While I generally prefer to focus on a particular destination at a time, it’s very difficult to write about the individual parts of Nara without discussing the place as a whole. Most travelers to Japan end up in Nara at some point, and rightly so: it is one of Japan’s most famous sightseeing spots and considered an essential day trip if you’re staying for any period of time in Kyoto or Osaka.
Nara was, for a comparatively short time, Japan’s capital from 710 CE to 794 CE leading to what is known as the Nara period. This was a particularly important time for Japan culturally, due to the widespread establishment of Buddhism, and importation of many customs and traditions from China. Japan’s first written historical works were also produced during this time. As such, Nara is home to a number of old and very famous temples.
The most immediately striking thing about Nara as you exit the station and proceed towards the temples are the huge number of tame deer gathered throughout the parks and footpaths of the town. The deer are symbolic of a deity, Takemikazuchi, arriving in Nara riding a white deer according to folklore and as such are considered sacred animals to the local Kasuga Shrine. The deer are used to people and won’t hesitate to approach if they think they’ll get food. Special deer crackers can be bought from street vendors, the proceeds of which go towards looking after the deer. Some of the deer have learned to make bowing motions with their heads in order to get food and one or two can get a little over enthusiastic if they suspect you’re holding out on them and try to eat your jacket, so if you can get away without deer drool on you, you’re doing better than me. The deer actually sleep in the nearby mountains which they return to as it gets dark in the evening. They are called back into the city each morning by someone blowing a horn.
Arguably the most famous temple at Nara is Todai-ji, a huge Buddhist temple complex that commenced being built in 738CE. Todai-ji’s main hall houses a giant bronze statue of Buddha that at 15 metres tall, is the largest of it’s kind in the world. The hall is a striking building and impressively large – it was for a long time, the world’s largest wooden building. There seems to be a theme of scale at Todaiji with even it’s entrance gates being the largest temple gates in Japan at 25.5 metres.
Another particularly famous site at Nara is the Kasuga Grand Shrine, a Shinto shrine dedicated to four deities, including the aforementioned Takemikazuchi. One of the most notable features of the shrine are it’s lanterns. An astonishing number of stone lanterns line the pathway towards the shrine through Nara park, symbolising the other Kasuga shrines throughout Japan. Inside the shrine itself bronze lanterns hang throughout, as well as a large cluster of illuminated ones in a darkened worship hall that give the impression of hundreds of pinpoints of light in the darkness. The shrine is surrounded by the Kasugayama Primeval forest, a large old growth forest where logging has been forbidden since 841CE.
Eight specific sites in Nara, including the ones mentioned above, fall under the combined Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara, a recognised UNESCO world heritage site. Aside from these, the modern city itself is quite beautiful and has quite a few museums to visit if you want to immerse yourself further into the history of the place. As one of the most prominent tourist destinations in Japan, there are always crowds but the parkland surrounds and the deer help make it feel somewhat tranquil no matter how packed it gets. Nara is a place you definitely have to visit.