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
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.
The Todai-ji Temple
While 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.
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.
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.
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: