When foreigners living in Kansai think of Nara, most people think of deer and Todaiji temple. When there are more than 1,000 deer running around the largest wooden structure in the world, it’s hard to think of much else. Of course, these are the two most famous things to see in Nara but there is actually a lot more. In fact, there are tons of other things to do in Nara, including eating the best Indian food in Kansai, hiking, rowing boats, and feeding big-mouthed carp.

Personally, I prefer Nara over Kyoto. Why? Because while you are temple hopping or sightseeing, you can stop and rest in the woods or a park in between sights. Kyoto is a city and therefore requires use of public transportation to see many of the sights. In Nara, all you need are your own two feet. Nara also allows you to really explore and get in touch with your inner-kid again. You can follow a well-trodden path or go off the beaten road. I have been to Nara countless times and always find a new overgrown path in the woods that I haven’t explored yet. Often, I don’t see any other people. You can lie in the green grass (be careful of deer droppings) or venture into the woods. If you prefer hiking, a good path to follow is up Wakakusa Hill and when you reach the top, you will be greeted with a stunning view. It’s hardly ever crowded up there and it’s a perfect place to have a picnic and watch the clouds, whatever you want to do (within reason, of course). 

If you want to see historical things, there is always Kofukuji, the five-story pagoda a hop, skip, and jump away from Todaiji or Kasuga Grand Shrine, which is located to the left of Todaiji up the hill next to primeval forest (also marked as a World Heritage site). Another good place to stop and have a look is the Nara National Museum in the vicinity of Nara Park. From April 3rd, 2010 to June 20th, 2010 they are having a special exhibition, “Imperial Envoys to Tang China: Early Japanese Encounters with Continental Culture.” If you are in the mood, there is also an option for boating at Sagi Ike Pond on the outskirts of Nara Park. You can rent a boat for an hour for around 1000 yen. Afterwards, head to the most delicious Indian restaurant in Kansai, located on the main tourist street of Nara. There’s only one so you can’t miss it. Nicely sized sets start at 1,480 yen for dinner and 980 yen for lunch. So if the next time someone tries to convince you go to Kyoto for the umpteenth time (don’t get me wrong, Kyoto is a lovely place), remember, there’s always Nara.

Imagine yourself, in a place where the shadows make lonely company, and darkness seeps into every corner. The air feels damp and cold around you and it is as eerie and still as a graveyard. Like a bad dream, you hope you it ends soon, but time passes as slow as a wet weekend. With an uneasy feeling in the pit of your stomach, you wonder what dark things silently creep around you. Sound scary? Well, it kind of is.

A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine recommended hiking through the tunnels of Takedao, which can be found along a disused train line through mountains that ablaze with fall colors of scarlet and gold, between JR Takedao and Nishinomiya-Naijo stations. These tunnels are a bit frightening, and even the brave will shudder a little in the bible black darkness. The hike is very easy in terms of physical exercise but mentally, it’s slightly more challenging. There are six tunnels in all and though you might be laughing at the simplicity of the first three or four, you will no longer be laughing while stumbling through pitch black darkness in the last two tunnels. So a flashlight and a friend are necessary. Luckily, there are usually a few other hikers on this trail so you don’t have to feel too nervous if you are alone, but I did notice the lone hikers looked a little more shaken than the ones with company.

From Takedao station, a sleepy little mountain station (where there wasn’t even an attendant working when I went there), there are six tunnels that you have to pass through, before reaching Nishinomiya-Naijo station on the other side. From Osaka, take the JR Takarazuka Line, which eventually turns into the JR Fukuchiyama Line. Takedao is about 45 minutes from Osaka Station and costs 650 yen to get there. Exiting Takedao station, follow the stairs to a paved road and turn left. You will pass a little rest area, where you can pick up a bottle of locally made cider (the non-alcoholic variety) to quench your thirst before the hike.

After your cider break, keep walking past and you will eventually come to some wooden train ties and this is the beginning of the hike. This hike is good for people who like to scare themselves. You probably know the kind; likes to rent horror movies, is attracted to thrill seeking activities such as sky-diving or wandering around Nishinari after midnight, etc. Or if you are looking to conquer your fears of the dark, the tunnels of Takedao are the place to go.