Nara, Ja­pan

JARED EMERLING TELLS US TO DIS­COVER THE UN­USUAL, HIS­TORIC JA­PANESE CITY

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Less than an hour south of the famed Ja­panese city of Ky­oto is the com­par­a­tively small, but no less bril­liant city of Nara. Much like its neigh­bor, Nara was once a ma­jor cap­i­tal of the re­gion and is now rec­og­nized as a UNESCO World Her­itage Site. It’s a city full of Shinto shrines, gar­dens, parks and Bud­dhist tem­ples that offer a rich glimpse into the mys­te­ri­ous, beau­ti­ful world of an­cient Ja­pan.

The splen­dor of Nara is im­me­di­ate. A short walk from the train sta­tion looms a tow­er­ing, 5-tier pagoda called Ko­fuku-ji. It’s one of the Seven Great Tem­ples known to city and is widely con­sid­ered a most ex­quis­ite ex­am­ple of an­cient Ja­panese wooden ar­chi­tec­ture.

Around the cor­ner is the To­dai-ji tem­ple. Vis­i­tors are wel­comed into a mas­sive court­yard be­fore the even more colos­sal struc­ture of the main tem­ple. In­side is the one of the world’s largest in­door Bud­dha stat­ues, the Daibutsu. Also known as the great or gi­ant Bud­dhas, the Daibutsu are uni­ver­sally im­pres­sive for their scale. The bronze Daibutsu of the To­dai-ji tem­ple is al­most fifty feet tall and sits atop an enor­mous lo­tus flower with a gilded de­pic­tion of sa­cred Bud­dhist in­car­na­tions as a backdrop.

But what makes Nara truly unique are the city’s very un­usual am­bas­sadors: thou­sands of semi-wild deer that roam the city lim­its and whose auburn fur and white dots bear re­sem­blance to the most fa­mous-of-all an­i­mated doe. Con­sid­ered sa­cred, the deer have an im­por­tant pres­ence through­out Nara. They’ve been milling around with lo­cals for cen­turies.

As far as that goes, not much has changed. Stop at a cross­walk and you might find your­self next to a deer who du­ti­fully waits for your lead to walk across with you be­fore me­an­der­ing to an­other area of the city. It cer­tainly gives a whole new mean­ing to deer cross­ing! Some are even known to bow to new­com­ers and lo­cals alike.

If you have the urge to reach out and pet one of them, but are too ner­vous about break­ing with lo­cal cus­tom, you’re in luck! While one should al­ways keep their wits about them when in the pres­ence of any wild an­i­mal, the deer in Nara are rel­a­tively tame when com­pared to oth­ers of their ilk. They are cu­ri­ous and friendly, if not to­tally obliv­i­ous to the daily in­flux of vis­i­tors. They’re just as

likely to walk past you as they are to pull up next to you and share piece of grass in the sun.

Ven­dors can be spot­ted all around the pub­lic parks sell­ing sen­bei, or spe­cially im­printed rice crackers, to feed the deer.

Buyer be­ware, the crackers are very pop­u­lar amongst the deer. They’re at­tune to the crin­kle of the wrap­ping and the smell of their treat. It’s not un­usual to find one­self sur­rounded by a small herd just after open­ing a packet.

Dur­ing feed­ing, the deer can be per­sis­tent and even some­what for­ward. Best to let the smaller kids watch the fun from a dis­tance.

You might also no­tice at this point that some of the deer have been de-antlered. While this may seem in­hu­mane, mod­ern tech­niques for de-antler­ing are pain­less for the an­i­mals and it helps keep vis­i­tors to Nara safe.

Crav­ing an­other unique an­i­mal ex­pe­ri­ence in Nara? There is a café down­town that is home to sev­eral types of owls to hang out with while you have some tea be­fore get­ting back on the train.

Nara is beau­ti­ful and sur­real, but the nightlife is in Ky­oto. Stay there and make Nara a must-do daytrip. Daily com­muter trains as well as the ul­tra-fast shinkansen rail­way are avail­able for around $10 USD.

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