One of the ancient capitals, Nara is a famous destination that is sadly often overlooked by tourists as it is so close to other popular cities such as Osaka and Kyoto. However, one of the crowning glories of Nara and indeed the main reason to visit Nara is because of its park. Nara Koen is so much more than trees and flowers – at over 600 hectares (including all temple grounds) the park has much to offer in the way of things to see and do – not least of which are the charming shika deer. If Nara isn’t already on your holiday hit list, then perhaps this article will convince you to stop off for a day trip if nothing else.
The main feature that the park is famous for is the deer. There are around 1,200 deer that roam freely around the park and, due to their close contact with humans, have become quite tame and unlike the shy, nervous deer you are used to.
Legend has it that one of the four gods of the Kashima Shrine visited Nara, mounted on the back of a majestic white deer – a picture that is often reproduced in historic art which you can see at the Nara National Museum. This tale led to the belief that deer are divine and it wasn’t until after the second world war that they were stripped of their divine status. Until 1637 it was punishable by death to kill these deer, but in the nearby Shiga Prefecture (when overpopulation of deer became a big problem) special permission was granted for a deer cull, the resulting meat being used by the famous CoCo Curry House in a limited edition venison curry.
The deer are a major draw for tourists – you can purchase deer crackers (shika senbei) to feed them with. Shika deer in Nara Park are sometimes known as ‘bowing deer’ because of the polite way in which they bow when they want a cracker. However, some are not so friendly and will have no qualms about sticking their nose into your pockets in search of senbei or even jumping up at you to bite at a cracker out of reach. If you do experience this sort of roughness from the deer, don’t be frightened – just be firm with them. Deer in the park have their antlers cut off so are of very little danger to you, but if you so happen to see one that hasn’t been cropped yet, steer clear!
Another tourist draw of Nara park is the Todaiji Temple – the largest wooden building on earth, which houses the Daibutsuden – the great Buddha. Despite being the biggest wooden structure, it used to be even bigger – the current version was rebuilt in the early 1700’s after having previously burnt down twice, and was rebuilt at only two-thirds of its original height, now measuring about 50 meters tall, 50 meters wide and with a breadth of almost 60 meters. However, it is still an impressive building and unique in that photography is allowed within the temple.
The Great Buddha statue is almost 15 meters tall. It weighs 500 tons and its shoulders are 28 meters across. Emperor Shomu left his mark on the Buddha: using x-ray, it has recently been discovered that inside the knee of the Buddha are several relics of the emperor, including swords, mirrors, jewels, pearls and… a human tooth.
There are other small statues within the temple, as well as a hollow tunnel through the bottom of one of the support columns which you can crawl through… if you think you’ll fit! Entrance to the temple is 500 yen for adults and 300 yen for primary school children.
These two attractions are located on the far side of the park which, in my opinion, is the choice direction to enter the park from – crowds flock to the west side of the park which is crowded and noisy, but the east side is much more atmospheric and alluring – a particularly good entrance if you’ve previously been visiting the Irie Taikichi Memorial Museum of Photography, which is close by.
The paths up to the shrine are lined with around 2,000 beautiful stone lanterns, which are particularly stunning if you get to see them lit up. Remember the legend about the god riding the white deer? Well, the family that invited that god to come and visit was the Fujiwara’s (a prominent aristocrat clan in the 8th century) and the Kasuga Taisha Shrine was founded as their personal family shrine. The roof of the shrine is of a dark cypress wood and blends in perfectly with the forest behind.
The primeval (of the earliest time in history) forest has been closed off for over a thousand years. It was the year 841 when logging and hunting was banned in the forest and it has remained almost entirely untouched to this day, making it a sanctuary for protected species. As you can imagine, tourists are not allowed to enter this sacred place, but to stand on the brink and peer into the gloomy, silent atmosphere is a moving experience in itself.
Located within the grounds of the park, the museum is a grand collection of historical Buddhist Art. There are both permanent and temporary exhibitions so check out the website so see what’s going on. Even if you don’t have time to go inside the main parts, there are a couple of small things that you can do for free, as well as having a glance at the original building which is a stunning piece of architecture.
This is usually the first thing that tourists do on their way into Nara park – the temple is right next to the road that leads into the park up from the station. The temple celebrated the 1,300 year anniversary of its founding in 2010, but the popular and photogenic five-story pagoda is only 600 years old – it had burnt down five times previously.
It may seem like I’ve told you a whole bunch of things you can see and do in Nara park but… that’s only the beginning! I haven’t even touched upon the Kofukuji Kokuho-Kan Museum, the Tokondo Hall, the Great Bell, the Todaiji Museum, nor several other temples, gardens, and attractions that there are to see in Nara Koen. If you only get to spend one day in Nara then it’s possible to do most of the things listed above (if, like me, you’re that kind of pack-it-all-in, walk-a-million-miles, see-all-the-things type of tourist) but if you’ve got a few days to spread it out over (as well as seeing some of the attractions that are outside of the park) then that’d be even better. Nara Koen is a place steeped in history, culture, religion and, above all, nature – and if you come away from your Nara Koen visit without a pocket full of shika-senbei crumbs, you haven’t made the most of it!
Nara Park Website*Japanese Only