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