Zara rarely meets an animal or insect she doesn’t love, from rolly-pollys to pigeons to the more pet-friendly varieties.  (She does draw the line at road-kill, however, as I learned the other day after pointing out a squashed frog to her. “Mommy–I only like live frogs!”).  So when I heard about Nara and its famous deer, I knew it was a day-trip we had to take.

We took the train from Kyoto Station to Nara, about a 35 minute ride IF you avoid the local train (which we learned the hard way on the return journey).  Nara became Japan’s first permanent capital in 710 and the deer are Nara’s royalty.  The legend goes that a mythological god, Takemikazuchi, arrived in Nara on a white deer to guard the new capital.  Thus, the deer were regarded as heavenly animals, protecting the city and the country, although post-WW II, their divine status was downgraded to “protected national treasure”.

As we walked the mile or so from the station towards Nara Deer Park, Zara was single-minded in her focus.  “When are we going to see the deer?  How much further until the deer?”  Jonathan kept reassuring her that she’d see plenty of deer, but she was still displeased by our first detour to see the  five story pagoda of Kofuku-ji.

We’re accustomed to seeing the occasional deer on a hike, the skittish type that take flight through the forest before you can get within 30 feet, so we were all taken aback by our first deer sighting in front of the pagoda.  “They’re not real,” Zara insisted, and even I had to do a triple-take at the two regal deer sitting calmly for photos with tourists until I saw an ear twitch.

First deer sighting in front of the five story pagoda.

First deer sighting in front of the five story pagoda.

We didn’t linger long at the first temple, as we thought that the best strategy was to head directly to the Deer Park now that Zara’s appetite had been whetted.  As we entered the large park, we immediately started seeing small groupings of deer crowding around tourists.  Vendors scattered throughout the park sell special deer crackers and so we bought our first pack and quickly learned that the deer were anything but shy, and signs scattered throughout the park warned especially of the danger of an overly agressive deer “butt” to the elderly and small children (although they targeted me first).  After an hour or so spent feeding the deer, we wended our way through the park onto the lower slopes of Mt. Mount Wakakusayama for some non-deer sightseeing.

Fortunately, Nara had a lot more to offer than just deer, as there are seven main temple complexes.  We stopped first at Katsuga Shrine and Nigatsu-dō and then headed to the famous Todai-ji, whose great Buddha Hall was initially constructed in 752 but has been rebuilt twice due to fire (a common hazard with Japan’s wooden structures).  The hall was the largest wooden structure in the world until 1998 and houses a massive statue of the “Cosmic Buddha”.  It also has a wooden beam with a hole in it that is purportedly the same size as one of the Buddhas nostrils. There was a long line to crawl through the hole, as legend has it that those who pass through it will be blessed with enlightenment in their next life.  Zara made it through but Jonathan wisely declined after seeing a Japanese pre-pubescent teen almost get stuck.  (Jonathan reports having done it 20 years earlier so he’s already set for his next life.)

Enlightenment!

Enlightenment!

As we exited the last temple complex into a crowd of school-kids and tour groups, Zara begged for another deer cracker package.  By this time, most deer were recoiling at the sight of the deer crackers.  She had difficulty finding any willing takers, and most deer just lounged lazily or did their business on the busy path, their droppings immediately swept up by energetic elderly men.  I’d reached the point of major deer fatigue, where the sight and smell of them was just getting to be too much and was relieved when Zara got rid of her last cracker.  I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but even Bambi can lose his charm.

Touring Nara

Touring Nara

Washing hands at Nara

Washing hands at Nara

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Friends

Friends

Jonathan's mum getting up close and personal with the deer at Nara

Jonathan’s mum getting up close and personal with the deer at Nara

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View above Nara

View above Nara

Todai-ji

Todai-ji

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