Lots and lots of deer.
The city of Heijō-kyō, which arose in splendour on a site just west of where downtown Nara now stands, was the imperial capital of Japan for much of the 8th century A.D. before it relinquished the honour to Heian-kyō (now Kyōto). Even now, centuries after slipping from centre to periphery, Nara still retains a wealth of cultural and historic treasures that hint at its glorious past. I’ve been to the city a couple of times before, most recently in 2013 (when I visited the site of Heijō-kyō’s former imperial palace), but it was the first time for everyone else in the family and I was eager to show them the highlights. Since a good chunk of the day had already been consumed by our morning visit to Hōryū-ji, we only managed to scratch the surface before time ran out and exhaustion set in, though even the little we saw was plenty.
From the sleek, modern transportation hub of JR Nara Station, in front of which still stands the lovingly preserved former station building…
…a short bus ride or a long (though quite manageable) walk is all one needs to reach the vicinity of Nara Park, scattered around which are some of the city’s most prominent attractions. We found one of these attractions quite literally scattered all over the place, hard to avoid for the sheer numbers involved…
…this attraction, of course, being the park’s famous (or infamous) resident deer.
Said to have been considered sacred since a mythical being rode into town centuries ago on the back of a white deer, these four-legged creatures have been allowed to wander the park and its environs more or less unmolested. Pet them if you dare, or – as many visitors do (ourselves included) – purchase some shika senbei and try your hand at feeding the animals.
After our obligatory interactions with the deer, we headed north on a stone-flagged, deer-dropping-streaked path towards Tōdai-ji, a vast temple compound founded in the 700s A.D. and possibly Nara’s single most famous landmark. Our progress was made considerably slower, however, by the tempting presence of numerous food stalls on either side of the road.
By some miracle, we managed to make it through that culinary gauntlet without sustaining serious damage (save for a few hundred yen spent on treats along the way), and in due course found ourselves marching past the monumental gates that guarded access to Tōdai-ji’s inner compound.
After paying the entrance fee, we stepped into a long colonnade and out into a vast courtyard, dominated by one of the largest wooden buildings on earth.
Tremendous in scale though it was, and undeniably colossal in its proportions, this 300-year-old building is nonetheless about a third smaller than an earlier hall that once stood on the same site. One can only imagine how impressive that version must have looked (and there’s a small scale model inside to help with the imagining).
The interior statuary – including the central figure – and other accoutrements of worship are of course widely recognised as historic and artistic treasures, etc., etc. … but having visited many other places of this kind in Japan, I really didn’t feel as impressed with them as with the building itself. The sheer size of the structure is truly impressive, both inside and out, though not even all that space could comfortably contain the hordes of visitors who paraded through its doors and made taking decent interior shots almost an exercise in futility.
And speaking of the building, one of its pillars has a hole near the base which is supposedly similar in size to the main statue’s nostrils. Squeezing through the hole is a popular pastime, one that children routinely accomplish with ease…
…though grown-ups, rather unsurprisingly, tend to have a harder time of it. (I elected not to make the attempt as I didn’t quite fancy getting stuck like a drain plug in that small cavity.)
Later, after refuelling on freshly roasted sweet potato bought from a roadside vendor, we went on a rather lengthy uphill trek to Kasuga Taisha, Nara’s most prominent Shintō shrine and famous for its massive collection of traditional lanterns.
And that’s a wrap. Nara had so much else to offer, but with the sunlight fading and our feet demanding respite, it was time to return to Ōsaka for the evening.
More in due course, gentle readers. Cheerio.