On arrival at Nara station, I was pleasantly surprised to find art work all along the platforms. After admiring all the art pieces, I started to make my way to Nara park as I had heard this was a great place to see deers. On my way, I decided to walk through the town to see what else Nara had to offer.
On this little detour, I discovered something that I never expected to see; a matcha mochi store! (mochi is a Japanese sweet) The cooks there make it fresh everyday which I was amazed to see; smacking the mochi dough with a wooden hammer and throwing it about to create such a fine, delicate sweet.
These mochis were squishy, just like most mochi’s are, but were a lot more gooey on the inside. They almost feel like a firm play dough, but are much heavier. When you go to eat it, you may expect them to be firm, but they’re actually soft like butter! If you wish to try these and see the mochi being made, it’s best to go in the morning. I was told that mochi will sell out quick, and that the shop stops making mochi around lunchtime
After eating way too many mochis (I’ll admit, I don’t even know how many I had!) I decided to head off to the park to find the legendary deer of Nara. Just before getting into the park, I saw a sign saying “deer cracker and food,” so I figured I would stop and get some. I had come all this way, I figured I may as well do the touristy thing and feed the deer.
However, what I didn’t expect was the size of the park! It was huge, and deer could be seen everywhere. It reminded me of Petworth Park, an area close to where I grew up in England. The difference though was that there were no walls keeping the deer in, and that the deer weren’t afraid so didn’t run away from passers by.
As soon as I walked into the park, I was greeted by a deer bowing to me. I felt like I was meeting Buckbeak the Hippogriff! After I bowed back to him, he stepped towards me, letting me touch his very soft head and feed him one of the rice crackers I had just picked up. Never did I expect to be feeding a deer by hand before that moment.
Almost every time the deer takes a cracker from you, they will make a little grunt. I didn’t even know deers could make noises, but these ones were noisy. Like most animals, the deer didn’t seem to care who was there unless they had food, which I really enjoyed. If you want to feed them and have a cute moment you can, but if you want to walk around and just enjoy Nara you can as well, you just might have some deer following you around!
I had been warned that the deer could be quite aggressive and will try to steal your food, but I didn’t experience any aggression, just a little nudge from a deer every so often. It felt like they were saying “hey I’m here, got any food for me?” Like a dog at a dinner table would.
As I headed out of the park to go explore Nara, I noticed that some of the deer had followed me out. At first I felt bad that I had led these deer out of the park and they were now roaming the city with me. However, funnily enough, I suddenly started to notice that the deer were actually walking everywhere around Nara! I then thought to myself, this is even more special than the park as every Japanese city is amazing but the rest of them don’t have deer that follow you around! What more could you want!?
As I explored Nara further I found myself heading towards a temple. While walking to this temple, I found myself following a deer until I got to the entrance. That amazed me so much that I had to remind myself to look around at the different shop as well, and not to only focus on this deer! As I kept heading to the entrance I started to feel like I was walking my pet deer! As we got to the entrance the deer took off to go find some more rice crackers from the next tourists arriving . I then saw the enormous wooden gate, announcing the entrance to the temple.
As I walked through the gate I was greeted by two huge statues of Japanese deities. This got me thinking “what else could be in this temple?!”
Under each statue, there was an information sign explaining that the reason the deer are so well looked after was because of the legend of the deity Takemi Kajichi no Mikoto. It has been said that he rode the sacred deer from the Kashima Shrine to Nara. Many hundreds of years later, the deer have become accustomed to humans, and the respect between the humans and deer can be seen all around the park.
When entering the temple complex, I was able to see how massive this temple really was. I couldn’t believe that this was in Nara because it’s not spoken about. I had only known about the deer when I arrived here. When I got inside the temple, I learned that it is the world’s largest standing wooden structure. Walking closer and closer to the temple, I started to feel like an ant, I was amazed by how big the temple was! By getting closer and being able to see all the little carvings on the wood, I was able to see how much detail had been put into constructing this temple. On the inside, I was greeted by a huge bronze statue of Buddha, and as I walked around, there were even more beautiful statues of Japanese deities; some gold, some bronze, and others wooden.
Just before I left the temple, a Japanese man told me to try and fit through a hole, and told me that it was good luck. This hole, however, was very small and attached to the roof of the temple. I told him that I didn’t want to offend anyone, but he pressed on, telling me that everyone tries. He told me that the hole was the same size as Buddha’s. Buddha’s what?? I think the man could see my confusion, and at that point told me that the hole was the size of this Buddha’s nose! After finally understanding what was happening, I figured I would try! I had seen some students trying to fit through before, so why not? I, however, got stuck trying to go through! This gave some Japanese students a good laugh as I figured out how to get out.
When I had left the temple after figuring out I am too big to fit through Buddha’s nose, I decided to head to Nara forest. Escaping the hustle and bustle of the cities can be very nice while travelling, so whenever I see the opportunity to head into a forest, I will. As I made my way into the forest, I came across more of Nara’s famous deer! As well as ANOTHER TEMPLE!! After realising these deer roam freely around Nara park, city, and forest, I loved this place even more. My personal favourite place to see the deer was the forest, as they seemed calm and at peace in the forest. The deer roamed around the old rocks, and I realised that this was how I had initially pictured Japan.
When I arrived at the temple, named Kasuga-Taisha, it appeared to be in the middle of the forest. I wasn’t sure if it would be worth going in at first, as I had just seen such an amazing temple not long ago, but once I watched three deer walk straight past the ticket booth and through the gate, I knew I had to follow. The temples in Japan are so beautiful, so seeing deer wandering into one made me feel like I had travelled back in time to see when the deity Takemi Kajichi no Mikoto road a deer into Nara.
The temple Kasuga-Taisha was not as grand in size as the first one I went to in Nara, but this one was definitely more beautiful! It had a cute Japanese garden, lanterns both outside and on the red painted pillars of the temple, as well as a lovely rock garden. This temple also contains a secret! If you follow all the lanterns in the temple, they will lead to a dark hallway with what must have been hundreds of lanterns inside! Each lantern was unique inside, with each one containing different writing on it, as well as different patterns. Some had flowers, but my personal favourite had the Nara deer designed on it. By this point of my trip, I must have been in about 15-20 temples and this is the first one where I had seen anything like this!
Seeing the deer roam freely around the forest, surrounded by old rocks and the temple was an experience I didn’t know I needed, but was certainly a huge highlight of my trip. If you’re going to Nara, be sure to check out it’s little secrets, and remember to follow the deer!