(Article updated to 2020)
The city of Nara (奈良) has a very important historical value since it was the capital of Japan from 710 to 784, a historical phase known as the "Nara period". In those days the city was called Heijō. Since 1998 it has been considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It is an essential destination if you are in Kyoto. Very easy to reach, Nara can be visited easily in one day.
Make sure you buy the pocket wi-fi from Italy and pick it up as soon as you arrive in Japan at the airport (alternatively you can have it delivered to your hotel). This tool is essential because it allows you to always stay connected to the Internet during your trip. On your return, you can send it by post by inserting it in the envelope that will be given to you and leave it at the airport post office. The best and safest place to buy it is this one.
Google Maps works perfectly all over Japan, but if you want to use the site that the Japanese themselves use, download the HyperDia app (it's also in English) to find the timetables of public transport.
Japan Rail Pass: considered essential by many, in my opinion it is not always the case. My advice is to make a precise and feasible itinerary before leaving and to calculate with HyperDia how much you will spend with the means of transport. Very often making this purchase is futile. If not, it must be bought from Italy on this site.
Powerbank: always better to buy one so as not to remain with the phone down.
Money: here's what NOT to do before leaving, to exchange money in Italy. Changing is never convenient, so it's best to exchange money as soon as you arrive at the airport. However, bring a certain amount of cash money (needless to say that no one will steal it) because it can happens that the cards give problems, especially to ATMs. I recommend you top up your PostePay (the classic yellow, not the Evolution one) and if you have an ATM or a credit card it is always better to contact your bank to warn it that you will make payments in Japan (if you do not warn, they could block the card); also ask to put the card in "worldwide payments" mode on. Keep in mind that in Japan cards are used much less than in the West, so it is always good to have a certain amount of cash with you. Many restaurants only accept cash.
Health insurance: it is good to be careful and buy a valid insurance that covers as much as possible (you never know what can happen). In Japan health care is both public and private, and being outside the European Union, prices and bureaucracy are different. You can buy it here.
HOW TO GET
The most comfortable way to get to Nara is to arrive from Kyoto.
Starting from Kyoto Station, take the JR Nara Line Rapid Service towards Nara and get off at the Nara stop.
[One train every 30 minutes, journey time 45 minutes, cost 720 ¥]
WHAT TO SEE
Initially named Yamashina-dera, this Buddhist temple took its present name when Nara became the capital of Japan, becoming one of the four great temples of the Nara period. During the years of Meiji renovation, due to anti-Buddhist measures, a large amount of the properties preserved in the temple were confiscated. Despite this, the activities of the temple have never ceased over time, so much so that this is the main temple of the Hosso school. [opening 9 am - 5 pm, cost 300 ¥]
It is the most important temple in the city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The name literally means "large eastern temple". Inside there are some national treasures, such as the Great Hall of the Buddha (front of 57 meters) and the bronze statue of Vairocana Buddha (14 meters high).
Multiple wars and fires have damaged the structure of the temple over the years: what can be admired today is approximately 30% smaller than the original size and dates back to the 18th century.
One of the columns of the temple has a hole (the size is said to be like that of the nostril of the Buddha himself): according to legend, who manages to go through it will have the gift of enlightenment.
A curiosity: the statue of the Buddha is said to have required so much bronze to be built that it almost bankrupted Japan's economy. [opening 8 am - 5 pm, cost 600 ¥]
Shinto Shrine Unesco Heritage. Founded in 768, it is famous for bronze lanterns and stone lanterns. [opening 6:30 am - 6 pm, free outdoor area, indoor area cost 500 ¥]
PARK OF NARA
This is probably the main attraction of the city. This is the famous park where you can admire the beautiful deer considered sacred, according to local custom: until 1637, in fact, it was punishable by capital death for the killing of these adorable deer. After the Second World War, deer became "national treasure" status.
To avoid being attacked by these cute animals it is very important to follow the common sense rules indicated in the various illustrated signs placed in the park: you must feed only and exclusively the special biscuits on sale in the kiosks (in the park they are numerous), avoid feed them when there are many (otherwise they will try to jump on you, it's not a joke), when you have finished the cookies raise your hands in surrender (so they will understand that you have nothing more to give them).
Nara deer are gorgeous and accustomed to people, but you don't have to disturb them if they are resting. For some years now, horns have been lacking, to avoid injuring tourists and injuring each other during clashes.
[Always open, free entry]
WHERE TO EAT
The best way to enjoy Nara and its landscape is to buy a comfortable packed lunch in a supermarket (the various bento boxes are famous) and stop on a park bench, admiring nature. This is surely the experience to do during the cherry blossom period: a show of colors and tenderness, between fawns that roam free in the park and the pink fronds of the trees in bloom. Among other things, there are numerous equipped areas where you can stop.
NAKATANIDOU Famous mochi shop, famous for the realization of these glutinous rice cakes with attached "beating" by artisans. The preparation, very theatrical, takes place in a showcase in front of passersby. [opening 10 am - 7 pm, website, address: 29 Hashimotocho, Nara, 630-8217]
TEMPURA KAKIAGE DOMBURI Small hidden restaurant with open kitchen offering hot meals (perfect for the particularly cold day that I found in Nara during my visit) at very affordable prices. Here you will find complete sets of noodles in broth or sautéed rice, as well as different qualities of sake and traditional sweets. The main dish of the house, as the name suggests, is the tempura domburi. [address: 〒630-8222 奈良 県 奈良 市]
MAGURO KOYA This restaurant has become famous for its tuna belly at a very competitive price. The restaurant is not particularly welcoming or very clean. The freshness of the fish totally pays off. [Address: 〒630-8266 奈良 県 奈良 市花 芝 町 6, open 11 am - 8 pm, closed on Sunday]