(This is part of a guide to travelling Honshu on a moderate budget and in limited time. Click here for the whole series).
Nara, the capital of Japan before even Kyoto, is all about the parkland, deer and temples. It's a short train ride from Kyoto, so I rolled up early in the morning. If you're coming from a big city, prepare to be surprised: it's easy to walk across the town itself in less than half an hour.
Deer roam wild through the park
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 (er, 'big buddah') 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.
The Daibutsu-Den hall
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.
Nara-Kōen dominates the town, but Nara itself is interesting enough to stroll around – particularly the backstreets of the Nara-Machi district.
Food, Hotels and Travel
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 and so forth in the covered arcade near the Kintetsu-Nara station.
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.
Getting to and from Nara is easy via the JR-lines (Nara JR station, to the West of the city centre), and there's also the private Kintetsu railway (Kintetsu Nara, central, but excluded from the Japan Rail Pass).
A footnote: Yokohama, and back again
From Nara I was due to head back to Tokyo for a baseball game, so I jumped a local line to Kyoto, then a Shinkansen to Tokyo. With time to spare, though, I stopped off in Yokohama. I wouldn't say this was an essential stop on a tour of the island, but it's interesting to see the Minato Mirai (Future Port) district, complete with its giant ferris wheel and the tallest building in Japan. My big regret: failing to make it to the Ramen Museum. From Yokohama there's a local train direct to Shinjuku, Tokyo.
Sail training ship, Yokohama
And so from Yokohama I returned to Tokyo, and from Tokyo to London. In my nine days I'd trekked around a good part of southern-Honshu, visited six cities, eaten loads of fantastic food, spoken a lot of probably terrible Japanese, and, despite the limited cash and time, enjoyed the whole stay immensely.
And yet there are so many more places left to go back and see. I can't wait.