The first time I saw Nara was 45 years ago when my mother took me on my first trip to Japan.
I vaguely remember deer and a very large Buddha. I hadn't been back since then so this Christmas,
I thought a return trip was in order. Nara after all is just one train ride away from Kyoto where we were staying for the holidays.
When you want to see a historical place such as Nara, it is always better to be in the company of a professional guide -- one who can not only navigate you through the vastness of the place but more importantly tell you about the history and significance of what you are seeing.
For this Nara trip, we were once again accompanied by Tours by Locals guide par excellence Chieko san, who has seen us through quite a number of tours. Because of that, she has become more than a guide -- she has become a friend.
Our journey started at Kyoto Station with a forty minute train ride on the Kintetsu Direct Express.
It was a Tuesday morning and thankfully the train wasn't full. There was plenty of room to stretch out and view the passing scenery.
From the Kintetsu Nara Station, Chieko san herded us all aboard the Nara City Loop Line which passes through the main tourist stops.
The Loop Line is very convenient for seeing all the major points of interest. For today, Chieko san had carefully planned the route for us -- we would start with the Kasuga Taisha shrine and make our way to Todaiji Temple to see the Daibutsu or the Great Buddha. Our stop was just a few minutes from the train station, at the entrance to Nara Park from where we would walk to the shrine.
But first things first ... I made a mad dash across the street to buy some biscuits for the deer.
Deer are plentiful in Nara. They are considered as sacred animals as it is believed that in the early days, a white deer descended from the mountains to protect the ancient capital.
Since then, they have multiplied to a couple of thousand and have complete run of Nara Park.
While they are tame and very used to humans, they also expect that the humans will hand them a tidbit or two.
Tourists are asked to not give the deer anything but these deer biscuits which are sold throughout the park. Each small pack of ten thin wafers costs 150 yen and can go very quickly, particularly when you are assaulted by a pack of hungry deer.
The deer reminded me of my big labrador retrievers -- there is no end to their appetite and they will eat as many biscuits as you can give them.
The biscuits probably give off a faint aroma as these deer knew that we had quite a bit of them hidden in a bag. Here is one sniffing our stroller, trying to find our secret stash.
Some of the deer, particularly the bigger ones can be quite aggressive and will poke and push you if they know you have biscuits to give. This particularly overbearing one has grabbed Chieko san's coat and is holding it hostage.
Chieko san told us to show the deer our empty hands and say "Nai" in a loud voice so that they would leave us alone.
A sign along the way warns visitors about the possible consequences of too close encounters with the deer -- they can grab your bag (which they did to a paper bag hanging from our stroller), bite you, kick you and yes, even knock you down. I did get a few nips but thankfully no damage was done, except for a getting quite a bit of deer saliva on my coat.
We passed this posse of deer hanging around a snack shop -- lying in wait for some hapless victims.
I made sure the biscuits were well hidden and we gave them a wide berth.
Deer aside, Nara is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the site of Japan's first permanent capital.
It is really one of the must see places in the Kansai region.
We passed through this torii along the road to Kasuga Taisha shrine. A lone deer stood right under the gate, watching us as we passed through. His thoughtful gaze made me think that he was truly a descendant of that first sacred deer that came down from the mountains, hundreds of years ago.
Right after the torii is the temizuya or water pavilion where visitors "purify" themselves for their visit to the shrine. This ritual is called misogi and is meant to cleanse the body and the mind before coming into the presence of the deity. To perform misogi, one rinses each hand and then rinses the mouth, spitting the water out into the drain built for that purpose.
Naturally, a huge deer is the main feature of Kasuga Taisha's temizuya.
As we walk to the shrine, I am reminded of Okunoin or the cemetery in Koya-san.
It must be the forest atmosphere, the air of serenity and the many stone lanterns that line the path.
Kasuga Taisha is famous for these lanterns. According to Chieko san, they number more than two thousand and have been donated by the faithful through the years.
Most of the lanterns along the path are moss covered and very old. There is a space for a candle in each lantern and I try to imagine how beautiful this place is when they are all lit up.
We finally come to the main shrine of Kasuga Taisha. A plaque informs visitors of the deities enshrined in Kasuga Taisha and that since the eight century all the way up to today, sacred rituals continue to be conducted in this shrine.
More lanterns, this time done in bronze hang from the main shrine at Kasuga Taisha.
Chieko san said that the lanterns are lit up only twice a year -- one in February and another in August, during the Obon Festival.
As we make our way from Kasuga Taisha through the woods of Nara Park, we pass more deer.
As they have parked themselves beside a no-smoking sign, I presume they are the non smokers, enjoying the cold, clean non-polluted air.
As we walk from Kasuga Taisha to our next destination, we pass through Wakakusa-yama or Mount Wakakusa. The picture does not do it justice, it's quite a lovely place.
Wakakusa-yama is the site where the annual grass burning takes place, sometime in January each year. This ritual has been going on for hundreds of years. It's actually a bit more than just grass burning -- the entire mountain top is set on fire and the blaze can be seen for miles around.
Just the type of festival a pyromaniac would enjoy.
As it is past noontime, we decide to stop in a small cafe called Shirogane right across Wakakusa-yama. Strangely enough, it's empty on this Tuesday afternoon -- completely devoid of tourists and visitors.
There is a gift shop for souvenirs and we do some browsing and buying while waiting for our orders to arrive.
Chieko san said that Nara's specialty is porridge but there is none available that day.
I opt for a bowl of nisshin soba or smoked herring with buckwheat noodles. It reminds me a lot of our local tinapa and is a light and delicious meal.
Fortified with food, we set off towards Todaiji Temple. Along the way, Chieko san takes us to Nigatsu-do Hall, which is up on one side of Wakakusa-yama. It reminds me of Kiyomizu-dera in the eastern hills of Kyoto.
Like Kiyomizu-dera, you have to climb up steep stone steps to get to Nigatsu-do's balcony to enjoy the spectacular view of the city below.
Before we reach the main hall of Todaiji Temple, we stop by this large bronze bell which is the second largest in Japan. This dates back from the tenth century although its pavilion has been rebuilt and reconstructed since that time.
The Daibutsu-den is the largest wooden structure in the world although what we see today is just two-thirds of its original size. These scale models show the size difference between the original on the left and the existing structure on the right.
Once inside the hall, you see the towering 15 meter tall Daibutsu or Giant Buddha as it sits serenely on top of a pedestal of bronze lotus petals. This pedestal is all that remains of the original and dates back to the eight century. The bronze Buddha has since been recast and is no longer the original statue.
The Daibutsu has such a tranquil and peaceful face -- despite the number of visitors in the hall,
I found it impossible not to feel stillness and quietude in his presence.
I found it impossible not to feel stillness and quietude in his presence.
While making my way through the Daibutsu-den, I came upon this man who had stacks of tiles behind him. A sign said that for 1,000 yen, you could donate one tile to the continuing reconstruction of the buildings in Todaiji and could even write your message on the tile.
I knew immediately that it was 1,000 yen that I wanted to spend.
I have enjoyed visiting many temples and shrines in Japan and have learned much from these experiences. The small donation seemed a pittance compared to the priceless gifts of grace, serenity and insight that I know I had gained from these visits.
The sign said that you could write your wish on the tile but I decided not to.
Chieko san asked me "But what do you wish for?"
I told her Buddha knew the wish in my heart.
The visit to Todaiji's Daibutsu-den marked the end of the day. As we exited, we saw more deer but they seemed placid and tamer than the pushy ones we had encountered earlier.
Perhaps being so near the Daibutsu also had a calming effect on them.
We made our way towards Nandaimon Gate, a large wooden structure that marks the southern entrance to Todaiji. Like the Daibutsu-den, it is a large and imposing structure and if you were entering from this side, it prepares you for the grandeur that is to come.
It is just past 2 p.m when we exit through Nandaimon and we meet a lot of tourists who are just starting to arrive.
We've spent more than five hours going through Nara Park, from Kasuga Taisha all the way to Todaiji Temple. This map shows just how far we've walked -- we managed to cover almost all of the section in green.
But I don't think that any one of us noticed the distance nor felt it -- the entire walk was a wonderful experience made even more meaningful by Chieko san's informative and interesting commentaries.
Finally, here is my photo with one of the more well behaved deer in Nara.
He didn't try to grab my drink nor did he try to mooch for any biscuits.
He just stayed patiently beside me and kept me company.
Cheers, my deer!
Thank you for a lovely day in Nara.