from “Plastic Letters”, Blondie, 1977.
Less than an hour’s train journey from Osaka is Nara (奈良), the once ancient capital of Japan. With being so close it seemed appropriate to take a look and see some of what the city had to offer: mainly temples and deer it seemed after consulting the guide book!
Nara was Japan’s first permanent capital city and was established in 710. After the influence and political ambitions of the city’s powerful Buddhist monasteries grew to become a serious threat to the government, the capital was moved to Nagaoka in 784 before moving again to Kyoto in 794. The Japanese capital doesn’t half move around a lot!
Two trains – via the Osaka Loop Line and Kintetsu Nara Line – saw us arrive in Nara in just under an hour; trains are definitely the way to travel around in Japan. Kintetsu Nara station is ideally located right on the western edge of Nara Park wherein are situated many of Nara’s attractions.
And the first thing you meet as you get to the park are the deer. And their smell. And poo.
The deer are the mascot of Nara and feature on pretty much every souvenir you can buy. Nara Park is home to hundreds of these deer that freely roam around, predominantly looking for tourists to feed them. They are very tame and have no real fear of humans, and they can be a bit persistent if they think you have food. There are bundles of deer crackers for sale around the park and it’s rather entertaining to watch the other tourists trying to feed the deer whilst struggling to get that all important selfie with them.
Suffice to say the park and anywhere associated with the deer – including the temples where they are allowed to roam – smells of deer doo-doo. And their poo is everywhere so you really do need to keep your eyes open if you don’t want to be taking home an unexpected Nara deer souvenir!
As such we were slightly surprised to encounter Nara’s Oktoberfest 2016, which was taking place in Nara Park. Firstly – and maybe this is being a bit picky but – it’s June not October 🙂 Secondly the beer and food tents are in one of the open spaces in the park and well, as previously mentioned, there’s deer poo and smell everywhere. We don’t think it’s quite the atmosphere you really want with your beer and bratwurst. Perhaps we’re just being fussy; there seemed to be plenty of others – locals and tourists – enjoying the event, so good on them.
Our first stop was the Nara National Museum, free for us courtesy of our Kansai region Grutto Pass – these passes for the different regions in Japan are a great idea and very good value too, especially as we have time to fully utilise them.
The Nara National Museum primarily displays Japanese Buddhist art and artefacts, and there was also a special exhibition on washi (和紙) – Japanese handmade paper. Established in 1889, the museum is formed of both the original building and a new wing. To reduce impact on the park they are joined by an underground passage, which is also home to the museum’s gift shop and café. Both wings display the museum’s permanent collection, which includes Buddhist statues, paintings, scrolls, bronzes, and ceremonial objects mainly from Japan. And yes, there is no photography allowed. Sigh.
The exhibits here were really very good, lots of wonderful items with many of them over 2,000 years old and we enjoyed a leisurely couple of hours strolling around. The museum was not too crowded and we were able to enjoy the artefacts on display and even get some background on them as there was information available in English.
Next, and in keeping with the Buddhist theme, was the Todai-ji temple (東大寺, meaning “Great Eastern Temple”). This was our temple of choice from the several that are situated in and around Nara Park.
The temple was constructed in 752 as the head temple of all the provincial Buddhist temples of Japan. However, it grew so powerful that the capital was moved from Nara to Nagaoka in order to reduce the temple’s influence on government affairs.
Today the Todai-ji temple is most well known for being home to the largest bronze seated Buddha statue in the world, some 15 metres high, as well as the main hall being the world’s largest wooden building.
Here are a few pictures from our wander around the temple.
Towards the end of our walk around the main hall we came across a horde of school children queued up have their picture taken as they squeezed through a hole in the base of one of the temple’s main pillars.
Odd, we thought. We subsequently discovered the hole is supposedly the same size as the Buddha’s nostrils and that it is said that those who can squeeze through this opening will be granted enlightenment in their next life. Like this mush here:
As we already have enlightenment we didn’t need to try our luck squeezing through the hole 😛
We thoroughly enjoyed our time in Nara, despite the perils of deer poo. We are happy to report that no squidgy deer souvenirs of any kind were collected, just some good pictures and good memories.