A TRAVELLER’S GUIDE TO ENCHANTING NARA
WORDS BY RAMYA RAMAMURTHY
Nara is perfect for a day trip from Osaka or Kyoto, but the city can imprint on you making you want to linger for a few days. Perhaps it’s the dichotomy of the small town nestled in an ancient city or just the marvel of watching how evolved or civilised the Japanese are to coexist so harmoniously with the animals in Nara. As one of the capitals of Japan in the Edo period from 710 to 794 AD, Nara boasts of some of the most iconic Japanese Buddhist temples along with a few magical surprises. It’s an underrated destination that definitely merits a visit.
The foremost among the temples of Nara is the Tōdaiji Temple. Build in the Edo era, this temple’s Daibutsuden (Great Buddha Hall) houses the world’s largest bronze statue of Vairocana Buddha – as the temple sign says, “The Buddha that shines throughout the world like the sun”. At nearly 50ft high, this 500-tonne bronze UNESCO World Heritage statue is so imposing and breath-taking that even the non-spiritually inclined are guaranteed to get goose-bumps just from gazing at it. The temple was built in 751 to protect Japan from the earthquakes and smallpox at the behest of the then Emperor Shōmu. The current temple was rebuilt in 1692 after a series of fires destroyed two previous temples. Don’t forget to climb up to the Nigatsu-do structure in this complex. If you time it for sunset, you can catch brilliant Nara city views, rendered in hues of red, orange, and yellow.
Nara-koen Deer Park
In the Shinto religion, deer are sacred and considered to be the messengers of gods, so your best bet to catch a glimpse of these elegant creatures is at the Nara-koen deer park near Tōdaiji. The park, lined with paths and dotted with serene pools, boasts of nearly 1,200 deer that are generally happy to mind their own business. If you want to feed them, you can buy a pack of deer crackers (shika sembei), but they get pretty aggressive once the packet is over and you stop feeding, so don’t engage them unless you have an exit plan! Otherwise, they are remarkably well behaved for semi-wild animals, and the legend goes they bow to you if you bow to them! For ultimate in kawaii (Japanese for ‘irresistibly cute’), there is a presentation every year in July where the young fawns birthed that year can be seen in the pregnant deer enclosure.
Kōfuku-ji & Hōryū-ji
If you don’t mind some more temple hopping, visit the Kōfuku-ji Buddhist temple, one of the Seven Great Temples and eight Historic Monuments of ancient Nara. Originally built in 669, the temple was finally constructed in Nara in 710. Fires and civil wars ravished this temple as well, and the current iteration is more recent. Every one of its structures is considered a National Treasure, from the East Golden Hall to the five-storied Pagoda (the second tallest in Japan) and the various statues housed in the temple.
Or you could head to Hōryū-ji, which is a train ride away, and one of the oldest wooden buildings in Japan! This is also one of the Seven Great Temples in Nara, built originally in 607. It was burnt to the ground and rebuilt a few times – in 711, 1374, and 1603. These reconstructions have some Korean and Chinese influences in the architecture too, creating a unique style in this temple. You can get temple fatigue in Nara with so many options, but these three Kōfuku-ji, Hōryū-ji and Tōdaiji are worth a visit.
Mount Wakakusa makes for a perfect outdoor hike in Nara. This grass-covered mountain is located close to the deer park and Tōdaiji Temple, and you can climb it all year-round except in winter. The best time to go would be in the spring when cherry blossom trees in bloom line the entire slope of the mountain. It’s a 20-minute hike to a small clearing or plateau which offers excellent views of the city. More determined hikers can go on for another half hour to the summit, but most people just make it to this point for the city views. Every winter, the slopes of this mountain are burnt and accompanied by fireworks, making it quite a sight to witness. This was apparently done either as inter-temple rivalry or to drive away wild boars, but both are apocryphal legends.
Nara National Museum
If you would rather stay indoors, look up the Nara National Museum, part of the vast Nara Park and walking distance from Tōdaiji and the Higashimuki market. Set up in 1889, the museum is one of the few structures in Nara to retain its original building and has a vast collection of Buddhist statues, paintings, scrolls, and ceremonial objects. The temporary exhibitions also include treasures from the Tōdaiji temple from time to time. English explanations are available all through the museum, which is a rarity in museums in Japan, so definitely make it a point to visit this one.
For the shopaholics and souvenir-hunters, Higashimuki market which has everything from deer-shaped from cookies to chocolates. At the entrance is a statue on a fountain of the Buddhist monk Gyoki Bosatsu who preached when it was illegal to do so. Look out for the typical Nara snacks like sushi in persimmon leaves, bean buns, and mochi. You can find something for every budget, from 100 yen stores to jaw-dropping and expensive antique stores in which no item has a price tag (work up the courage to ask for the price and then decide if it is worth the splurge).
Go off the beaten path to the lovely vegan café called Kuppila, run by a Japanese chef who has lived in Finland. Kuppila opened in 2017 and is a tiny restaurant with only a bunch of counter seats, which fosters camaraderie between the chef-owner and the patrons. It’s cash only though, so ensure you are carrying sufficient yen. A simple meal of vegan tapas, vegan curry with rice, or even the rice bowl was easily the highlight of our trip! You can wash it down with sweet Plum wine that is a Nara speciality.