Nara’s one of those places in Japan that I only visited for one day and then immediately filed it in the “come back here ASAP” category. Unfortunately, that file grows larger and larger with nearly every place I visit, and the rate at which entries get crossed off is far slower. Regardless, I hope I get to make a trip back to Nara before I move away from Japan.
When I first went to Nara (奈良), it was part of a whirlwind three-week sociology course I took with my university, Washington & Jefferson, during January of my senior year. Most of our day there consisted of a tour of Nara Park, a huge complex that’s one of the main sights of the city and prefecture as a whole.
Nara Park is famous for a few things. First, it’s the home of 東大寺 (Toudai-ji, Eastern Great Temple). Until 1998, it was the largest wooden building in the world, and it’s been rebuilt several times after being destroyed in multiple fires. 東大寺 also houses the world’s largest bronze statue of the Buddha Vairocana (which is known simply as 大仏 or Daibutsu in Japanese). If nothing else, it’s a damn impressive building.
There’s also a little Easter egg of an experience in the 大仏殿 (Daibutsuden, Great Buddha Hall) for those who are feeling particularly skinny when they visit. One of the hall’s pillars has a hollowed-out passage near its base. The hole’s the same size as the nostril of the Buddha statue, and superstition says that if you successfully pass through the hole, you’ll be granted enlightenment in your next life. There’s a technique that involves angling your hips and shoulders to wriggle through without getting stuck, but when we went, it was after lunch…and I didn’t feel like failing in front of fifteen or so of my classmates.
The other major draw of Nara Park is its 鹿 (shika, deer). Oh, lord, the deer. They are everywhere. Nara made me feel like I was living in a Disney movie. Shinto legend says that they’re divine messengers from the gods, and up until 1637, which was the last recorded incident of deer-ocide, killing one was considered a capital crime that was punishable by death. After World War II, their sacred status was stripped and they were relabeled as “National Treasures.” (Talk about a demotion.)
Technically, the deer are still very much wild animals, and there are signs all over the park warning against treating them like domestic animals. However, most of the time they’re incredibly placid. You can even buy rice crackers to feed them by hand.
The absolute best park about Nara’s deer, though? They are truly Japanese…meaning that if you bow to them, they bow back. This was pretty endlessly entertaining for me, especially considering the fact that in my family, deer are considered dinner. Most of the encounters I’ve had with deer have involved my dad butchering one in our garage or smelling venison tenderloin cooking in our home oven.
I’m from Pennsylvania, where it’s entirely kosher to hunt white-tailed deer, which basically overrun the state. They’re considered pests who eat our gardens. We don’t exactly treat them as divine messengers from the gods. Hope a deer from Nara never accidentally makes the trip to western Pennsylvania.