In rural Wisconsin, you hunt and eat deer; in urban Minnesota, you scare deer; in Nara, you feed and pet deer.
My lab director, Ray-san, invited me to his hometown of Nara to show me around and have dinner at his house. Thinking it must be close to Osaka because Ray-san commutes to and from every day, I accepted without a second thought. The morning of, an hour and a half worth of trains later, I arrived at Nara station. I would find out later it would take another half an hour worth of trains from Nara station to Ray-san’s home; I have no idea how he manages the commute!
Nara was much smaller than I expected with far fewer tourists than other historic Japanese cities I have travelled to so far. My first impression of the city was that it was just a far away suburb of Osaka or Kyoto, containing one shopping street as the only noteworthy object in view. It was not until after lunch when we left downtown Nara that I saw why Nara is famous.
A short walk away, but distinctly separated from the downtown food and shopping area, lies a massive park, filled with deer. When locals were describing the place to me, I could not believe their description of deer roaming the streets and biting for food. And then, not even in the park yet, I saw maybe seven deer to the edge of the sidewalk! I am over here freaking out about being five feet away from deer, and Ray-san goes over casually and begins to pet the deer, and the deer don’t move! I hesitantly walk over to try for myself, and the next thing I know all seven deer stand up and begin walking over to Ray-san who, without my realizing, had gone to purchase rice crackers, called deer crackers, from a local venue. Ray-san hands me the deer crackers and the deer suddenly turn around to begin vying for my attention using a combination of eye stares, nudging me with their head or directly biting my clothes! I am told to break up the deer crackers and give them to the deers, which I assume would make them back away after being fed, but to my horror they only became more direct!
The deer were not harmful, but it definitely was scary so I started running away into the park only to find more deer in the park also trying to get deer crackers! It wasn’t until I had given out all my crackers that the deer moved on to their next target holding deer crackers. In every turn, I found more deer either napping in the sunlight or hungrily surrounding park visitors with food.
All the temples are inside the park, and yet each are at least ten minutes walk apart from one another, which should give you some perspective about how enormous this park full of deer is. These temples are in pristine condition and some of the oldest in Japan, dating as early as 700AD. Many have been rebuilt over the years, but they still have not lost their magnificence. After visiting Kofuku-Ji temple and the nearby museum with many national treasures preserved from various Nara temples, we crossed the ancient Todai-Ji Temple gate with two wooden statues watching the gate, supposedly which only took 69 days to create!
Still inside the park, we reach a larger than life temple complex containing and even larger temple inside: Todai-Ji Temple. This temple contained the largest buddha in Japan!
After sightseeing, we stopped in a waffle cafe for a snack and proceed to Ray-san for a takoyaki feast (fried octopus balls) made by his wife.
While Kyoto is known for its many temples, Nara has the most historic temples. The locals are fiercely proud of their city’s history, including being Japan’s first capital city, despite dwindling tourism due to difficult access from Kyoto or Osaka. It is a place often overlooked by tourists looking for the highlights of Japan, but I would argue it is a must see for tourists travelling Japan from its deer park to the giant buddha to historic statues. Nara is not famous for its cuisine, and perhaps not more than a day trip, but I feel like I would have missed something if I had left Japan without visiting Nara.