My boyfriend convinced me to take a day trip from Kyoto to the ancient capital Nara. In order to fit everything into our tight temple and shrine schedule in Kyoto we decided to begin the day by dropping in at iconic Fushimi Inari Taisha.
Fushimi Inari Taisha
The place is one of the most recognisable in Japan and often covers the front of guidebooks. What makes it so famous is its thousands of closely placed Torii gates, which creates an almost otherworldly atmosphere both in photos and when standing in the midst of it.
However, with so many other places in Kyoto the shrine was overrun with tourists, us included, and everyone was fighting to get that one shot of their kids alone at the Torii gates.
Irritation could be tasted in the air as people, me included, were tripping to push that couple, which has been honking up the good place, out of the way.
I almost elbowed a gay couple who took way too long. And I am sure others rolled their eyes at me as I took my time getting that picture which makes the viewer believe that it is a peaceful place off the beaten path.
Feeling the crowds around us, we decided to skip our idea of trekking all the way to the top and returned to the train station from where we hopped on a direct train to Nara.
In his attempt to persuade me to go on this day trip, my boyfriend had been explaining something about deer, but I honestly didn’t get it. The last thing I want is to go to the zoo.
But not long after arriving in Nara it became obvious that the deer were not secluded to the zoo or a nature park. Rather the city of Nara was their nature park.
At first we spotted a group of deer lying in the side of the road in the smack middle of the city centre at a rather trafficked road. More deer were relaxing in the shade of the nearby park, while tourists were feeding them deer crackers.
I have seen many things in my life, but the symbiosis existing between humans and deer in Nara surprised me. I never in my wildest imagination could have thought that a city existed where deer walked among men.
Buddhism in Nara
But Nara is known for something else besides its deery population. Nara was the first permanent capital of Japan and was established in 710 AD at a time when it was known as Heijo.
However, it only lasted 74 years before the Buddhist monks became too powerful and the emperor and government moved the capitol from the city to Nagaoke. Here it existed for 10 years before the thousand year reign of Kyoto as imperial capital of Japan.
In this way, Nara is the older and less known sister of Kyoto. The period during Nara’s – or Heijo’s – reign as imperial capital is known as the Nara Period.
The Nara Period is known for its large influence from Chinese society and Confucian ideals. Heijo-kyo was modelled after Chang’an, capital of the Tang Dynasti and reached 200.000 people with 10.000 working in government jobs. Moreover, Buddhism became a large influence and permanent presence in Japan during this period.
As a Buddhist stronghold with powerful monasteries, it is no surprise that one of Nara’s biggest attractions is the large bronze Buddha statue, build in 752 AD. It stands in the Tōdai-ji temple, which was once one of the seven great temples of Nara influencing the Nara Period and one of the largest wooden buildings in the world.
The statue was massive, but I found greater fun in the tons of deer wondering around just outside the temple domain, mingling with eager tourists.
Many of the deer were fed deer crackers and went ballistic as soon as they heard the cracking, running towards which ever small boy was holding them. But I soon found out that apart from crackers, the deer loved paper.
While standing outside a souvenir ship figuring out which way to go next and holding our only map in my hand, I was the victim of a deer sneak attack. They came from nowhere, this mean group of deer and snatched our map right out of my hand.
Though I attempted to get it back, I succeeded only in getting a half chewed ball of paper which I had the fortune to carry around for another half an hour due to the lack of public garbage cans. Yeah me!
I enjoyed the deer and I was fascinated with the grand Buddha of Tōdai-ji temple, but I found peace at Isuien Garden. It is by far the most beautiful Japanese garden I have experienced so far. Perhaps because unlike the Kenrokuen garden of Kanazawa it is small and intimate.
Originally it was two gardens, which now is the front and the rear gardens of Isuien Garden. The front garden was bought by Kiyosumi in the 1670’s and reconstructed between 1673 and 1681 after it originally formed part of a temple.
The beautiful Sanshu-tei house, which means house of the three wonders, is from that reconstruction.
After a long day at Fushimi Inari Taisha and Nara, my feet are killing me. My boyfriend claims that most of the trip I have been saying that I can’t walk any further and for the life of me I can’t understand how I’ve made it. But I am mighty pleased that we took this day trip and I will never forget the surrealism of walking with deer in Nara.