The best way to enjoy Nara is to arrive early in the morning before the first tour buses start pulling in. If you don't have much time, the most important sites to see are Todaiji Temple, Kasuga Shrine, and Kofukuji Temple's Treasure House, which you can view in about 3 hours. If you have more time, add Horyuji Temple. Or, take a stroll through Naramachi, Nara's most historic part of town and boasting many machiya (traditional wooden residences). Although a reproduction, Koshi-no-ie (tel. 0742/23-4820; Tues-Sun 9am-5pm) displays common machiya features and is free; ask the tourist office for a Naramachi map.

Around Nara Park

With its ponds, grassy lawns, trees, and temples, Nara Park covers about 520 hectares (1,300 acres) and is home to more than 1,100 deer, which are considered divine messengers and are therefore allowed to roam freely through the park. The deer are generally quite friendly; throughout the park you can buy "deer cookies," which all but the shyest fawns will usually take right out of your hand. All of the listings in this section are within Nara Park.

The Horyuji Temple Area

Founded in 607 by Prince Shotoku as a center for Buddhism in Japan, Horyuji Temple ★★★ (tel. 0745/75-2555) is one of Japan's most significant gems for historic architecture, art, and religion. It was from here that Buddhism blossomed and spread throughout the land. Today about 45 buildings remain, some of them dating from the end of the 7th century and comprising what are probably the oldest wooden structures in the world. Although they are the main reason people come here, it's the atmosphere of the compound itself that I love -- serene, ancient, and a fitting tribute to Prince Shotoku, founder of Buddhism in Japan and much revered still today. Little wonder Horyuji was selected as Japan's first UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site, in 1993.

At the western end of the grounds is the two-story, 17m-high (58-ft.) Kondo, or main hall, which is considered the oldest building at Horyuji Temple, erected sometime between the 6th and 8th centuries. It contains Buddhas commemorating Prince Shotoku's parents, protected by Japan's oldest set of four heavenly guardians (from the late 7th or early 8th c.). Next to the main hall is Japan's oldest five-story pagoda, dating from the foundation of the temple and considered the most important structure of Buddhist temples, as it is here that relics of the Buddha are enshrined; it contains four scenes from the life of Buddha. The Gallery of Temple Treasures, or Daihozoden, constructed in 1998, contains statues, tabernacles, and other works of art from the 7th and 8th centuries, many of them National Treasures. On the eastern precincts of Horyuji Temple is an octagonal building called Yumedono Hall, or the Hall of Visions, built in 739 as a sanctuary to pray for the repose of Prince Shotoku.

Admission to Kondo, Gallery of Temple Treasures, and Yumedono Hall is ¥1,000 for adults and ¥500 for children. The grounds are open daily from 8am to 5pm (to 4:30pm Nov 4-Feb 21).

Just behind Yumedono is Chuguji Temple (tel. 0745/75-2106), once part of a large nunnery built for members of the imperial family. It contains two outstanding National Treasures: The wooden statue of Nyoirin Kannon Bosatsu, dating from the 7th century, is noted for the serene and compassionate expression on her face. The Tenjukoku Mandala, the oldest piece of embroidery in Japan, was originally about 5m (16 ft.) long and was created by Shotoku's consort and her female companions after Shotoku's death at the age of 48. It shows scenes from the Land of Heavenly Longevity, where only those with good karma are invited by the Buddha in the afterlife and where Shotoku surely resides. Only a replica of the fragile embroidery is now on display. Open daily from 9am to 4:30pm (to 4pm Oct-Mar 20); admission is ¥400 for adults, ¥200 for children.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.