No trip to the Kansai region is complete without seeing Nara. So, after 24 hours sakura hunting in Japan’s ancient capital, Kyoto, I hopped on the train and moved an hour south to another of the former capital cities.
From 710 to 784, Nara was the centre of Japan. Remarkably, some of the world’s oldest surviving buildings are found in Nara Prefecture, like the pagoda at Horyuji Temple. Up until the 700s, Shintoism had been the main belief system in Japan. But the Emperor, a devout Buddhist, changed that. Buddhism spread across the country from China, and with it came the earliest known works of written literature produced in Japan. Also under the order of the Emperor, Todaiji Temple was built and inside it, the world’s largest bronze statue of Buddha.
Surrounding Todaiji is Nara Koen, a park full of free-roaming, wild deer! They came from the sacred hills behind Nara and were once considered messengers from God. They were protected by the government so much so that harming a deer would have resulted in heavy punishment. Today, the laws are a bit more relaxed though they are still recognised as a national treasure of Japan. People can buy special deer crackers to feed them and I think after so many years of being hand-fed, they have become one of the bossiest animals I’ve ever come across! They will grab anything out of your hand – so hold onto your food, maps, brochures and handbag tightly if you don’t want to lose them!
I was up early on day two of my trip and headed to Nara Park before the bus loads of tourists arrived. It was so peaceful and I got to witness the deer coming down through the forest and into the township. I felt like I was standing in the middle of a migration! They didn’t take any notice of me or the other people around, nor of the traffic that was starting to get busy. The funniest thing was seeing them cross the road. There was a special deer warning sign and somehow they all stopped right in front of it, then proceeded like children at a pedestrian crossing.
Starting from the edge of the town, a long, wide path serves as the entrance to Kasuga Taisha, a shrine tucked away in the woods. The shrine grounds were completed in 768 and some original structures exist to this day. Kasuga Taisha is registered as a World Heritage Site and is known for its 3,000 lanterns which have been donated by worshippers over the past 1,200-odd years. My favourite part was a pitch black chamber full of glowing lanterns. It was eerie but mesmerising.
I didn’t go to Nara just to see Todaiji and the deer, though. I wanted to get out of the city and explore the countryside. My original plan was to visit a place called Yoshino-yama, which is considered by many as the best sakura spot in the country. For 1 or 2 weeks a year, the entire mountain is covered in pink trees. But I was about 4 or 5 days too early and if I’d gone, I would have only seen a few flowers here and there. Not worth the 2-hour, multiple transfer train trip. Bad timing! Anyway, there’s always next year. So instead, I turned to some locals’ advice and continued my sakura hunt to Koriyama Castle, known for its cherry blossoms; Yakushi-ji Temple, one of the Japan’s oldest temples; and Toshodai-ji Temple which along with Yakushiji is a World Heritage Site.
Can you imagine what life would have been like back in the 700s? It was surreal to be walking around all of these ancient places in what felt like the middle of nowhere. It didn’t really feel like Japan, to be honest. I was in another world.
The day was drawing to a close and I was pretty exhausted after what felt like an entire day of walking. I got back on the train and headed towards my third and final destination, the home of the White Heron Castle. Part 3 to come.