Sika deer are national treasures in Nara, an ancient Japanese capital whose grand Buddhist temples and Shinto shrine are the highlights of a visit.
It’s not everywhere that your tour guide can be a deer. But in Nara, Japan, sika (spotted) deer will usher you from one temple to the next as if it’s their profession.
They’ve lived in this ancient city ever since Takemikazuchi rode into Nara on a white deer in 710 A.D. Legend tells that the “thunder god” of the Shinto faith came to guard the newly built Japanese capital. (Nara remained so until 794, when jurisdiction was transferred to Kyoto.) They are still considered national treasures, roaming through the small city of 360,000 people, and especially Nara Park.
More than 1,200 wander freely through the 502-hectare (1,240-acre) park and the adjoining grounds of three great temples — the Buddhist Todai-ji and Kofuku-ji temples and the Shinto Kasuga-taisha shrine — as well as the Nara National Museum.
Vendors sell sika-senbei (“deer crackers”) for visitors to feed the deer. It is said that some deer have learned to bow to receive these offerings. But they can also be dangerous: More than 100 tourists a year are injured by the animals’ hooves or spike-like antlers, and multilingual signs now advise caution.
The deer form a charming welcome committee for the Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara, a UNESCO World Heritage Site encompassing the trio of forementioned sites along with three other Buddhist temples, a palace and an old-growth forest.
If Kyoto is the cultural heart of Japan, its history must be traced further back to the Nara region. Indeed, Nara’s economy is closely tied to tourism today, and much of its architecture, seen in shops and galleries, restaurants and Japanese inns (ryokan), reflects that of traditional merchant houses.
Wear your best walking shoes when you come to Nara. While there are alternative methods to move about, including rickshaws, the city is much better suited to pedestrian traffic. Arrive by commuter train from either nearby Osaka or Kyoto, take a look at detailed, artful, and widely posted maps, and start walking.
First stop: Kofuku-ji
Close to downtown, the Kofuku-ji temple complex is a logical first stop. Established in 669, it was moved to Nara some four decades later, and it’s still here. Two imaginatively named pagodas rise above the landscape here. Both are national treasures, the Goju-no-to (Five-Storied Pagoda), built in 1426, and the Sanju-no-to (Three-Storied Pagoda), begun in 1185 and completed in 1274.
The complex includes three “golden halls,” highlighted by the To-kondo (East Golden Hall), built in 1425, and two “octagonal halls,” the Hoku’endo (1210) and Nan’endo (1741). Contained within these structures are numerous priceless statues, among them a Thousand-armed Kannon (goddess of mercy).
At the height of ancient Nara’s glory, Kofuku-ji was the head temple of the Hossō sect of Buddhism, and it remains so today. The Hossō school maintains that nothing is real — that everything is a projection created by the mind that appears to experience it. That applies to this story as well.
Kofuku-ji suffered a devastating fire in 1717, and in the late 19th Century, during the early Meiji Period of Japanese history, it fell victim to the anti-Buddhist policies of a Shinto national government. Reconstruction work continues on some of its buildings.
Todai-ji and the Great Buddha
This great Buddhist temple complex dates from 738. Until the end of the 20th Century, when its dimensions were surpassed by giant sports stadiums, Todai-ji laid claim to the world’s largest wooden building, the Daibutsu-den, which houses the world’s largest bronze statue of the Buddha, 15 meters (49 feet) tall.
The statue and its hall were built over three years, ending in 751. Official records show that 350,000 people contributed labor and more than 2.5 million donated rice, wood, metal and cloth to its construction. The statue used imported gold and exhausted much of Japan’s bronze supply at the time. Forty-eight lacquered cinnabar pillars support the blue-tiled roof. The modern Daibutsu-den building, 30 percent smaller than the original, was a reconstruction finished in 1709.
The original Todai-ji complex featured two pagodas, each 100m (328 feet) tall, making them among the tallest of the time. They were destroyed by an earthquake. It also had a library, lecture hall and monk’s quarters, as Todai-ji was as much an institution of higher learning as it was a place of Buddhist worship and practice.
Today, most visitors enter through the Nandai-mon (Great South Gate), built at the end of the 12th Century. Its two 8½-meter (28-foot) guardians, the dancing Nio, were restored between 1988 and 1993 at a cost of US$4.7 million by the National Treasure Repair Institute in Kyoto. Yes, there is such a thing.
Kasuga: Here and now in nature
One of the most important Shinto shrines in Japan, the Kasuga-taisha had its origin as the spiritual refuge of the politically dominant Fujiwara clan. The Shinto faith places great emphasis on living in the present and harmonizing with nature, as affirmed in frequent matsuri (festivals). That’s pretty much what I believe, too. Kasuga’s forest setting reinforces those beliefs.
Built in 768, the shrine is famous for its long approach promenade: More than 3,000 stone lanterns line the way, and sika deer are with you nearly every step of the way. The interior of the building is remarkable for its bronze lanterns. The torii (gateway arch) at the approach to the shrine is one of the oldest in Shintoism.
Pouring across the summit of nearby Mount Kasuga, and covering about 250 hectares (620 acres), is the Kasugayama Primeval Forest. Hunting and logging have been prohibited here for nearly 1,200 years, so it’s safe to say that the 175 types of trees here (inhabited by 60 species of birds) are old growth. Next to the shrine is the Man’yo Botanical Garden. All that greenery assures happy deer.
And in Nara, happy deer make happy tourists.