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Nara Park: Where Deers Are Messengers of the Gods

I find Japan fascinating; a thoroughly modern country interwoven with a living history dating back thousands of years.

Deer waiting for a feed, Nara Park (c) A Harrison

Deer waiting for a feed, Nara Park (c) A Harrison

The Deer Ladies

I don’t know how old the lady was. She may have been fifty, but more likely she was one hundred. She barely reached my shoulder. Her stall was filled with food for the deer. Remarkably tame, over 1,000 deer (or shika) stroll freely through Nara Park.

Founded in 710, Nara was Japan’s first permanent capital. (Until then, each new emperor established a new capitol.) Known as Heijo-kyo (or citadel of peace), Nara rapidly became one of Asia’s most splendid cities, despite being capitol for only 74 years. It also became a major centre for Buddhism, for here the mountains divide heaven and earth, creating a home the gods. To many Japanese, this area of Japan is sacred.

As are the deer, for they are the messengers of the gods.

Staying in a Youth Hostel

One of the delights of staying for a few nights in a place, rather than visiting for a day, is having the time for unexpected discoveries. We passed the night in a youth hostel, and breakfast came courtesy of the vending machine: a variety of different flavoured minute noodles. Another offered a range of both hot and cold coffees, all served in a can. The man on reception even made us some green tea in a gorgeous ceramic pot.

Our walk from the youth hostel led through a largely residential area. Old houses stood amongst immaculate gardens with perfectly manicured trees. Many had stone fences, and near the front door there was often a statue of a badger for good fortune, often wearing a colourful apron or silly waistcoat. Being summer, flowers were everywhere.

Reaching Nara

The deer of Nara Park (c) A Harrison

The deer of Nara Park (c) A Harrison

Getting to Nara

By train from Kyoto Station on two lines: the JR Nara Line and the Kintetsu Limited Express (both under an hour).

From Osaka Namba Station, the Kintetsu Nara line takes around 45 minutes.

Both JR Nara Station & Kintetsu Nara Station have Tourist information Offices, and are a short walk to Nara Park

Nara Park

We entered Nara Park through the little-used Tegamon Gate, which was literally hidden at the end of the street. It was as if we strolled through a local park; despite being the height of tourist season, the place seemed empty. Nara Park is some 1300 acres of parkland in the centre of the city; more than enough for tourists to lose themselves. Within its walls are some of Nara’s most ancient and sacred buildings.

Within minutes, we’d spotted our first deer. Soon they were everywhere, some condescending to be patted, others scampering away should we come too close. Paths and secluded walkways enticed us in all directions. There are more than enough temples to satisfy the most ardent visitors; tea houses to partake of refreshment, vending machines for cold drinks and ice-cream (including green tea ice-cream), and stretches of manicured lawns beside lakes for simply relaxing. We even stumbled across some vegetable gardens and a few small rice paddies, all grown by the monks who live in the temple complexes. Walking down an alley of stone stairs, we came across a group of ladies painting.

Everywhere we walked, the deer were relaxing in the shade, nibbling the grass, or simply wandering at leisure.

The Great Buddha

The Todai-ji temple complex comprises the Daibutsuden (or Buddha Hall), sub-temples, halls and pagodas. The great southern gate is 19m high, whereas the temple itself has a striking roofline of up-turned lintels with golden tips. Within the Daibutsuden is The Great Buddha; at 16m, it is reputedly the world’s largest bronze Buddha. Cast in 752, its size becomes apparent when being cleaned; it is not uncommon to see four or five monks standing in the Buddha’s outstretched hand.

The Buddha’s head dates to 1692, a victim of earthquake, fires and wars. In a wooden pillar behind the Buddha is a small hole; it is said anyone who can squeeze through it will reach Nirvana.

Calligraphy in a temple, Nara (c) A Harrison

Calligraphy in a temple, Nara (c) A Harrison

The Kofuku-Ji Temple, Nara

A grand flight of stairs leads from the Sarusawa Pond to the Kofuku-ji Temple and Treasure House. This temple complex was founded in 669, although many of the original 175 buildings no longer remain. The current temple, a five-story pagoda, has been destroyed by fire several times; this building dates to 1462. It is the second tallest pagoda in Japan. The Eastern Golden Hall (or Tokondo) was constructed in 726 by Emperor Shomu (who also constructed the Todai-ji Temple) to speed the recovery of the Emperess Gensho. Along with the Treasure House, it has several priceless images, including a 12th century wooden bodhisattva of wisdom. There are also Buddhist paintings, scrolls, calligraphy and sculptures, many dating from the Nara and Heian periods.

Lanterns on a verandah (c) A Harrison

Lanterns on a verandah (c) A Harrison

Lanterns lining the path to the Grand shrine (c) A Harrison

Lanterns lining the path to the Grand shrine (c) A Harrison

Visiting the Kasuga Grand Shrine

There are numerous temples within the park, but not to be missed is the Kasuga Grand Shrine. This is one of Japan’s most photographed Shinto shrines. Originally built in 710, it was demolished and an identical shrine rebuilt every 20 years, in accordance with Shinto strictures of purity and renewal. The current building is relatively modern, dating to 1863.

The walkways around the shrine are lined with some 3000 stone and bronze lanterns. These have been donated over the centuries as tokens of thankfulness and faith. During festivals in February and mid August they are lit; a spectacular time to visit. You can also buy a slip of paper (omikuji) with your fortune; if unfavourable, simply tie it to one of the trees to negate its effects. Behind the temple is the Rokuen, a botanical garden preserving Japanese plants, and famous for its wisteria, plus its Homotsuden, a hall displaying costumes, swords and ancient armour.

A rice paddy for the monks (c) A Harrison

A rice paddy for the monks (c) A Harrison

Visiting Nara Park is walking back in time to the Japan that once was. As we left the park, the deer were using the subway to cross under the main street. From the rood of a nearby building we looked back over the park itself, with its primeval forest in which the trees have not been felled for hundreds of years. I felt I was not only looking back into time; I gazed over a sea of tranquility so often lost in this modern age.

And there are the deer. We finally succumbed to their doe-eyes, and bought a bag of wafer-biscuits. Suddenly they were no longer shy. They instantly surrounded us, demanding their share, and more than ready to head-butt us in the back if they thought we were holding out on them. One had the temerity to approach the food stall; immediately the tiny old lady whipped out a broom and chased it away. The deer may be sacred, but they don’t get a free feed.

© 2014 Anne Harrison