Nara was the second day trip we took from the Kyoto/Osaka area. Just like Himeji, it’s a jam-packed day. In fact, you may find that you need more than a day to fully appreciate the nature and zen of this lovely city.
Nara was once the capital of Japan (for a briefer time than Kyoto) and contains many shrines and temples that together make up one UNESCO World Heritage site.
Of the many temples in Nara, perhaps the most famous is Todai-ji. Its Great Hall houses the Daibutsu, the world’s largest bronze statue of Buddha. This immensity is over 49 feet (nearly 15 meters) tall, just over 90 feet (28 meters) across the shoulders, and weighs 500 metric tons.
The Great Hall, built specifically to protect the Daibutsu, has been rebuilt twice due to fire damage–you can see some of the photos and details of the previous structures in photos around the hall. Despite its size, the current building is actually smaller than the previous ones, and remains one of the largest wooden buildings in the world. Some say the largest, but it depends on whether you’re measuring by volume or height, or if you’re looking at “buildings” (meaning things you can actually enter, with a roof and walls) versus “structures,” (things that don’t fit the previous definition of buildings). It’s still impressive either way.
It’s easy to look at photos of the statue and think, wow, that’s big. Even standing at the foot of it and staring up, you can say, “yep, that’s pretty massive, alright.” But it’s quite another experience to stand next to one of the hands and realize you can comfortably lay in it (if you put a comforter and pillow down, of course). Parts of the Daibutsu have been recast through the years due to damage, and one of its old bronze hands is on display in the Great Hall, along with previous versions of other statues.
Finally, inside the temple you will see a large pillar with a hole in the bottom, and a long line of people waiting near it. Supposedly, if you can go through the hole, you will be granted enlightenment in your next life.
The line is quite long usually, and it’s a pretty tight squeeze for an adult body, although I do find it amazing that this hole is the size of the Daibutsu‘s nostril. Like I said, it’s a pretty damn huge statue.
One other thing you can’t miss on your visit to Todai-ji: deer. By “can’t miss” I don’t mean “must definitely take the time to see” but “literally cannot avoid.” Deer are everywhere around Todai-ji.
Actually, that’s inaccurate. Deer are everywhere around Nara Park. They live here. And Todai-ji is inside Nara Park, along with the Nara National Museum and a few other shrines and temples.
If we’d had world enough and time, we would’ve visited both the Nara National Museum and the Kasuga Taisha. Alas, we did not and I advise you to spend a night in Nara if you can. If you’d prefer to stay in Kyoto or Osaka, the train ride to Nara only takes about an hour each way. Get an early start!
Nara Park is beautiful in the spring. Cherry blossoms are everywhere. Just behind Todaiji is a pond, where ducks play and deer come to drink.
So what is it with the deer? Well, like I said, they live in Nara. They were considered sacred by some of the temples and shrines inside the park, though they are now national treasures instead. They are semi-wild, similar to the monkeys of Arashiyama, in that they’re completely used to people and you can interact with them. But they are still not pets and should be treated with caution just like you would any other wild animal.
If you want to get up close and personal, you can buy deer biscuits from vendors all over the park. Then just slowly approach your deer of choice and offer a biscuit. To maximize deer feeding opportunities, go to an area that is less populated; the deer are likely already very well fed if they’re within easy reach of other tourists.
I cannot stress this enough: Be careful with how you approach the deer. We witnessed one lady who leaned too close and probably had some kind of snack in her purse. The deer, wanting to get at the snack, decided to grab the purse. So what did the lady do? She started screaming, which freaked the deer out… David ended up slowly approaching the deer and distracting it with a biscuit so it would drop the purse. The lady ran away, we stayed with the deer, and it brought some friends over to be fed. So it all turned out pretty well for us.
Other things to enjoy in Nara
After relaxing and enjoying our wildlife encounters in Nara Park, we started heading back to the train station.
Along the way we stopped by Yoshikien Garden. This small garden features a pond, a (not operational), and a moss garden (the first such I had ever seen). It also sits next to a river, with the larger and more popular Isuien Garden on the other side. Probably because of Isuien’s proximity, and because we arrived near closing time, we had Yoshikien nearly to ourselves.
Yoshikien Garden is free to foreigners, too. Not sure how they make enough money to maintain the garden, but I hope it stays around for visitors to enjoy.
Finally, by the train station as usual is a shopping center, with lots of stores and food stalls. We enjoyed some treats here–in particular, it was fun to watch fresh mochi being made.
Have you been to Nara? What did you enjoy best about it? Let me know in the comments below!