Located 20 mi/30 km east of Osaka and 25 mi/45 km south of Kyoto, Nara makes an interesting day trip—or preferably overnight visit—from either place. For history buffs, Nara is a must-see. It was once the capital of Japan, so naturally it has some of the country's most famous buildings.
The ancient architecture of Nara is well worth seeing, especially Todaiji Temple. The Buddha housed inside is the largest traditional Buddha statue in Japan (there are a half-dozen larger statues in the modern style), and its main structure is the world's largest wooden building. (It's dark inside the building, so the Buddha is difficult to photograph—buy postcards instead.)
Todaiji Temple sits in a huge park where small deer have free rein—they mingle with visitors, mooching biscuits that you can buy from vendors for a few yen. For historic and spiritual reasons, it is against the law to hurt deer in Nara, and the city has gradually become overrun with them. And these deer can be fairly aggressive—one ate not only the biscuit we offered, but also a big chunk of our city map.
Another delight is Kasuga–taisha Shrine, the approach to which is lined with thousands of stone lanterns. The shrine is next to Kofukuji, a complex built in 1426 with a dramatic five-story pagoda (http://www.kohfukuji.com). The Nara National Museum, renowned for its collection of Buddhist artifacts, also hosts special exhibitions of the priceless antiquities that have been stored in the Shoso-in treasure chamber since the eighth century, many of which show influences from the other end of the ancient Silk Road.
Nara also has a modern face. Along its pedestrian-friendly streets you'll find open-air souvenir shops, as well as department stores selling the latest fashions and music. Make sure to explore Nara-machi, a quiet neighborhood of old wooden merchant houses now sprinkled with antiques shops, galleries and small museums.
Just outside Nara is Horyuji, one of the most important temples in Japan. The temple was built around 607 by Prince Shotoku (who promoted Buddhism as a national religion and whose picture once appeared on the ¥10,000 currency). The central pagoda and some of the original wooden structures are still standing.
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