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While the main attractions of Nara are the temples and shrines, there are a few other things to do in Nara that don't involve temples and shrines. After all, being in Japan, you'll probably start getting sick of temples and shrines!
Sanjo Dori is a fun street that runs east away from the Nara park, and towards all the train stations. It’s worth taking a stroll down this street to see the shops and restaurants selling great food and wares.
You may have seen the video online where two men furiously smash long mallets into a pestle full of a squidgy looking mass - this video became viral on the internet. Nakatanidou is famous all over Japan for its dramatic mochi pounding (mochitsuki) of delicious yomogi mochi. Yomogi mochi is mochi pounded with mugwort plant which gives it a green colour and sweet refreshing taste. Then it is filled with sweet red bean paste and dusted with Kinako (roasted soybean powder) - a very guilt free treat! You can go see this process happening - It's great fun! I actually filmed it too. Nakatanidou is on the Nara Park end of Sanjo Dori. I would recommend you start here and walk down the street for abit.
Mochi is one of Japan's favourite foods and goes back a long time in history. It's chewy and gooey and very healthy! In my experiences some tourists and indeed my friends who I have introduced it to find the consistency quite unappetising but quickly grow to love it. There are many ways it is prepared. It’s baked and covered in Soya sauce, stuffed full of sweet red bean, boiled in broths with sweet red bean and black syrup, smashed up with green tea leaves etc. Nakatanidou is famous across Japan for its Yomogi mochi, I would highly recommend checking it out.
I recommend keeping strolling down sanjo dori. You will find lots of cool little eating places, shops, small shrines and gaming centres. If you’re up for it you can walk down Sanjo Dori all the way to the Heijo castle remains, which is a spectacular sight. The walk will take you 45 mins and there are lots of good restaurants on the way, plus far fewer tourists crowds. You just have to walk along Sanjo Dori westwards and then up to Heijo Palace Remains.
Nara city was the capital of Japan for the majority of the Nara period (710 - 794) and the Heijo Palace was the residence for the Emperor and governmental offices giving it crucial historical and cultural importance, giving it the title of UNESCO World Heritage site of Nara.
One of the main attractions to Nara is the thousands of wild but tame deer roaming around Nara park. Designated as a National Treasure, and historically considered sacred, there are over 1,200 wild deer (Shika) wandering around Nara Park and you can pet them, feed them, and take a selfie with them. They will even bow their heads to ask for Shika sembei (a tasteless biscuit that you can buy to feed them for 100 yen!).
Please pick up your trash! 6 deer have died this year alone from eating plastic trash left behind by tourists!
In my opinion, I would try and avoid Nara Park for food as they are all now, unfortunately, tourist traps. If you want to get some good local grub, it’s best to stroll around streets and areas away from Nara Park, depending on how much time you have.
If you are in a rush or are not wanting to spend ages walking around, you should check out Higashimuki Nakamachi. Nakamachi literally means ‘inside village’ - you get what it says on the tin. It’s a street with lots of restaurants and eateries under the cover of a sort of roof. It’s on the right as you exit Kintetsu Nara station. It is a little touristy but the food is cheap, authentic and good. It's also a good location because you can get a bite to eat as you arrive at Nara, or just before you leave as it's by the main station.
On the opposite side of the traffic lights, the crossing is Higashimuki-kita, which is similar to Higashimuki-Nakamachi but it has no roof over the top. Take a stroll down there and you will find some nice little restaurants and eateries.
A really fun thing to do in Nara is to explore the backstreets and little paths through Nara park at dusk/evening. This way you avoid the crowds, you get a really atmospheric, slightly spooky experience of Nara. In fact, the cobbled backstreets around Todai-ji and Kasuga-Taisha will make you feel like you’re in a Samurai movie. Indeed a not even that long ago samurai would have been walking around these streets as Nara used to be the capital of Japan. So step back in time and grab some spooky Samurai movie vibes and go for a walk around the back streets behind Todaiji and Kasugatisha in the evening. Also, a great place to go in the evening is Nigatsu-do, which boasts great views over Nara city - which looks great at night with all the lights.