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Deer and shrines in Nara

Posted by on November 8, 2017

I remember when I was a kid, maybe seven or eight years old, a warm summer day somewhere in the mountains where I used to spend a few weeks of school holiday in my grandfather’s home village. That day we had driven to an area where the local community was taking care of injured deer. Easy to access to the few tourists who made it there, it was a unique experience to see them up close and not surrounded by the cold barriers of a zoo. I can still recall the emotion of having a small deer eating food from my hand through the protective fence. I had been scared he would also bite one of my fingers off.

Deer in Nara Park

Twenty years later, as I was admiring the shape of a five-story pagoda, I turned my face to the left, and there it was. In the middle of the crowd. A deer. Our eyes met briefly. He seemed not to care about me, and turned towards another tourist who had a piece of delicious deer cracker in his hand. Reading about it could not take away the sense of surprise in meeting my first deer of Nara Park. It had been few days since I read about them, but the late arrival in Kansai airport, the night search of the hostel in Osaka and the early morning train ride to Nara made me forget about it.

It did not take long to notice a second deer, then a third, then more and more in any direction I decided to turn my head. As I walked deeply into the park, towards the ancient temples and shrines, the same scene seemed to repeat in front of my eyes. Tourists feeding small crackers to these tame animals, who seemed accustomed to this pleasant routine. 

Quickly getting used to this presence during my walk, I proceeded in the park to visit some of the most ancient buildings in Japan. They were all built during Nara’s short spell as the capital of Japan, from 710 to 794. 

The first stop I made was in Tōdai-ji 東大寺, a Buddhist temple complex that includes the Great Buddha hall Daibutsuden 大仏殿. It was built to host a 16 m tall Buddha statue, completed in the year 751, and has been rebuilt twice after fires, the last time in 1709. Even though the current hall was rebuilt only 2/3 as big as the original one (57 metres long and 50 metres wide), it has been, up until twenty years ago, the largest wooden building in the world.

Tōdai-ji temple in Nara

As I entered the hall, I was welcomed by the smile of the Buddha, the same smile that had welcomed millions of people in 13 centuries of history. The statue had also been rebuilt several times, as it had been damaged by fire and even earthquakes during its long life. This did not change the feeling of being surrounded by history, the same feeling I encounter every time I visit historical sites in this ancient and fascinating country.

I walked out the southeast exit and followed the path south for 15 minutes, surrounded by deer and other tourists. The road led to Kasuga-taisha 春日大社, the most celebrated shrine in Nara. Built in 768, it had been periodically rebuilt every 20 years for almost a thousand years. The tradition was discontinued at the end of the Edo Period (only 150 years ago). The shrine is known for having 3000 lanterns along the path in Nara park that leads to the main building. The lanterns, a symbol of guidance and illumination in Shinto beliefs, were donated by citizens as a sign of support for the shrine.

Nara seen from Mount Wakakusa

On my second day in Nara I also had the chance to walk up Wakakusa-yama 若草山 a small grass-covered mountain behind Nara park. For hike enthusiasts like me, it’s a nice walk up to keep fit. It takes less than one hour to the top, including stops on the way to admire the view of Nara and all the mountains that surround it. 

Once at the top, be prepared to be once again surrounded by deer, who seem to understand that they can wait there for the tourists and their deer crackers. I could not even take a picture with the sign saying 342 metres without having deer around me!

Nara can be easily visited on a one day trip from Osaka or Kyoto, as all its attractions are in or very close to Nara park. For more information on the trains to get there, click here

The deer in Nara park are very tame, so don’t be afraid to buy some deer crackers from the many sellers (150 yen) and feed them! After all, in how many places in the world can you do that?!


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