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.

A picture of a deer posing for the camera.
Believe me when I say these deer are not camera shy.

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.

A baby deer screaming.
Don’t let the cute babies fool you!! They grow up into tiny criminals.
A bunch of deer lying down around a tree, coolly assessing me behind the camera.
Look at them staring you down. It’s like organized crime. Adorable organized crime.

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.

A massive stone deer reclining next to a stone lantern.
A stone deer at Kasuga Shrine.
A smaller green deer under a little roof.
And a deer at Yoshida Shrine in Kyoto.

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.

A picture of the outside of the museum. Also, a deer is biting a lady's coat in the background.
Shōsōin! Also pictured: a woman being mugged by a deer.

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.

An ENORMOUS wooden gate. The people walking through it look like ants.
It’s uh. Hard to miss. Please note how tiny those people are who are standing on the threshold. Yeah, that’s not perspective. It’s that big.

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.

A stack of very flat deer crackers bound up in a paper ribbon.
This is a stack of deer crackers that cost 150 yen.
A deer staring me down.
This is a deer noticing me holding those crackers and marking me as its next victim.

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.

A large stone with "Todaiji" carved into it and a good dozen deer sleeping behind it.
(The rock says Tōdaiji. The deer can’t read it.)

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.)

A cute deer kneeling with a cup of tea.
Shikamaro-kun is here in the train station to welcome you to Nara!
A terrifying baby-looking buddha with antlers.
And uh. So is Sento-kun.

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.

A shot of Todaiji from the outer fence.
Beautiful, isn’t it?

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.

A front view of the temple. It is absolutely enormous.
There’s a loooong walkway that’s usually a lot more crowded with people than this. If you can squint, you’ll realize just how tiny the people by the doors are.

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. 

A side view of the seated daibutsu. His hand is outstretched in the "no fear" gesture and he is gazing downward at visitors.
All those golden bodhisattva sitting behind him? Yeah, those are all a little larger than the size of an adult human.
Carvings of the temple and the buddha. They look golden against the bronze's patina.
A close-up of the detail work on the lotus petals.
This one is an elaborate portrait of the Buddha carved into a lotus petal.
These are really incredible and shouldn’t be missed as you walk by.

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?

A golden statue of a seated Kannon.
A golden Kannon inside.
A huge statue of a guardian king.
One of the four guardian kings.

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.

A photo of the tree with a hole in it.
Here’s a tourist trying to squirm through. Godspeed.
Another guardian king.
Another one of the guardian kings inside. They’re so big.

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:


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.

A dilapidated wooden statue wearing a red cloak.
The Daruma statue outside of Tōdaiji.
A daruma doll. It is round with a red body and hood, golden accents, and wide white eyes.

A daruma doll. You fill in one eye when you make a wish, then the other once it comes true.
(Stock photo.)

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.

Stone lanterns on the left covered in moss.
The path to Kasuga Taisha is lined with stone lanterns.
The stone lanterns lining the other side of the path.
Not even gonna lie, it feels a little like a Miyazaki movie.
A mother deer and its fawn behind some stone markers. The fawn is nursing.
It’s not unusual to see fawns nursing up here.

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.

A splendid building with red gates.
The entrance to Kasuga Shrine.
A very old tree with a rope tied around it to denote that it's sacred.
An old, old tree that’s enshrined at the shrine.

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.

Metal lanterns hanging from the roof of the shrine. They are green and brass.
Lanterns of all colors and materials…
A hallway lined with metal hanging lanterns.
Lanterns lining all the corridors…
A garden full of mossy stone lanterns.
All kinds of lanterns.

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.

A room full of lit hanging lanterns and mirrors.
It’s understandably difficult to take pictures in there, but boy did I try.

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.

Even more stone lanterns.
Even as you’re leaving, there are hundreds of lanterns.
Stone lanterns with deer carved into them.
This is Kasuga Taisha, after all, so the lanterns are themed.
A fawn following its mother.
There were so many babies back here and I loved them.

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.