When my family decided to start planning this trip to Japan, one of the places I absolutely knew we needed to go was Nara. I went to Nara while I was going to school in Kyoto and it’s one of those day trips that’s just wholly Japanese and wholly unmissable. Nara’s very easy to access from just about anywhere in the Kansai region (Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, etc.) by train and it’s so freaking neat.
Nara was the capital of Japan during the Nara era (710-794 CE) and as a result, it has some truly incredible treasures there. There’s Tōdaiji, the largest wooden building in Japan, that was literally built around the enormous Buddha statue inside. There’s Kōfukuji, with its pagoda. There’s Kasuga Shrine with its thousand stone lanterns. And if you’re there during the fall, the imperial treasure house will be open for your perusal.
But if you’ve heard about Nara, it probably hasn’t been for any Buddhist monuments or imperial treasures. You’re here about the deer.
The thing Nara is far and away the most famous for is its population of roaming shika deer that can be found all over the city. The deer are small enough to feed treats to and to pet, but a warning: they’re also spoiled rotten. After decades of tourists feeding them deer crackers and acorns on demand, these little monsters are willing to do just about anything to get the crackers that are their due, including ass-biting, head-butting, and straight-up picking your pockets. You will quickly become used to the sounds of tourists screaming as tiny deer chase them all over the park. And you know what? I love those little miscreants. I love them so much.
Now, deer in and of themselves, especially shika deer, are traditionally considered sacred in Shinto, and so you’ll see statues of deer every so often in Shinto shrines.
That said, Nara takes all that a lot further. The story goes that Takemikazuchi-no-mikoto, one of the deities enshrined at Kasuga Shrine, came to protect the region while riding a white deer, and after this, deer were considered particularly sacred to this area. After Shinto was removed as state religion post-WWII/Pacific War, the deer were declared a (cultural) national treasure rather than a religious one so they would retain their protected status. That said, you can still see traces of the deer’s religious heritage in shrines around Nara Park, especially Kasuga.
There’s really so much to do in Nara that it would take weeks to do it all, but I’ve personally done Tōdaiji, Kasuga Shrine, Tōdaiji’s annual treasure exhibition, and, of course, Nara Park. All that is clustered in a relatively small section of Nara, so you could probably do it all in one day if you had a head start and a lot of energy.
Just across from Nara Park, you’ll find the treasure hall. This hall, also known as Shōsōin, is associated with Tōdaiji and contains its treasures that aren’t always on display. This isn’t unusual for temples in Japan; major temples often open up their treasure houses for public perusal during the autumn months and the brief opportunity to see what they typically keep locked away should not be missed.
The Shōsōin has literally thousands of historical artifacts, and a selection of those objects is shown once a year for a few weeks. Once upon a time, you had to be literal royalty to see these objects. These days you mostly just have to dodge deer, wait in line, and pay 1100 yen. I went in 2014 and I have to say, it’s really worth the visit. Some of the treasures they have in there are absolutely incredible.
After you’ve spent a couple hours looking over the historical treasures that have been donated to Tōdaiji, you can make your way to the temple itself. The temple complex is relatively easy to find; just walk through the deer park until you get to the enormous wooden gate.
A few more words about these deer: though they can be found all over Nara, they’re clustered most densely in Nara Park. It’s a large green space that has been entirely taken over by deer. This is both a blessing and a curse. If you don’t have any food on your person, the deer will allow you to pass mostly unmolested. That said, if you spend a couple hundred yen and buy a stack of deer crackers? I will pray for you, friend, because The Deer Are Coming.
My parents didn’t exactly believe me when I told them the deer are demons. Adorable demons who have learned to bow on command, but demons nevertheless. This lasted about five minutes into our trip, when about twenty tiny deer gathered around my mother and started biting her butt. Yeah. They do that. They stole my father’s guide map and tore it to pieces. They stole deer crackers from my mother’s purse. I won’t lie to you all, I laughed a lot, even as the deer came for me.
(Note: do not eat the crackers. They are meant for deer and are probably made with bugs and grass and stuff. There are signs everywhere telling you not to eat the crackers, but I always see at least one teenage boy eat one on a dare and then start wailing. So heads up, I guess.)
There are honestly thousands of deer in Nara, and you will pass hundreds of them even if you just stick to the main path to Tōdaiji. There’s a reason everyone loves these tiny demons, though. They’re just so darn cute and at times really affectionate. They are just very, very spoiled.
Because we are now approaching the gate of Tōdaiji (aka, the boundary between temple and deer extravaganza) I’ll tell you another little fun fact about Nara. It has two competing mascots. Many cities, organizations, companies, etc. in Japan have adorable mascots that are there to advertise, sell merch, and inform the public about important topics. Tōdaiji has two, the terrifying Sento-kun and the adorable Shikamaro-kun.
(Look, I never claimed to be free of bias.)
Sento-kun is a bit of a controversial mascot. Some people, like me, find his creepy Buddha baby face to be… disquieting. Others (particular older Japanese folks) go further and find him to be fully sacrilegious. He was created as a nod to the incredibly famous daibutsu (great Buddha statue) at Tōdaiji, but a lot of people think that the historical Buddha just shouldn’t be used to sell t-shirts.
Shikamaro-kun is a rival mascot that’s been really gaining traction in recent years. Between my two visits in 2014 and 2018, signs, merch, sightings, etc. just exploded. And I don’t mind! Because Shikamaro-kun is adorable and not creepy at all!
Anyway, Tōdaiji. Tōdaiji, like most Japanese temples, has been destroyed and rebuilt a few times. The current building dates back to 1709, but you can see models of the previous incarnations of the temple inside the main hall. The initial building was created around 750 CE, and the daibutsu was completed in 751. So though the outer building is only a few hundred years old, the statues on the grounds and inside of it are positively ancient.
Most people just come for the daibutsu, but I’m here to tell you that the rest of the grounds are pretty magnificent as well. The main hall is enormous, easily the largest wooden building I’ve ever seen. The ancient gates are also huge, with great a and un statues to guard the entrance. There are seriously multiple National Treasures in this temple complex, so it’s worth putting aside a good amount of time to look around. Plus, y’know, everything there is huge. It does take a while to get around.
The daibutsu, though. The daibutsu. I can’t quite explain the reaction I had the first time I walked in and saw that statue. I’d heard that there was a big Buddha statue in there, of course. But there’s hearing big and there’s seeing big, and it is big. It’s one of the only times in my life that I’ve just stopped in my tracks and stared. Each one of the Buddha’s huge fingers is the size of an actual human being, and I’m here to tell you right now that there is no photo in existence that fully captures the size and grandeur of the Buddha statue found at Tōdaiji. You truly have to see it to believe it.
There are other statues in there, too. In any other temple, I’d call each one of them huge and spectacular. But after the daibutsu, well. Who can follow that act?
After you get over the splendor of the daibutsu and you’ve seen the other statues, after you’ve inspected the little architectural models and gotten your goshuinchō stamped, you’ll see a huge pillar inside the main hall that has a big ol’ hole in it. Well, “big”. It’s said that you’ll have good luck if you can crawl through this hole, and you always see people trying. That said, unless you’re very tiny (like, I’m talking possibly a child), it’s going to be a very tight fit. I remember looking at that pillar for the first time when I was 24 years old and thinking “god, I’m way too old to try and fit through that thing”. So I didn’t. Bad luck for me, I suppose.
One last note about Tōdaiji because my father specifically asked me about it — there’s a statue just outside the entrance/exit of the main building that looks… well, frankly, I think his exact words were:
“WHAT IS THAT TERRIFYING RED STATUE OUTSIDE?”
It’s a statue of Bodhidharma/Daruma! He’s regarded as the man who brought Zen Buddhism to China, and thus facilitated its popularity in Japan. There’s this truly horrifying story that he used to meditate by wall-gazing. And he just didn’t move or blink or anything, which caused his arms and legs to wither away. There’s another story that once he accidentally fell asleep, so he then cut off his own eyelids so it’d never happen again. IN RELATED NEWS, have you ever seen a daruma in Japan? Yeah, that’s a monk whose arms, legs, and eyelids are gone.
In this case, though, it’s a pretty simple case of sympathetic magic. (In layman’s terms, when you do some kind of ritual on one thing in order to affect another thing.) With this statue, you’ll see people (especially elderly people) rubbing the statue on the part of the body that’s been hurting them. It’s said to work as a prayer to Daruma that will help ease your pain. His knees are rubbed practically smooth, possibly because you have to climb so many steps to reach him. We all have sore knees here.
After we left Tōdaiji, dad and I decided to walk to Kasuga Shrine. Now… it’s a long walk. Probably a longer walk than either of us realized just looking at the map. So there’s that. But it’s also a nice walk, for all that it’s mostly uphill. You’ll pass some smaller shrines and temple complexes, as well as a famous Kofun-era key-shaped burial mound. And even as you get further and further from the crowds of Nara, you’ll still see deer. They’re less mean up here, probably because they’re less accustomed to tourist handouts. Many of the deer sleep at Kasuga Shrine, so some of them were probably getting ready to turn in for the night.
We eventually got to Kasuga not long before closing, and a word of warning: because we took so long walking there, we did miss the last bus back, which leaves like the minute the shrine closes. So either leave extra time or be prepared to walk back along the main road.
That said, it’s definitely worth the hike. Along with the whole deer thing, Kasuga is very famous for its lanterns. They only light them once a year during a special festival, but they can still be seen unlit through the shrine grounds and they’re still incredibly beautiful. There are literally hundreds of lanterns of all shapes, sizes, and materials; the old stone ones were my favorite.
There’s a small room that’s pretty unobtrusive in the back of the shrine, but I’d try to look for it! It’s a recreation of what the shrine looks like when all its hanging lanterns are lit up. It’s very hard to take good photos because it’s all mirrors in there, but it’s also very beautiful in there.
Possibly because we were there so late in the day, it was very quiet at Kasuga Shrine, and it was nice just walking through the rows and rows of lanterns. The grounds themselves are very pretty with quite a few baby deer running around, so it was just a really nice ending to our day.
Though Nara’s known as mostly a really, really nice day trip, you could easily spend several days exploring the parks, temples, shrines, museums, palaces, and tombs found throughout the old city. Petting the deer might involve taking your life into your hands, but like. Let’s all be real with each other here. How often do you get the chance to pet and feed wild deer? It’s just a really neat experience all around.