On Sunday we visited Nara, Japan’s first permanent capital under the influence of Buddhism, as Shinto practice moved the capital with the passing of each emperor. However, this ‘permanence’ lasted only 75 years before Kyoto was declared the new capital.
In pre-Buddhist times deer were considered to be messengers of the gods, but have been demoted to National Treasures. Approximately 1200 deer roam the streets and parks of Nara, occasionally nudging at tourists (gently and not-so-gently) for the deer biscuits sold by vendors along the paths. Traffic and pedestrians are expected to give way to the deer – Nara is their town!
We spent an hour or two wandering around to feed and touch the deer – they’re entirely accustomed to people, but not interested in being petted unless you have food! A stack of about ten deer biscuits was 150 yen and well worth it to make fickle friends with these beautiful creatures. They laze in the doorways of shops, hold up traffic as they meander across the roads and sleep in the garden beds on the footpath. They cluster around the queues of visitors buying deer biscuits and occasionally nip at pockets and bags if they suspect you’re not feeding them everything you have.
I was happy to see that the deer aren’t confined – a very small amount were in enclosures, though it was unclear why – and are free to roam around the streets as well as the parks, forests and around the temples. I felt much more iffy about the fact that most of the bucks have their antlers sawed off in a ceremony that is held each year, to protect the visitors and residents of Nara from being gored as well as prevent damage to the local environment.
We visited Todai-ji – an imposing temple and one of the largest wooden buildings in the world. It houses the Daibutsu (Great Buddha), a 15m bronze statue that watches serenely as hundreds of people bow their heads, clasp their hands, and light candles before it. One of the Japanese buddies explained to me his pose – the right hand held up, palm out means ‘do not be afraid’ and the left hand, palm up as if receiving something, means ‘tell me the story’. When I looked it up later I read that the left hand meant ‘welcome’ but I prefer the buddy’s interpretation. Whatever your spiritual inclinations, the temple and its statue are awe-inspiring.
After lunch we walked further up to the Kasuga Taisha shrine; old trees soaring up to the sky, hundreds of lanterns lining the path and, of course, more deer. It felt so peaceful to be back in the forest – Osaka has some lovely green spaces but nothing beats that quiet feeling of being surrounded by just trees and sky. It was tempting to take my shoes off, I always miss having my toes in the dirt when I’m living in the city. I don’t think my feet have touched the ground here yet.
The shrine itself we didn’t see too much of – we had paid our 500 yen admission to Todai-ji and were satisfied to look at what we could see from the free admission area here. Deer omamori, a zen rock garden and that iconic view, avenues of red-painted beams. There were also museums and other sights we didn’t have a chance to explore – a reason to go back another day!