Kyoto Step by Step: Day Trip to Nara

Nara's MascotRaise your hand if you’ve ever been to a place with bowing, ravenous deer, persimmon-wrapped sushi and a gigantic buddha that sticks his head out the window of the world’s largest temple once a year.

Well, if you’ve got lowered arms, you must get yourself to Nara, Japan.

I found every inch of Japan to be unique and fascinating, but Nara was something really special. We were initially on the fence about going since we were loving Kyoto so much. But the fact that Nara boasts fifteen World Heritage sites changed our mind and I’m so glad it did.

Nara was elected as Japan’s first permanent capital in 710, which is reason for the abundance of temples and Buddhist monasteries. However, soon the monasteries in Nara began to gain a lot of political influence, which seemed to spook the emperor and the local politicians. Subsequently, the Japanese capital was then moved to Nagaoka to put a little distance between the politicians and the Buddhist powerhouse that Nara had become.

Thankfully, these sites still exist and are really worth a visit. Nara is just an hour or so from Kyoto and makes for a great day trip. I have to mention that we took a tour around the city with Nara Walks and I can’t recommend it enough. We were the only ones on the tour that day and our guide, Mayumi, was incredibly knowledgeable and really sweet.

Here are a few of the city’s most fascinating highlights:

Cracker-Addled Bowing Deer

Nara Deer
Too cute, right?

I know. It’s weird and hard to imagine. But the Nara deer population is one of the most intriguing part of this Japanese town. There are around 1,200 Sika deer roaming freely around the town. In the Shinto religion, these deer are considered to be messengers of the gods. These bambis are quite used to people and if you’d like to feed them, there are several vendors in the park that sell crackers. An unbearably cute fact is that the deer will bow to anyone with a cracker as that is the traditional form of greeting in Japan.

But … beware! That cuteness disappears quickly as soon as they get a taste of the cracker. Although not really dangerous, they sure are crazy for crackers and won’t be happy with just a nibble. In a flash, they go for the whole cracker and anything else that might strike their fancy such as your fingers or maybe a nip of clothing while they’re at it.

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The Todai-ji Temple

nara-buddha2While Nara’s claims to Unesco fame makes for a long list, it’s the enormous Buddha located in the world’s largest wooden building, the Todaiji temple, that should be your first stop when visiting Nara. The immense temple was constructed in 752 and has more than enough space for the 15-meter-tall bronze statue that dominates the interior.

Unbelievably, the present structure, rebuilt in 1709, is a only two-thirds the size of the original building. The daibutsu (Great Buddha) contained within is one of the largest bronze figures in the world at just over 16m high and consists of 437 tonnes of bronze and 130kg of gold. In other words, it’s ginormous. During the Todaiji “Manto Kuyo-ye” lantern festival in August, the two small windows are opened and an illuminated Buddha looks out over the large green lawn.

Todaiji
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Kasuga Taisha

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Kasuga Taisha is Nara’s most beloved shrine. Located in a magical old-growth forest, it’s famous for its many lanterns, which have been donated by private worshipers. As you walk to the shrine, 2,000 stone lanterns align the walkway. Once inside the shrine, 1000 bronze lanterns can be found hanging from the buildings (The number 3,000 represents the number of kasuga shrines in Japan).

The lanterns are lit twice a year for the Lantern Festivals in early February and mid August. Among the woods around Kasuga Taisha, there are over a dozen “auxiliary shrines” that are just as beautiful. Walking around this area was certainly one of the most spiritually relaxing things I’ve ever experienced.

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Hōryū-ji

Dating back to 607, the Hōryū-ji is a Buddhist temple used currently as both a seminary and a monastery. The temple’s accompanying five-storey pagoda is thought to be one of the world’s oldest wooden buildings.

Bonus Nara!

Look, I know these Japanese posts are way long, but there was just so much to see and do, I just can’t control myself! Anyway, here are a few Nara extras that I loved:

Okumura Commemorative Museum, Nara Japan
The Okumura Commemorative Museum was a great stop on our tour. Visitors can sit in the earthquake chair that simulates the various tremors of actual earthquakes recorded in Japan. The interesting thing is that you can experience what the tremors felt like before and after certain anti-earthquake materials were installed in the buildings. It’s really kind of terrifying.
Nara Tōka-e
We were lucky to be in town for the Nara Tōka-e, the summer light festival. Over 10,000 candles illuminate Nara Park and the surrounding monuments. So beautiful.
Nara Hotel
While we didn’t stay at the really expensive elegant Nara Hotel, we stopped by for a tea in its beatiful tea room. Built in 1909 for visiting dignitaries, the beautiful hotel has amazing views of the surrounding landscape. It’s tea room is a nice place to take a rest, drink some tea and try some of their incredibly tasty cakes. Past visitors have included Charles Lindbergh, Charlie Chaplin, Helen Keller, Audrey Hepburn, and oddly, Richard Nixon.
kaki no ha sushi , nara, japan
It’s an understatement to say that we ate well in Japan. But Nara really surprised us with their elegant traditional sushi. Kaki no ha sushi is a type of nigiri wrapped in persimmon leaves. I guess the leaves have natural antibacterial properties or something. Whatever the reason, it was a truly unique experience.
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One Response to Kyoto Step by Step: Day Trip to Nara

  1. Pingback: Five Glorious Sites in Kyoto » Pass the Ham

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