Japan day 8: daytrip to Nara

Please put on some headphones:

Before Tokyo and even before Kyoto, there was Nara: the first permanent capital of Japan. At some point the capital was moved when the government felt seriously threatened by the city’s powerful buddhist monasteries’ influence and political ambitions. The temples remained, and they are some of the oldest and largest in all of Japan.

As I stepped down from the bus I was greeted by the Fierce Guardian of the Path:


He wanted biscuits.

Deer and parks

Nara is home to a growing population of deer that roam freely throughout the parks, forests and streets. They are mostly friendly (sometimes too friendly) and aren’t afraid of people. Walking from temple to temple one can get the Snow-White experience:


The deer are completely Japanese – some of the older ones have even been trained to bow! Here’s how to get them to do it:

  1. Show them a biscuit and bow once, they bow back
  2. Hold the biscuit behind your back, bow again
  3. Hold the biscuit above their head, try to get a third bow
  4. Give the deer the deserved biscuit (if you don’t, prepare to get headbutted)

Examples (see how they train me to give them biscuits?):


Note: the deer can become somewhat aggressive with the begging. Any food that’s in reach will be snatched. I’ve seen people who are unable to handle the deer being chased through the forest by a small herd, throwing away their biscuits in panic. Proposal: A group of deer should be called a ‘rumble’.



[As I was squatting to take this photo of Nandaimon Gate, one of the deer promptly snatched the map that I carried in my back pocket and chewed on it shamelessly]


A chamber inside:


Todaiji and the big Buddha

My notes as written on the smartphone that day:

“Todaiji: holy shit the size. Largest wooden building in the world and was 50% bigger before reconstruction. Huge ass Buddha inside, eternal sun behind him.”

Indeed, Todaiji is a landmark that can’t be missed. Despite being downsized to only two thirds of its peak size, the main hall is still the largest wooden building in the world and it houses Daibutsu – the Big Buddha, whose hand alone is as tall as a human being.


Yoshikien and Isuien gardens

On the way back, the plan was to drop by a couple of beautiful gardens for a quick stroll. Instead I found myself spending most of the afternoon in these gardens, transfixed by beauty and tranquility and unable to leave. Watching the sunset over Isuien garden was an uplifting, spiritual experience that will long be remembered.


I sat in this spot for 45 minutes. Pictures don’t do it justice:


Closing out the day

Dinner was spent in an out-of-the-way Toro (Japanese for the fatty Tuna part) joint in the company of Phillip, a most pleasant 50 year old British guy. He entered the place, sat right next to me at the bar (despite the place being empty but for myself at the time) and after a quick introduction ordered Sake for the both of us. We’ve had a surprisingly personal chat about his life and mine over some misu soup and Toro with rice. He married a Japanese woman when he was young, and spent 30 years in her country. His Japanese sounded almost native to my ears.


There’s something about foreigners meeting in Japan (and I think in a way he’s still and will always be a foreigner) that creates an instant bond. Perhaps it’s simply that the Japanese find it hard to have heart-to-hearts with strangers, and a foreigner represents an opportunity for some western, more intimate interaction. In any case, the “lost-in-translation” effect is real: foreigners in Japan become unexpected friends.

On the way back to the bus I met the Guardian of the Path again and learned that even Guardian deer can fall asleep on the job:


A final pet behind the ears and I was off. Goodbye Nara – ancient capital of Japan and a repository of Japanese legacy.

The next entry will skip a couple of days into the future, as this evening I got quite sick and was feverish and useless for a while.


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