Nara: A Day Trip from Kyoto
Several of our friends said that our trip to Kyoto wouldn’t be complete without a day trip to Nara, located an hour south of Kyoto. Nara used to be the capital of Japan, between the years 710 and 784. There are several temples and shrines that have been registered as historical UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
My mom, Alex and I took an express train to Nara from Kyoto Station and it took only 50 minutes. At Nara Station, we were given a Nara City Sightseeing Guide by the visitor’s center along with directions for a nice stroll through the town. We only walked around the eastern part of town, but that was enough to see the Kofukuji Temple, Nara Park, Todaiji Temple, Kasuga Taisha Shrine, and hundreds of deer. (Deer are Nara’s celebrity residents… Apparently one of the gods of Kasuga Taisha Shrine came to Nara riding on a white deer, and since then, deer have been seen as divine messengers and protectors of the city.)
The Kofukuji Temple complex used to contain over 150 buildings, but today only a few of them remain, including a five-story pagoda, the second tallest in Japan. When we arrived at Kofukuji Temple, we had our first deer sighting. They were everywhere! Running around freely. Chasing after people with deer biscuits (called Shika Senbei, which could be purchased from authorized vendors). Bullying people to feed them. The deer weren’t afraid of people, at all! If they thought you had food (or even if you didn’t), they would come up close and sniff you. One had the corner of Alex’s shirt in his mouth before any of us noticed! The deer looked very soft and fluffy, but their fur is actually kind of stiff. Misleading! “Just like the panda we petted in Chengdu!” remarked Alex. Yes, everything goes back to pandas. One of the deer kept bowing his head while looking at me. I would bow my head and he would bow his head. It went on for a couple minutes! I just read this in the Nara Sightseeing Guide: “The deer in this park are so polite that they bow to you when they ask you for Shika Senbei!” 😀
Next we walked through Nara Park (bypassing the National Museum, haha) to the Todaiji Temple, known for its giant bronze Buddha. Todaiji Temple was rebuilt in the 1700’s (after a fire) to two-thirds its original size. Even so, it’s still the largest wooden structure in the world. Towards the back of the hall, we saw a line of people, crowding around a tall pillar. People were trying to squeeze and shimmy their way through a hole at its base (it’s supposed to be the same size as the giant Buddha’s nostril)… which isn’t very big. Kids and girls had no problems getting through, but one guy looked like he was going to be stuck (to the onlookers’ horror and amusement) before he just gave up (thank goodness). Apparently anyone who can squeeze through the hole will be “enlightened” during their next life.
Kasuga Taisha Shrine was dedicated for the protection of the city of Nara. Along the path to the shrine, we saw many stone lanterns, with pieces of paper (with prayers?) pasted over each of the four faces (where glass would normally go on a real lantern). The shrine is known for the thousands of bronze lanterns that hang along the corridors. The bronze lanterns contrasted beautifully with the red-orange paint of the shrine. We took off our shoes and rested in one of the prayer halls before walking slowly back through Nara Park.
While walking through the park in the late afternoon, we witnessed the strangest thing: At first we saw a few deer running to an open field, and then all of a sudden, it was like a stampede. Deer were just coming from all directions. From the woods, from across the street in another section of the park, from hidden walkways. They were galloping towards the open field. There must have been hundreds (if not thousands) of deer. And just as suddenly as they had started, the deer calmed down and started walking back to wherever they were before the stampede. Was it a false alarm? A response to a deer whistle? Did one of the deer cry wolf? We saw a few stragglers meandering their way to the open field, while just a few others were seen grazing pretty far away from the field. It was fun trying to imagine what those deer were thinking. “Yep, another false alarm. Happens every time… suckers!” “I’m too old to be running all the way over to the field.” “What wolf?”
On the main street, we stopped at a small cafe run by an older lady, for some snacks and coffee/tea. She ran a one-woman shop! She was extremely organized and efficient. It was really fun watching her work in her “kitchen” while we sat at the bar area. As we were walking back to the train station, we saw the Mid-Autumn Festival parade making its way down the street. We all had a wonderful day in Nara. The deer were definitely the highlight for me!