How to get to Nara from Kyoto and back. A detailed day trip itinerary
Nara is Japan’s oldest capital and one of the major tourist highlights in any Japan itinerary. But Japan is big and expensive, and you are probably short on time. So, if you are wondering if a day trip from Kyoto to Nara to see its amazing UNESCO World Heritage sites is feasible, then the shortest possible answer is: Yes, absolutely.
While it always pays off to reserve a little more time for Nara (I would suggest staying overnight once), a day trip can be a beautiful option for tourists on a tight schedule. Japan has a super-efficient train system, especially in the Kansai area, and why not rely on it when planning a Nara day trip itinerary? From Kyoto station to Nara station it only takes about 35 minutes by high-speed train (shinkansen bullet train). If you are still wondering what to do in the city, do read my guide on the top 10 tourist attractions in Nara.
Personally speaking, I hate changing accommodations to often when on a sightseeing trip. Packing, unpacking, check-in and check-out eats away a lot of time. So, a day trip from Kyoto to Nara Park might actually be the best option to see its beautiful temples and shrines. By the way, I also got a very detailed guide on Kyoto, you will find super helpful with lots of insider tips.
From Kyoto to Nara by train
Nara is in the most central area in Japan. It is only some 35 kilometers south of Kyoto and Osaka lies some 28 kilometers to the south. The railroad system is extremely dense in this area, providing you with way more options to travel from Kyoto station to Nara than you actually need. There are two companies connecting Kyoto/Nara with regular train lines:
JR Nara Line Y690:
If you hold a JR Rail Pass, then this is the option you want to take. The Miyakoji Kaisoku Express will get you from Kyoto to Nara in 45 minutes. These trains leave every 30 minutes from Kyoto Station and JR Nara Station and cost about 710 Yen. You can also take the local Futsu line. It will take you some 70 minutes from Kyoto station to Nara station.
Kintetsu Nara Line Y1110:
By far the fastest way to travel from Nara to Kyoto and back is the private Kintetsu line. It will only take you 35 minutes, but your JR Rail pass will not be valid. Be aware that these operate from different (but equally central) train station. The limited express train leaves twice per hour and costs about 620 Yen (the green car will be a bit more expensive). There is also a regular express train that will take 45 minutes to reach Japan but is quite a bit cheaper.
The Kintetsu Nara station is actually quite a bit closer to Nara Park, so taking this train from Kyoto to Nara has a lot of advantages. There are very regular buses serving the central area of Nara, so the JR Nara line is still a good alternative.
For non-Japanese speakers, the best way to check for current prices and connections is HyperDia – probably the most helpful website you will need on your trip through Japan.
Nara day trip itinerary
Japan is a country for early risers, and I would suggest to grab a yummy bento box at the train station in Kyoto and leave as early as possible. If you are staying at a Ryokan, you might want to tell them to pack you a bento or not book breakfast for that day, as you will really need to the whole day to see it all (or most of it).
7:15 am: departure from Kyoto station to Nara by rail
8:03 am: arrival at Nara Kintetsu station
8:15 am: Explore Kofuku-ji temple
9:00 am: take your time around Nara Park and feed the deer
10:00 am: walk towards Todai-ji & then up the hill to Nigatsudo to enjoy a beautiful view
11:00 am: walk over to Kasuga-Taisha
12:00 am: Lunch break in the Higashimuki Shopping district (take the bus)
1:15 pm: grab a bus (#97) to the Hōryū-ji area
2:00 pm: explore Hōryū-ji & its beautiful museum
4:00 pm: take the bus to Yakushi-ji and explore this beautiful temple
5:00 pm: take the bus back to Nara Kintetsu station/train from Nishinokyo station
5:30 pm: take the Kintetsu Limited Express
6:05 pm: arrival at Kyoto station
Now, this is only a rough sketch of a Nara day trip itinerary. You might want to skip a couple of these World Heritage sites, or you might tour Nara the other way around (starting in Hōryū-ji and ending at Kofuku-ji temple.) Actually, this might be a smart option as you won’t need to worry to about catching the bus back in time.
This itinerary planned for an arrival in Kyoto at 6:00 pm. That is about the time most Ryokans will start serving dinner, so you will make it in time. If you are staying at a hotel (which I actually wouldn’t recommend in Kyoto, as the finest Ryokans in all Japan can be found here), then you needn’t worry to be back earlier. Be aware, however, that most temples in Nara (or Japan as a whole) will close around 7 pm. In winter, it will be 6:30 pm. Most temples will end the admission about 15 before closing time.
Getting around in Nara
A very dense network of bus lines operates within Nara. So, you might want to consider buying the Nara Bus Pass, which will grant you unlimited Kotsu buses around Nara. As a very good alternative, the 1-Day Kintetsu Rail Pass is available for foreign tourists and will give you access to unlimited rides on the buses in Nara and trains between Nara and Kyoto (& Osaka for that matter). It costs 1500 Yen. The 2-day pass will be 2500 Yen (but obviously not needed on a day trip to Nara.
Within the area of Nara Park, walking really is the best choice. Todai-ji and Kasuga-Taisha are not exactly located next door, but the free-ranging deer on the way will make up for it. If you are not as sure-footed, you can take the bus for a stop or two.
If you want to get to the Hōryū-ji area, you got two options.
Getting to Hōryū-ji by bus
The bus will probably the easiest option to reach the ancient temple. Take Bus number 97 to Hōryūji-mae. Be aware that buses only leaves like once an hour. Also, know that this bus will actually take about 50 minutes to reach Hōryū-ji as it will stop quite frequently (the area is quite pleasant, though). The bus departs from the JR station but goes around a loop through Nara Park.
Taking the train to Hōryū-ji
You can also option to take the Yamatoji Line from JR Nara Station and leave at Hōryū-ji station. The train is considerably faster than the bus (12 minutes!) if you got a Rail pass it will be cheaper, but you will have to walk about 20 minutes to the actual temple. You can only take bus number 72 to the temple.
So that’s it. I hope I was able to help you out planning your perfect day trip and all your questions around “How to get to Nara from Kyoto” were answered. If not, do comment below!
Picture credits: Yuya Tamai