Deer Deer Deer: My Trip To Nara
March 27, 2010
Though I’ve certainly enjoyed everything I’ve done in Japan up to this point, I’ll admit I probably haven’t traveled nearly as much as I should. The siren song of Osaka, with it’s cheap CD stores and delicious Mexican food, just rings so loudly sometimes. I’ve thus neglected to see different cities, even ones technically closer than Osaka. “You haven’t been to Kyoto yet? Or Nara?” Friends posted these questions the same way you’d say “you haven’t bathed in how long?” I didn’t blame them – it has been eight months (really?) and I don’t really have an excuse.
So, with no international Spring Break plans (another problem altogether), I decided to focus on going to the places in Japan I’d neglected to visit up to this point. First stop – Nara, the biggest city in neighboring Nara prefecture and Japan’s capital 1300 years ago. I took the day off from work and hopped on the train to see one of the most historic cities on this side of the world.
Stepping out of Kintetsu-Nara Station, what grabbed my attention right away was the silence. The usual city soundtrack of cars and voices isn’t as blaring here – it’s quieter. Nara is a Japanese city cutting out all the elements usually associated with Japanese cities – there is more space, less distractions, more room to walk. Things aren’t stacked on top of one another, meaning one three-story building contains about ten businesses. It’s more straightforward in Nara. Save for maybe an hour later in the day of aimless walking and a Mos Burger lunch, I didn’t spend much time in the city part of Nara. My day was spent getting lost in the massive Nara Park.
Nara Park is a deceptively large collection of open spaces and misty forests only a five minute walk away from the train station. Scattered about all this nature are relics of Japan’s past – temples, pagodas, shrines. It’s not perfect – soda machines lean against buildings like ivy growing on a wall, and the amount of cars driving down the paths kinda wipes out the magic – but still enchanting. This isn’t Ye Old Colonial Town…authentic artifacts sit untroubled for all to see.
The park ended up being even more serene than the city. Despite the heavy flow of tourists circling around the park – it was a virtual Babel as I heard English, German, Indian, Spanish, some Scandinavian tongue and who knows what languages I couldn’t recognize – Nara Park never felt like a shoddy theme park. The sheer natural and historical beauty present in the park was enough to leave visitors relatively silent. Considering tourists often get called (and often get called correctly) “obnoxious,” it was a pleasant surprise to see so many people entranced by the surroundings.
The one park feature everyone couldn’t resist talking about were the deer. A thousand-some deer call Nara Park home, and they roam around the mass expanse of land freely. Some lounge about in the sun, ignoring the paparazzi-lite masses snapping photos of them. Others sheepishly avoid human advances, darting over fences and into the off-limits forest. Most just bask in the attention and come right up to you. I’d be lying if I said seeing the deer wasn’t my main motivation for making the hour-and-a-half trip out to Nara.
The smartest deer congregate near the little stands selling deer biscuits. For 150 yen, you get a stack of cookies you can feed to the deer. The moment the snacks take the place of the money in your hands, you become the most popular person to the deer within the area. They walk towards you, the more passive of the bunch waiting for you to feed them well the more impatient creatures try to snatch the wafers out of your hands. They formed a circle around me – as I gave out snacks to those in the front, the deer in the back started ramming their heads into me to grab my attention. Of course, the moment I turned to feed them, the greedy deer in the front began assailing me. Then I ran out of food…and they ditched me for the next out-of-towner willing to plop down some coins. I saw deer chase five-year-old kids to try to get one more biscuit. If I had been a toddler, I would have been traumatized. But I enjoyed the experience.
I feel I saw at least half of the park’s deer population during my time wandering around. They crowded on streets, popped out from behind ancient lanterns, even snuck inside of gift stores. I don’t think I’ve taken more photos of a single subject before in my life. Here are some more deer:
Deeper into the forest were even more clusters of temples and shrines. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.
The finale of my trip to Nara Park would be the famous Todai-ji temple. I trudged through the rain and sea of visitors to see the truly massive building (the largest wooden building in the world, according to Wikipedia) and the humongous Buddha statue housed inside (the biggest Buddha statue in the world, so says the same site). Everything about this experience is humbling – the approach to the giant building, laying eyes on the more-than-impressive Buddha , walking around said statue and having the enormous proportions sink in. It’s probably the coolest thing I’ve seen in Japan yet, and words really fail as to describe the weird mixture of history, spirituality and massiveness the whole thing conjures.
I’d be hesitant to call Nara the best place I’ve visited in Japan…especially given the material used to write the intro of this post…but it certainly was one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had thus far. A day there evokes a series of contradictory images – it was one of the most diverse and crowded places I’ve seen, but also one of the most peaceful. It’s romantic, but also perfect for solitary thought. It brims with history, but feels tied to only the present. It was precisely the kinda trip I needed to clear my mind of thoughts as of late. I clearly have been missing out by not traveling more. But then again…does anywhere else have deer that will just come up right next to you?