People go to Nara to see the deer. Yes, the city itself is full of history dating back to the beginning of the 8th century… and yes, the city is filled with some of Japan’s oldest temples and shrines. But still, people go to Nara to see the deer. And so did I.
Morning in Nara
During my visit to Osaka in autumn, I made a half day side trip to visit the city of Nara — capital of the Nara perfecture in the Kansai region. I have seen pictures and pictures of people with deer in Nara, and I just had to head over to see them for myself. However, aside from the deer, the city itself is so rich in history. It was founded in 710 (known as Hejio back then) as Japan’s first permanent capital for more than 70 years; and the many temples, shrines and monuments in the city make up one of Japan’s UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Getting To and Around Nara
The best way to get to Nara from Osaka is via train. There are many train services than run the route to the city. Starting from either the Namba Station or the Osaka Station, travel time could vary between 30-odd minutes to 50-odd minutes depending on the train service. As for prices, they start from as low as JP¥560~US$5 per way, to JP¥1070~US$10 via the Limited Express. I was using the JR Kansai WIDE Area 5-Day Pass (it costs JP¥9K~US$80) to get around during my stay in Japan, and it covers the Nara area too.
There are two stations to stop at in Nara — the JR Nara Station or the Kintetsu-Nara Station. I took the 34-minute Limited Express from Namba Station to the Kintetsu-Nara Station, as it was a shorter walk to Nara Park. When leaving, I left from the JR Nara Station instead — it was at the end of my stroll along the ancient merchant district of Naramachi.
The Kintetsu-Nara Station is only about a 15-minute walk towards Nara Park. The park is one of the city’s main attractions — it is one of the oldest parks in Japan from the late 19th century, and covers an area of 660 hectares. Nara Park is most famous for the 1,200 wild Sika Deer that roam freely around its vast grounds. They can also be spotted all along the walk from the station towards the main grounds of Nara Park.
I spent most of my time in Nara within the grounds of Nara Park. It is so huge that it encompasses some of Nara’s oldest and largest temples as well — the Todaiji Temple, Kofukuji Temple and the Kasuga Taisha Shrine. I guess the best part for me is while walking from one temple to the next, I was always greeted by herds of deer. I especially loved feeding them (crackers are sold for about JP¥150~US$1.3 a pack) — they would bow before you when you lift the crackers above their heads! The deer at Nara Park are mostly docile, and would probably only get annoyed if you make them bow and don’t reward them with a cracker. I got a soft head-butt for trying to trick a stag!
Todaiji Temple and the Great Buddha
After a whole lot of time spent on feeding the deer — it was time to visit Nara’s most prestigious temple, the Todaiji Temple. The Nandaimon Gate marks the entrance to Todaiji that leads up to the main Daibutsuden Hall (Hall of the Great Buddha), home to the monumental 15-meter-high bronze Buddha statue in which it is named after. There are a few other huge Buddhist statues inside the hall, as well as some models of previous buildings of the temple (it was founded in 745, but rebuilt many times throughout the years). Another attraction in Daibutsuden Hall is a pillar with a hole at its base — it is believed that people who can squeeze through it will achieve enlightenment. During my visit, a whole bunch of schoolchildren were awaiting their turn to crawl through the hole… so I didn’t get my chance.
There are many other halls within the Todaiji grounds — I passed by the Nigatsudo Hall (at the back of the main hall) that offers lovely views of the city; as well as the Hokkedo Hall, probably the oldest structure within the temple complex. These parts of the temple grounds have less visitors, and offer lovely views (and plenty of deer to feed) for a quiet autumn walk. Entrance to Todaiji Temple costs JP¥500~US$4.5.
Kasuga Taisha Shrine
I was so thankful for lovely autumn weather as I walked from Todaiji Temple to the other side of Nara Park — where the Kasuga Taisha Shrine is located. Established in 768 and rebuilt every 20 years until the end of the Edo Period, this red and white shrine stands out from within the thick forest it is hidden within. It is a stark contrast to the naked autumn trees, thick tousled scrubs, leaf-strewn walkways, moss-covered stone lamps, and the occasional peeking deer on the outside. I felt as if I just stepped into a mystical place — and was pretty taken in by the beauty of the shrine’s surroundings.
Entrance to the outer part of the shrine is free, but access to the inner portion costs JP¥500~US$4.5. The inner sanctuary is surrounded by hundreds of beautiful gold and bronze lanterns, all donated by the shrine’s worshipers. It is said to be lit only twice a year during the Lantern Festival — mid-August during summer, and early-February during winter. A short walk from the main shrine is the Kasuga Taisha Botanical Garden and the Kasuga Taisha Museum; but I decided to skip them, say goodbye to the adorable deer of Nara Park and head towards Naramachi instead.
Walking around Naramachi
It was about a half hour (or more due to the many photographic stops and deer feeding) walk towards Naramachi. Naramachi literally translates to Nara Town — and it is here that you can still find preserved traditional merchant townhouses and narrow walking streets dating back to the Edo Period. It is also where you can find some of Nara’s oldest temples. On my walk around Naramachi, I passed by the Sarusawa Pond that has a lovely view of the Kofukuji Temple from across the lake — also one of Nara’s most significant temples. I got a little lost while maneuvering the many lanes; but I guess that is the beauty of Naramachi — carelessly wandering into a time warp that takes you back to ancient Japan, all those centuries ago.
Lunch at Edogawa Naramachi
And then it was time for lunch! So while in Nara, I just had to look for this one restaurant I read about some time ago — the Edogawa Naramachi, popular for the unagi (grilled eel). The restaurant is located in Naramachi, at the end of the covered Shimomikado shopping street. What’s more, it is housed in a 150-year-old machiya (merchant house), so I got to dine the traditional Japanese way (on the floor on a tatami mat, in rooms separated by paper doors), with a view of an indoor Japanese garden. I had a delicious set meal of unagi and umaki (eel in omelette roll), served with rice, soup and pickles. The restaurant offers other Japanese food as well — but if you’re in Edogawa Naramachi, go for the eel!
From the restaurant, it was a 15-minute walk to the Nara Station (and back to Osaka) through the streets of Naramachi. So after my half day visit to the historical Nara, I have this to say — come to Nara to see the deer… AND all its ancient treasures. And once you’re done walking around its old narrow streets; and visiting some of the most impressive shrines and huge temples with even huger religious figures… go spend more time with the deer again. Really, you’ll never get enough of them deer!