues ideal for processional use.

Kasuga Taisha Shrine

Kasuga Taisha Shrine, like Kofukuji Temple, was originally established by the Fujiwara clan. The relationship between Kofukuji and Kasuga Taisha is a prime example of the shinbutsu-shūgō phenomenon, where Shinto and Buddhist beliefs and practices have historically intermingled in Japan. Kasuga Taisha was not only a Shinto shrine but was also significantly integrated with the Buddhist activities at Kofukuji.

During the early Meiji period(1868), the shinbutsu bunri (separation of Shinto and Buddhism) order was issued, sparking a movement to abolish Buddhism, which led to the formal separation of Kofukuji and Kasuga Taisha. However, despite this separation, both sites still maintain a certain level of interaction during specific annual ritual events.

Isuien Garden and Neiraku Museum, Yoshikien Garden

For those with limited time, prioritizing temple visits in Nara is advisable. While the city’s thousand-year-old temples are unique, its Japanese gardens can also be found in other cities and might be skipped if time is short. If choosing to visit one of the gardens, Isuien is recommended for its picturesque views and onsite restaurant, which offers a pleasant setting for enjoying light meals, Japanese sweets, and beverages.

Exploring Naramachi

Naramachi refers to the area centered around the former site of Gangoji Temple. During the Heian period, many ancient temples that had been sustained by national financial support declined, and Gangoji was no exception, facing difficulties as state backing waned. In the late Sengoku period, the central area of Gangoji began to urbanize, leading to street formation. With the onset of the Edo period, urban development accelerated, transforming the area into the Naramachi we see today.

Gangoji Temple

One of Japan’s oldest temples, originally built during the Asuka period(538-710,), has a rich history. Its main hall dates to the Muromachi period (1336-1573), with some roof tiles still remaining from the Nara period (710-794). Visiting the Gangoji Shotoin ruins offers a glimpse into the temple’s past, and although only remnants of Gangoji’s Five-story Pagoda remain, they still reflect the grandeur of the original structure.

Gangoji was initially Asukadera, also known as Hokoji, Japan’s oldest Buddhist temple, originally located near Asuka, where the imperial court was based. It moved to Nara with the capital, becoming Gangoji. During the Nara period, Gangoji flourished as a center for the study of Buddhism, housing the only Buddhist research institution of its time. As the capital moved to Kyoto and imperial power waned, Gangoji, a state-supported temple, gradually declined. The temple’s expansive grounds included areas that are now separate sites, such as the ruins of the Gangoji Shotoin and the Five-story Pagoda.

Though now reduced in size, Gangoji’s historical significance and cultural heritage make it an important tourist destination, designated as a National Treasure and World Heritage site, yet it remains less frequented. Interestingly, roof tiles from the Asuka period are still in use, easily recognizable among the temple’s features.

After exploring Gangoji, a visit to the nearby Naramachi Koshi-no-Ie (Lattice House), a transformed space showcasing traditional Nara residential architecture, is a relaxing way to conclude a walk through Naramachi. Admission is free.

Exploring Nishinokyo

Today, Nishinokyo appears as a suburb of Nara, but 1200 years ago, when Japan’s capital was still in Nara, this area was the heart of the capital. It was centrally located within the then capital city, reflecting its historical significance.

Yakushiji Temple

Yakushiji Temple is a principal temple of the Hosso sect of Japanese Buddhism. Originally vowed by Emperor Temmu, it was constructed in Fujiwara-kyō by Emperor Shomu and later moved to Heijō-kyō (modern-day Nara) in 718, where it was expanded. The East Pagoda, believed to have been constructed in 730, survives today as a testament to the temple’s long history.

Starting from the South Gate, the temple layout includes a cloister connecting the Middle Gate and Lecture Hall, with the Golden Hall and twin pagodas to the east and west, and monastic quarters to the north, demonstrating meticulous planning. Despite experiencing warfare, only the East Pagoda and the Eastern Hall survived destruction. The East Pagoda, a three-story structure with an additional “skirt” tier on each level giving it the appearance of a six-story pagoda, stands majestically. The ornate top of the pagoda, made of four copper plates, is exquisitely engraved with celestial maidens and children, making it a rare and outstanding masterpiece.

Toshodaiji Temple

Founded in 759 by the Chinese monk Jianzhen, Toshodaiji Temple retains the architectural style of 8th-century Tang dynasty China in its Golden Hall and Lecture Hall. Jianzhen, originally a high-ranking monk from Daming Temple in Yangzhou, China, was invited by the Japanese emperor to come to Japan to administer Buddhist precepts. It took him twelve years to reach Japan, enduring five failed attempts, and he was blind by the time he arrived in Nara. Upon arrival, he immediately set up an ordination platform in front of the Great Buddha Hall to administer precepts to Emperors Shomu and Koken and many other high-ranking monks.

Although Japan was already ideologically a Buddhist nation at that time, it was Jianzhen’s contributions that were pivotal in cementing the spiritual foundation of Buddhism in the country.

Exploring Ikaruga

In 601 AD, Prince Shotoku established Ikaruga Palace here, and in 605 AD he moved to reside at Ikaruga Palace. Subsequently, several temples including Horyuji, Chuguji, Horinji, and Hokiji were constructed on the west side of the palace grounds. This cluster of temples reflects the historical depth and spiritual significance of the area, cultivated under Prince Shotoku’s patronage and vision.

Horyuji Temple

located in the suburbs of Nara and about a 50-minute public transport ride from Kintetsu Nara Station, was founded in the 7th century by Prince Shotoku. It is recognized by UNESCO as the world’s first cultural heritage site and was a center for the study of various Buddhist sects until the Heian period.

The temple complex includes the world’s oldest surviving wooden structures, built during the Asuka period, which show significant Chinese and Korean architectural influence. This includes the Asuka period’s characteristic simple wooden structures with wide eaves. The temple’s five-story pagoda and Golden Hall, both featuring treasure-style roofs, are prime examples of this influence. The serene and majestic faces of the Buddha statues, with their smooth and simplified drapery, reflect the artistic styles introduced from Korea and China.

Chuguji Temple

Located just steps away from Horyu-ji Toin Yumedono (Hall of Dreams) and next to Horyuji Temple, Chuguji Temple was founded by Prince Shotoku as a convent for his mother.

One of the most impressive aspects of Chuguji is the principal deity, a Bosatsu (Bodhisattva) in a half-lotus position from the Asuka period. This wooden Bosatsu statue exudes tranquility and grace. Its most enchanting feature is the Bodhisattva’s subtle smile—classic and serene, as if deep in thought yet seeing through everything, majestic yet endearing. Experiencing this statue in person offers not just an aura but a close view of the delicate facial details that directly touch the viewer. The subtlety in the smile, the curve of the lips, and the look in the eyes are critical; a slight deviation could lead to a completely different interpretation.

These fine nuances showcase the skill of the craftsmen, reflecting not just their craft but also their deep understanding of the art’s message. This understanding and conveyance are what truly make art timeless. (Photography is not allowed.)

Horinji Temple

An ancient temple located near the World Heritage site of Horyuji, Horinji was established in 622 AD. Along with Horyuji and Hokiji, Horinji is known for housing one of the famous three pagodas of Ikaruga, known as the “Ikaruga Three Pagodas.” The current three-storied pagoda was reconstructed in 1975 after a fire, and together with the five-storied pagoda of Horyuji and the three-storied pagoda of Hokiji, they are collectively referred to as the “Ikaruga Three Pagodas.”

Hokiji Temple

located in the Ikaruga region along with other 7th-century temples such as Horinji and Chuguji, was originally the site of the “Okamoto Palace,” where Prince Shotoku taught. Following his death, his son built Hokiji in accordance with his wishes. Among the world’s oldest surviving wooden structures from the Asuka period, only five buildings remain, four at Horyuji and one at Hokiji. Originally, Hokiji featured a complex of buildings including a three-story pagoda, a main hall, and a lecture hall, but only the pagoda remains today, the rest having succumbed to the ravages of time.

Dining and Beverage Recommendations in Nara

When visiting Nara, exploring its temples and historic sites works up an appetite. Here are some top dining and beverage spots in different areas of Nara to enhance your experience:

Nara Park

  • Mizuya Chaya: A traditional tea house located near the entrance to Nara Park, perfect for experiencing authentic Japanese tea and sweets in a serene setting.
  • Starbucks Coffee – Nara Sarusawa Pond: Offering the familiar comfort of Starbucks with a unique local twist, this café provides a picturesque view of Sarusawa Pond, ideal for a relaxing break.


  • Wakakusa Curry: Known for its cozy atmosphere and delicious curry dishes, Wakakusa Curry serves up flavors that are both comforting and uniquely Japanese, making it a must-visit for curry lovers.


  • Yoshimura: This restaurant is a great spot for sampling local cuisine, offering a variety of traditional Nara dishes prepared with fresh, seasonal ingredients.


  • Hiraso Horyu-ji: Located near the famous Horyu-ji Temple, Hiraso is renowned for its kakinoha sushi – sushi wrapped in persimmon leaves. It’s a regional specialty that captures the essence of Ikaruga’s culinary heritage.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the must-see temples during my three days in Nara?

During your Three Days in Nara: Discovering Six Ancient Temples, essential temples to visit include Todaiji Temple, known for its giant Buddha statue; Kofukuji Temple with its five-story pagoda; and Gangoji Temple, one of the first Buddhist temples in Japan. Each offers unique architectural and cultural insights.

Can I explore all six temples in Nara comfortably in three days?

Absolutely! The itinerary for Three Days in Nara is carefully designed to balance travel time and exploration, allowing you to deeply appreciate each site’s history and beauty without feeling rushed.

What is the best way to travel between temples in Nara?

The most efficient way to navigate Nara, especially when exploring its ancient temples, is by using the comprehensive network of buses and trains. Consider purchasing a Nara travel pass for unlimited access, which can be especially cost-effective.

Are there any specific cultural practices I should be aware of when visiting temples in Nara?

When visiting temples in Nara, it’s important to show respect by following local customs such as removing your shoes where required, speaking softly, and refraining from touching sacred objects. Observing these practices ensures a respectful visit.

What are some good dining options in Nara during my three-day visit?

Nara offers a variety of dining options ranging from traditional Japanese kaiseki meals at restaurants near Nara Park to casual cafes in the Naramachi area. Don’t miss trying local specialties like Nara sushi and persimmon leaf sushi.

Is there an ideal time of year to undertake the Three Days in Nara temple tour?

While Nara is beautiful year-round, the spring cherry blossom season and autumn with its colorful foliage are particularly magical times to visit. These seasons offer stunning natural backdrops to the ancient temples.

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