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Great Escapes Nara
(Entered Jun. 19, 2009)
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Located in the cultural shadows of Kyoto and Osaka, both which are roughly 30 minutes away by train, Nara is sometimes overlooked on tourist itineraries. This is unfortunate as it's arguably the most interesting part of the Kansai area. Realtively small and rural, it's interesting to note that this city was once, for a brief period, the capital of Japan.
Steve and I took a break from the pouring rain of Kyoto and headed here for half a day. When we arrived, the rain had stopped. A good start!

nara todaiji steve

Nara might not have the deluge of temples and historical sites that Kyoto has, but what it lacks in quantity, it makes up for in quality. Todaiji temple, the largest wooden building in the world, houses the Daibutsu, which at 15 meters, is the largest bronze gilt statue of Buddha in the world. Located in Nara park, about 10 minutes away on foot from Nara station, the area is picturesque and serene (at least when we were there). One can easily spend all day walking around the park visiting various historical and modern sites.

nara todaiji facing away

The massive size of the temple has to be seen to be appreciated. On the inside it is just one single huge room that could probably fit several airplanes in it. Front and center is the 15 meter tall daibutsu. In the back there is a special column that has a hole in it. The hole is supposedly the same size as the buddha's nostril, and if you can squeeze through it, you will apparently be blessed with enlightenment in your next life. When I was here years ago I managed to get through, to applause from the surrounding people, but this time around there were about 200 school kids in line ahead of us, all wanting to get through. Steve decided to give enlightenment a miss, and since I'd already been blessed the last time I was here, we contined on.

nara daibutsu buddha

Although it has some beautiful temples, Nara might be more well known for its deer, which roam freely around the entire city, and apparently number around 1200. The deer are revered in Nara as being messengers of the gods, so don't think you'll be eating venison in any nearby restaurants.

nara shika deer

Although they appear tame, and you can buy special 'deer crackers' that you can feed to them, the deer can sometimes be aggressive, especially if you don't give up those crackers like, right now. If there aren't many other people in the park, you may be swarmed by deer who show their impatience by biting, nudging, butting you. Thankfully the deer are fairly small, at least by Canadian standards, but the males still have fairly big antlers that you need to watch out for.
Don't let them push you around though. Nara deer are specially trained to bow before getting the crackers. No joke. I really want to meet the guy that managed to train 1200 or so deer to bow. Does he take each baby deer away for some bowing training before releasing it back into the herd? Maybe it's become instinctual? Anyway to start the bowing ritual, hold the cracker up out of reach. If you just shove them in their faces the deer will forget to be polite.

nara shika deer steve feeding

If there are no deer crackers to be had, hungry and frustrated deer may eat whatever's handy so watch out. Metal chains, cameras, backpacks, small animals... any people reported missing in Nara?
Actually the deer were all fatties. No doubt they get fed like 100 deer crackers every day each.

nara deer shika eating chain

A report on Nara wouldn't be complete without some video footage of Steve and I frolicing with the deer!

All humour aside, if you do head to Kansai, don't skip Nara, it may be the best part of your vacation! (Just make sure to keep an eye on your kids when feeding those hungry deer!)



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