Nara was the first imperial capital in Japan and today remains one of the country’s most important historical and cultural centers. It is a relatively small, intimate city, dominated by the Todai-ji temple complex, which is the primary destination for most visitors. The central temple, the Daibutsu-den, is the largest wooden structure in the world and hosts the famous Daibutsu – an enormous casting of the Buddha, which is itself Japan’s largest bronze statue. Todai-ji sits in center of the expansive Nara-koen, a park first established in the late 19th century. There are many other old, famous buildings and sights in the area, but perhaps the most beautiful is the approach to Kasuga Taisha, where stone lanterns line the wooded, secluded path. South of Nara-koen is Nara-machi, an old residential district still peppered with traditional buildings and narrow alleyways that is well worth a visit.

The outskirts of Nara city are home to a number of important temples, chief of which is the UNESCO-listed Horyu-ji. The oldest surviving Buddhist temple in Japan, Horyu-ji lies off a spur rail line southwest of Nara and is home to a distinctive five-storey pagoda, numerous priceless artifacts and Kon-do, the world’s oldest wooden building. Closer to Nara proper are the temples of Yakushi-ji and Toshodai-ji, both of which also share UNESCO World Heritage status. The trio can all be visited in a day from Nara, which more than justifies a two-day visit to the area.