Since you are a frequent traveler, have you visited Nara in Japan? Nara was the capital of Japan from 710 to 794 and is known for its ancient temples, stunning gardens, and friendly deer. The deer in Nara are considered sacred and are designated as natural treasures of Japan. Visitors can feed and interact with these friendly deer.
We decided to visit Nara when we based ourselves in Osaka. Nara is about an hour train ride from either Kyoto or Osaka. Since our hotel was in Osaka, we decided to take a tour of Nara with a pickup at our hotel. On other trips from Osaka, we took the JR train to Kanazawa, Fukuoka, Kobe and Tokyo. We purchased a JR pass in order to save money on travel and use the Shinkansen bullet train as often as possible. You can read the economics of a JR pass in our post on the subject. I can tell you it was a great decision and also a huge money saver for us. You can also check out our posts on Kobe, Kanazawa and Fukuoka attractions and fun facts.
As the picture might suggest, you will definitely enjoy coming to Nara if all you did was admire the deer. They are incredibly tame and will bow their heads for you in anticipation of getting a piece of a deer biscuit that you can purchase onsite. I know you think they might bite but they just want the food. However, they will nibble at your pockets or purse or anywhere you might have stored the biscuits. Nara Deer are hungry, and this is not their first rodeo. They’ve seen tourists like you come and go all day. The deer want you to get to the important part of your tour. Please feed me!
You can read more about the history of Nara and nearby Kyoto in our history post. Nara was the capital of Japan between 710 to 794 AD. This ancient city is one of the major tourist highlights in Japan and is justifiably famous for its tame deer ranging freely in the city. That’s right, they are not only in the park, they can be seen in other locations as well.
Here is a sign on a road outside the park saying that deer can be everywhere. In Nara Prefecture, you can see much more than the Todaiji temple and Nara Park with the deer. However, most tours will just stop at the Park and let you spend a few hours because there is so much to see. Nara was the first permanent capital of an emerging Japanese kingdom. What was surprising to us is how well preserved everything is. Massive Buddhist temples and elaborate Shinto shrines survived the ages as proof to its former glory. If you’ve been reading our blog, then you know that UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site.
Nara is close to Kyoto and most of the time, you can get a tour that includes Kyoto and Nara. We took a Viator tour that offered both. However, we’ll be telling you about our trip to Nara in this post. You will likely come to Nara because of the Todaiji temple and the grounds.
The Todaiji temple is amazing and the first introduction you have to the park is the deer. The deer are considered spiritual advisors to the park and are everywhere. They are very tame and generally hospitable but there are “cakes” for sale for 150 JPY, $1.50 USD which are officially sanctioned deer food. As you approach a deer (or when they approach you) you can break off a small piece of the wafer cake and offer it to the deer.
In most cases, the deer will bow their head and indicate they wouldn’t mind a bit of cake. The problem comes from the herd mentality and when there is cake, more deer will join you. I had deer nipping at my jacket and my pants pockets. Madeline actually had a deer attempt a nibble on her posterior, so we were quite mindful of feeding the deer while taking precautions.
The deer are harmless and will lick or nibble your cakes from your hand and will not bite your hand. They don’t mind you petting their back but don’t like it when you attempt to stroke their head or pet them as you would a dog or cat.
Back to the tour, the shrine is immense, and the Great Buddha is the main attraction but clearly not the only one. Todaiji Temple is a complex of buildings that includes the world's largest wooden structure, the 157-foot-tall temple built in 743 which houses the (49-foot-tall bronze Daibutsu or Great Buddha which was cast in 749. It is considered the largest in the world.
While our guide was getting tickets for us. I was told to hold the flag and keep the group together. It did not work.
Todaiji is the headquarters of the Kegon sect of Japanese Buddhism and Vairocana Buddha is considered by followers of the sect to be the spiritual body of the historical Buddha - Gautama Buddha or Sakyamuni in Japanese terminology.
In front of the temple, we saw a wooden Buddha figure. Jizo Bodhisattva is one of the most beloved and revered Bodhisattvas in Mahayana Buddhism. Jizo is the embodiment of the Bodhisattva Vow, the aspiration to save all beings from suffering. He is the protector of women, children, and travelers in the six realms of existence. The function of this great Bodhisattva is to guide travelers in both the physical and spiritual realms. The custom for tourists is to rub a portion of the statue and then to rub the same spot on your body to relieve any pain. For example, if your feet hurt, you would rub the feet and repeat the same on your own body. We saw plenty of people doing this. We will not certify any medical miracles, but it looked entertaining, so we followed suit.
Here Madeline is rubbing the knee of Jizo.
Now, Madeline rubs her own knee to receive the benefit from Jizo.
As you approach the entrance of the temple, you see massive 3D structures on either side of you. We were not sure if it was an optical illusion or not. They were, in fact, large wooden sculptures. The Nio Guardian Kings are figures are somewhat terrifying, standing over 27 feet tall and heavily muscled. These famous 13th-century statues protect the Buddha in the Main Temple.
Our guide gave us an explanation of these guardians. The guards were similar in style but different. One of the guardians had its mouth open and the other had its mouth closed. Our guide said that it the guardians represented life and death or the beginning and the end. These two guardians were made in 1203 AD.
The open-mouthed guard is to the right of the temple and the closed-mouth version to the left. The guardians’ fierce and threatening appearance was said to ward off evil spirits and keep the temple grounds free of demons and thieves. Amazingly, it took ten massive Cypress trees to make these powerful entities
We entered the temple through the massive Nandaimon Gate (Great South Gate) - rebuilt in the 13th century - and known for its giant wooden statues protecting the temple within from evil. You can’t miss the Buddha. It weighs 500 tons and is 50 feet tall.
After we stopped staring at the Buddha, we walked around and saw giant jade inscribed lotus petals. We were able to have a close look at the museum’s description of it and realized that these gigantic petals were all around the base of the Buddha. It was just that Buddha was elevated, and it wasn’t until we were behind him that we could see them.
We also saw other great protectors of Buddha in the corners of the building. The grounds of the place were amazing. This is one of the most spectacular UNESCO World Heritage sites and not to be missed.
The Viator tour that offers the tour of Nara Park and the Todaiji Temple in Nara is a great way to experience these two attractions. As you can see in the picture, we enjoyed ourselves!