Once upon a time, a white deer carried a Shinto deity for almost 30 km from the province now called Ibaraki all the way to Mt. Wakakusa in modern-day Nara. As reward for its hard work, the deer was elevated to the status of “divine” and “sacred.” For more than a millennium, its descendants enjoyed this divinity – their killing considered to be a capital offense punishable by death – and a park was even established for them: the Nara Deer Park.
Nara Deer Park
The main reason for our day trip to Nara was its Deer Park. The chance to see wild deer is just impossible to resist. But contrary to their cousins, the wild sika deer of the Nara Park are not elusive. They do not hesitate to approach people who are all too willing to give them the tasty shika-senbei or deer crackers. Some however, like the first batch of deer we encountered, could get aloof, much too used to having so many humans around, but the majority were definitely not shy, nor patient, when it came to getting their treats.
Probably a result of years of conditioning, the deer would repeatedly bow their heads, a signal that they’re hungry. And that they could smell the food in your pocket. Some would even resort to aggression and beg by poking people with their antlers. In my case, I got in a real panic when a deer snatched the plastic bag I was carrying which contained a guide on where to eat in Nara. I was crying out “No!” while trying to chase after the deer who was already very close to swallowing paper ramen. Then out of nowhere, an old Japanese lady scared the deer and grabbed the guide from its mouth. Really, I didn’t care much for the guide, I was just worried I’d kill the deer if it ate all that ink.
Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara
The 660 hectare Nara Park is not just home to 1200 freely roaming deer, but also to many historic monuments that date back to the 800s. The Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara were listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998 because of their role in the development of political, cultural and religious life during the period between 710 and 794 when Nara flourished as the first permanent capital. There are eight component parts composed of an archaeological site (the Nara Palace Site), five Buddhist temples (the Kôfuku-ji, the Tôdai-ji, the Yakushi-ji, the Gangô-ji and the Tôshôdai-ji), a Shinto shrine (the Kasuga-Taisha) and an associative cultural landscape (the Kasugayama Primeval Forest).
Going to the Nara Deer Park from the Nara Station via the Sanjo Dori street, the Kôfuku-ji Temple would be the first stop. This Buddhist temple complex includes several pagodas and buildings and the most impressive of all is the Goju-no-to or the Five-Story Pagoda. Standing approximately 50 m high, the Five-Story Pagoda is the second tallest old tower in Japan, after the pagoda of To-ji Temple in Kyoto City. It survived a move from Kyoto, six fires and a reconstruction before being named as a national treasure. Beside it is the Tokon-do Hall where a sitting statue of Monju-bosatsu, the Buddhist god of wisdom and intellect, attracts visitors with wishes for academic excellence. Another neighboring structure is the Nan’en-do or the South Octagonal Hall where Buddhist practitioners can be seen ringing a large bell. It is open to the public only once a year, on October 17. Although relatively plainer in structure, another important building is the Kokuho-kan or the National Treasure Hall which displays a variety of cultural assets like 8th century sculptures. There is an admission fee of 600 JPY for adults.
The Tôdai-ji or the Great Eastern Temple was built back in the 740s by order of Emperor Shomu in order to protect the country from the series of disasters and epidemics that plagued Japan. In one of its halls, the Daibutsuden, is the Great Buddha, the largest bronze Buddha statue in the world.
8:00 to 16:30 (November to February)
8:00 to 17:00 (March)
7:30 to 17:30 (April to September)
7:30 to 17:00 (October)
*No closing days
Fees: 500 yen
9:30 to closing time of Daibutsuden Hall (see above)
Admission ends 30 minutes before closing.
Closed Between exhibitions
Fees: 500 yen (museum only), 800 yen (museum and Daibutsuden Hall)
Read more: The autumn colors of Tokyo.
The Yoshikien Garden is one of the two gardens en route to the Tôdai-ji from the Kôfuku-ji, the other would be the Isuen Garden. The Yoshikien Garden is named after the Yoshikigawa River, a small river that runs beside the garden, and is formed by three unique gardens: a pond garden, a moss garden and a tea ceremony garden. Three different garden techniques available to foreigners for free.
Read more: How to apply for a Japanese Tourist Visa
As a side trip from Osaka, Nara proved itself to be a worthy destination. You can check off multiple items in any bucket list: have wild animals feed at the palm of your hand, visit a UNESCO World Heritage Site, eat the excrement of divine creatures… But seriously, I would say that Nara is a must, especially if you are staying in Kobe, Osaka or even Kyoto. And with some great timing you might even witness the making of a yomogi mochi. Yum!
December 20, 2015
***Photos were taken using iPhone 6 (except for Ekspi’s photo)