When Nara is mentioned, the first place that comes to mind is the Nara Deer Park where more than a thousand deer roam freely. However, did you know that Nara was Japan’s first permanent capital? This was in around 710 in the Nara Era when the city was known as ‘Heijokyo’. It is one of the oldest cities in Japan and is especially historically significant, and houses some of Japan’s oldest and largest temples. It relinquished the title of capital in 794 because of the threat the rising political influence of the Buddhist monasteries posed.
A trip to Kansai would not be complete without a trip to Nara. From central Osaka and Kyoto, it takes 40 and 30 minutes by train respectively to get to Kintetsu-Nara or Nara station. From there, you can easily reach Nara Park, which is home to the four unique locations below.
The Nara Deer Park is a 5-minute stroll from Kintetsu-Nara station. Deer are considered messengers of the gods in Shintoism, but sacred as they are, the initial excitement of meeting the deer does not wane much over the course of the day. There are wagons peddling shika senbei or deer biscuits along the path. The deer are cute and friendly though they tend to walk away when they realize there’s no food for them.
The Nara National Museum is an art museum where Japanese Buddhist art comprises the resident exhibition. Established in 1889, the museum is located in Nara Park and retains its original building till present. Right next to the museum is a little store run by an old couple that sells delicious dango, or mochi rice dumplings, in sweet or savory miso.
Continue down the road toward Todai-ji (東大寺). Todai-ji is one of the most famous temples in Japan and the landmark of Nara. Estimated to be constructed in 741, it became so powerful that the capital was moved away from Nara to Nagaoka to reduce its influence on state affairs. In the inner Big Buddha Hall sits a 15-meter high Buddha and two Bodhisattvas. There was also a line waiting to crawl through a small hole in one of the integral support pillars; it supposedly brings good fortune to those who make it through. It is a comical sight when people get stuck. There was also a huge baseball glove and ball, the size of the Big Buddha’s palm on display. It was a representation of Japan’s, and Nara’s especially, love for baseball, and efforts for the Fukushima disaster.
Right outside the crossing of Todai-ji is a family restaurant serving udon, soba, and curry. The kitsune, tempura, and curry udon are hearty and inexpensive!
Kasuga Taisha (春日大社) was built when Nara was established as the capital. It is Nara’s most celebrated shrine, dedicated to the deity who protects the city. Hundreds of bronze and stone lanterns donated by worshippers line the temple. Apart from the main shrine, the grounds of Kasuga Taisha are sprawling. Deer wander in and out of the greenery. There is also a path that visits the smaller shrines of twelve lucky gods.
There are many other places of religious and spiritual interest in Nara, such as Horyu-ji, but for a day trip, this sightseeing schedule offers a pretty good feel of the peace and serenity of Nara.