Nara, the capital of Japan before even Kyoto, is all about the parkland, temples and slightly hazardous deer (see also Miyajima). If you’re interested in Japan’s history or fascinated by beautiful temples – or even if you just want to see the world’s biggest bronze buddha, it’s well worth a trip. I visited in late 2011.
Getting to and from Nara is easy, particularly if you’re coming from Kyoto. The JR train line arrives at a station just West of the city centre, and if you’re not using a rail pass there’s also the private Kintetsu railway (Kintetsu Nara station, which is central). The city itself is compact – you can walk across it from the JR station to the main park and temples without trouble.
The Daibutsu-Den and  Kasuga-Taisha
Nara’s main attraction lies in the Nara-Kōen park – follow the maps to the Tōdai-Ji. The Daibutsu (‘big buddha’) is, indeed, a huge bronze figure, housed in an even huge wooden hall. It’s a must-see, even if it is packed full of excited schoolkids. While there, you can try to squeeze yourself through a hole in one of the temple’s columns – I wonder what happens to people who get stuck?
The park itself houses many other temples, and it’s worth taking a stroll around the lot. My favourite, though, would be the Kasuga-Taisha, which is some way into the park, and founded in the 8th century. The temple, and all its approaches through the park, are surrounded by lanterns.
I should also add that while Nara-Kōen dominates the town, Nara itself is interesting enough to stroll around – particularly the backstreets of the Nara-Machi district.
Food, Hotels and Travel
You could visit Nara as a day trip from Kyoto, but if possible I’d suggest stopping for at least one night – the temples and park are wonderfully atmospheric in the evening. Hotels range from traditional but pricey ryokan to the huge Nara Hotel (fairly expensive) to cheap business places, including a fairly old but serviceable Sunroute with some of the tiniest rooms I found outside Tokyo for £50ish per night.
There are plenty of cheap restaurants in Nara, from chains to small family businesses – I stopped by a tiny udon place near the Kofuku-Ji, which cost next to nothing, while there are coffee places, convenience stores and so forth in the covered arcade near the Kintetsu-Nara station (above).