When my husband and I were planning out our recent trip to Japan, one attraction caught my fancy and wouldn’t let go – Nara Deer Park. A park full of adorable, tame Bambis to pet and take selfies with? Count me in!!
Nara was easily accessible from either Osaka or Kyoto, two of the main cities we were staying in. We decided to make the trip from Osaka, in case we ran into a streak of rainy weather in Kyoto. So, we took the Rapid Express train from Osaka Namba Station to Kintetsu Nara Station, then we hopped a local bus to get to the park.
Even as the bus pulled into Nara Park, we spotted deer in every direction. Some were casually strolling across the streets, while others leisurely grazed under the shade of the trees. Mark laughed and said, “Well, I guess we won’t have any trouble spotting them.” Then he took the zoom lens off his camera and replaced it with a standard portrait lens. It seemed like overkill to try and zoom in on animals that were just a few feet away!
We hopped off the bus and snapped photos as we walked through the lushly treed area. The deer, obviously used to humans, barely batted an eye. Which made photographing them a breeze:
But wait. Why are the deer even here, you might ask?
In Shinto religion, the deer are thought to be divine messengers of the Kasuga Grand Shrine, and are considered sacred. In fact, up until 1637, it was illegal to kill one, and doing so was punishable by death!
After World War II, the deer lost their sacred status. But, in 1957 the government gave them protection as a natural treasure. The park now has around 1200 sika deer, which are native to most of East Asia. They are allowed to wander freely anywhere in the park and beyond, as there are very few fences around the park.
The sika seer have one interesting and unique trait: they never lose their trademark spots, even after reaching adulthood.
This warning sign in the park made us take pause – these were perhaps not the most cuddly, snuggly animals in the world, despite their huge marble eyes and moist, boopable snouts:
But come on – just look at these innocent faces! They just want to welcome you to the park. What mischief could they possibly get into?
There’s more to see in Nara Park than just the deer, though. There are numerous shrines and temples, as well as the Nara National Museum. Tōdai-ji temple is also on the park grounds. It’s considered to be the largest wooden building in the world, and houses a 50-foot Buddha statue!
There are also thousands of beautiful stone lanterns on either side of the paths as you walk toward Kasuga Grand Shrine. 3000 lanterns, to be exact!
Local citizens donated the lanterns, which represent the 3000 auxiliary shrines around Japan.
As you can see, the deer are so important to this site that their images are even carved into the stone lanterns!
Along our stroll, we passed a purification fountain near one of the torii gates. Mark and I watched as several people performed the standard cleansing ritual before visiting the grand shrine.
They would take a water dipper, hold it to catch the water pouring from the statue’s mouth, wash their left hand, then repeat to wash their right. Some would then cup their hand, pour a bit of water into it, sip it, then spit it out. Once they finished the process, they held the dipper up so the remaining water poured down the handle to wash it, before placing it back on the rack. Mark decided to perform the ritual as well, minus the water sipping:
There were a few different paths to follow through the park, so we decided to get off of the busier main path and follow a side trail instead. We came across several smaller shrines, which were very peaceful and not nearly as crowded:
They also had kiosks where you could purchase various charms or paper fortunes. They even had wooden wishing plaques (called “ema”) to write messages asking for good luck, and even love:
Interestingly, Nara was officially designated as a park on February 14, 1880. So the hearts seem especially appropriate.
Mark, being quite the romantic, asked if we should fill out a heart together. After all, it just happened to be our wedding anniversary!
We popped into the kiosk to find out how much the plaques were to purchase. They were 800 yen each.
Mark and I looked at each other, and agreed that we could buy a pint of beer or glass of wine that night to celebrate our anniversary for that same amount.
Apparently, you CAN put a price on love – and it’s around $8 Canadian.
By this time, we were ready to brave the crowds again and see more deer.
The park had special deer crackers you could purchase for 150 yen (about $1.50 Canadian) to feed to the deer. Over the years, the deer have learned to “bow” politely for treats. Which is actually kind of a bad gesture to teach an animal whose instinct is to head-butt when another deer bows its head toward them.
Mark had a lot of luck getting the deer to bow for him, even when he had no crackers to offer:
Unfortunately, I wasn’t quite as skilled at it…
By this time we were getting munchy, so we decided to walk to the tea house for tea and a sweet. Mark bought matcha mochi (sweet balls of dough made with powdered green tea and sweet rice flour):
I opted for persimmon cake, since Nara is famous for its persimmons and they were in season:
What you don’t see in this photo is the persistent deer who kept peering into the windows of the tea house behind me, bowing to anyone who would make eye contact to try and get a handout!
After we ate, we explored the Kasuga Grand Shrine, which has numerous beautiful bronze lanterns. The shrine was established in 768 AD, and has been rebuilt many times since:
Once we had our fill of the park, we decided to take a different route back to the train station. This gave us the opportunity to visit the 5-storied pagoda, which is the second-tallest pagoda in Japan! It was originally built in 730 AD, but this is a 1426 reconstruction.
The Kofuku-ji temple was established in 669 AD, but was destroyed and rebuilt many times through the centuries – a common theme throughout Japan. This is the South Octagonal Hall:
And this is the East Golden Hall, one of three former golden halls:
We really enjoyed our visit to Nara, and easily could have spent another day here. We never did make it to the Todaiji temple…..