What is there to do in Nara?
Located east of Osaka, Nara is often accorded only day-trip status by most travellers. Intrigued by the first permanent capital of Japan, I decided to spend 2 whole days there. The main draw? The wild but amazingly-tame Sika deers that roam Nara Park! In the Shinto religion, they are messengers of the Gods and thus are allowed to roam freely.
Nara is fantastic to cycle around, and I spent 2 days just wandering the massive Nara Park and her many temples, meandering the narrow alleyways of Naramachi flanked by traditional Japanese houses and shops.
1. Feed the deers
You may purchase 10 pieces of deer biscuits (shika senbei) for 150 yen at various places in Nara Park and earn yourself new friends of the Bambi kind! Over a thousand of these deers roam the Park, elderly, middle-aged and fawns, small, large or no antlers – they were all there. It was my first time petting a deer and I loved it when some bowed their heads to ask for food! Do be cautioned though — they are wild and thus have the potential to be slightly aggressive (i.e. butt you or chew on your clothes).
2. Visit temples and shrines
Nara Park is home to most of the prefecture’s attractions, including its popular Todaiji (pictured) and Kofukuji Temples. Todaiji is home to the world’s largest bronze Buddha statue (15 metres) in the Daibutsuden (Big Buddha Hall – also the largest wooden building in the world) and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Kofukuji comprises the Five-Storey Pagoda (2nd in height to Kyoto’s Toji Temple), the Three-Storey Pagoda, and the Eastern Golden Hall. If you are into Buddhist art, the National Treasure Museum would be a great stop. In the same stretch of Kofukuji and the Pagoda, you can find the Southern Octagonal Hall.
Deeper into the Park you will find Nara’s famous Kasuga Grand Shrine (Kasuga Taisha), with loads of lanterns and of course, deers.
3. Wander around Naramachi
If you are curious to know how Japanese homes and shops looked like back in the day (i.e. 1600s), you have to explore the alleyways of Naramachi. I noticed these red and white boxing-glove things hanging from most doorways here. These turned out to be hanging monkeys (migawari-zaru), believed to protect inhabitants from evil.If you are keen, you can visit Gangoji Temple as well as a Craft Museum among the lanes. Three hours should suffice.
4. Eat at Higashimuki Shopping Street
Enroute to Nara Park I would pass by this shopping street, with convenience stores, supermarkets, gift shops and loads of eating options. I had a cheap bento lunch set for 548 yen which included ice cream for dessert on the first day. For dinner I had marked down supermarket bento set and an alcoholic fruit drink for an incredible 328 yen! If you are keen to do some shopping, there is even a 100 yen shop there for all your needs!
5. People-watch at Sarusawa Ike Pond
Between Higashimuki and the mouth of Nara Park, you will see this beautiful pond with benches around it and flocks of pigeons. I spent 2 hours filming my time-lapse at a bench on a late afternoon, taking in the breeze and watching pigeons. In the distance you can also see the Five-Storey Pagoda.
Nara struck me as a quaint town with a size perfect for exploring on foot or on a bicycle. There was no need for buses or other standard forms of transportation. Arriving from crowded Osaka, it was liberating to have more open spaces to breathe and move about. Nara Park, at the heart of it, is where you should spend most of your time there.
Have you been to Nara? Did you enjoy meeting the deers?
All photos credit: Janell Hoong