If I were to choose a city that easily stands out, Nara would be my top-of-mind…and one of my favorites too!
Think, a city with wide and smoothly paved asphalt roads, buildings with modern designs, and a right balance of concrete and greens.
It is a modern city with a fascinating twist: there are wild deer (Shika) freely roaming everywhere you look–crossing the street, walking in the sidewalk with you, lying down by the street and in parks, roaming around the temples… well, you get the point.
Nara was the first permanent capital of Japan from 710 to 784 and it has the largest number of structures designated as the national treasures of Japan by UNESCO. We only had one day to spend in Nara as we were staying in Osaka. To get to Nara from Osaka, we rode the Kintetsu Nara Line from Namba Station and it took around 45 minutes before we arrived at the Kintetsu Nara Station.
Another good thing about this city is that it is easy to explore on foot. Of course, there are motored vehicles available for transport and rickshaws too but honestly, I don’t feel comfortable seeing the rickshaw drivers run uphill, pulling their rickshaws that carry 1-2 people. It’s more painful to watch than amusing. I didn’t bother trying it but this was as close as I could get to the rickshaw experience.
Back to the deer, yes, I am obsessed! Legend has it that in 768, a god, Takemikazuchi no Mikoto, appeared on Mount Mikasa riding a sacred white deer and since then, the Shikas have been considered to be messengers of the gods. Most of them frolic around Nara Park, where some of the temples are located too. There are numerous street vendors selling deer-crackers called “Shika Senbei” for only 150 Yen a bundle. These deer are also known as the “bowing deer” and you can get them to bow to you when you bow to them–you do it for fun, they do it for food.
While most of the deer are friendly, it is important to take caution around them. There are warning signs around the area that illustrate how the Nara deer can attack.
My sister actually got attacked when she was feeding the deer. A group of deer ran to her and became too aggressive that she ended up throwing all the deer-crackers so they would leave. I think one of them even bit her. What did I do? I documented it, of course! (Best. sister. ever.)
Extra tip: Watch your step! Where there are hundreds of wild deer, there are hundreds of deer poop!
Have I convinced you about Nara’s beauty yet? I was just warming up!
Nara has 22 sightseeing spots, enough to fill your itinerary! Unfortunately, all 22 did not fit our day trip itinerary. We were only able to roam around Nara Park and visit the Nara City tourist center. I got a copy of the map that also lists all 22 spots so for your reference, here it is!
The Nara City Tourist Center has a modern design and it also serves as a showroom for certain projects. When we went there, they were showcasing a new construction technology meant to significantly decrease the intensity of earthquakes in buildings. Though that wasn’t what we came there for. We went there for the air-conditioning and seats because it was too hot outside! Oh, and they serve unlimited cold tea and ice water too! Yes, it was a place to refresh….and of course, if you need assistance going around the city.
Within the Nara Park grounds is the Tōdai-ji Temple, the world’s largest wooden structure which houses the world’s largest bronze statue of the Buddha Vairocana, locally known as Daibutsu–how’s that for greatness? UNESCO listed this temple as a “Historic Monument of Ancient Nara.”
There is an incense burner in front of the temple where visitors can light their incense, a.k.a Osenko. It is believed that the smoke has healing powers; hence, people fan the smoke to themselves or to a specific body part that needs healing.
Also enshrined all around the temple are other statues of guardians and enlightened beings.
The statue that fascinated me the most (other than the Daibutsu) was the Binzuru (Pindola Bharadvāja) which is located at the right side of the temple’s entrance. In all honesty, it looks scary–I’m just saying. Pindola is said to have excelled in the mastery of occult powers and visitors head to this statue for healing. To be healed by Binzuru, you have to touch a certain body part of the statue and then the corresponding part in your body that needs healing (example, if your right foot hurts, touch the Binzuru’s right foot and then yours).
Before exiting the temple, there are souvenir stalls where you can purchase lucky charms and other Buddha souvenirs.
After exiting the temple, we felt like having a nice stroll around the temple grounds and you’d be surprised, there are still so much to see such as shrines and tombstones of monks..oh, and of course, more deer.
It was still so hot! The weather called for more refreshments and good thing there are numerous restaurants along the road. We had our ice-cold fix and ordered a green tea shaved ice dessert with red bean paste and mochi balls–because when in Japan, endlessly indulge in green tea!
As I’ve mentioned, we did not have enough time to go to the other temples because the day was about to end. Our Nara day trip was topped off with a gorgeous sunset. Japan should seriously be known as the land of the setting sun too! Back to Osaka we go!