With my trip to Japan coming to a close, I chose to take a day trip out of Kyoto and explore its neighboring city of Nara. I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to visit Nara’s temples and most importantly, the deers!
For a few brief decades from 710 to 784, the capital of Japan was located in present day Nara City. The influence of the successive emperors of the era can still be witnessed today through the countless of surviving historical Buddhist images and buildings scattered all over the city.
HOW TO GET AROUND
Getting around Nara is fairly simple as the city isn’t very large. It’s a 1 hour train ride from Kyoto and I arrived early in the morning at the JR Nara Station. From there, I walked to every site, although buses are readily available.
WHAT TO SEE
Before touring the city, I suggest stopping by the Nara Visitor Center, located one block east of JR Nara Station, and picking up a copy of a Nara City Sightseeing Guide map or you can download the PDF version here!
Tofukuji Temple and Five-Story Pagoda – Originally founded in the 7th century, the Five-Story Pagoda is a symbol of Nara City. The present structure was rebuilt 600 years ago after it was burned down five times.
Nara National Museum – This is the second national museum in Japan in 1895 in Nara Park. Today, the building is open to the public as Nara Buddhist Structure Hall.
Todaiji Temple – Considered the largest wooden structure in the world, the temple is most famous for housing the Great Buddha (Daibutsu).
Nara Park – The vast green area, known as Nara Park, is located in the central part of Nara City, with origins dating back to the 8th century. Approximately 1200 wild deer roam around freely around the park, and their antlers are removed for safety reasons. Most are harmless and friendly, while a few are more aggressive (one actually tore off a piece of paper bag and ate it!) Their behavior remind me of the men in my life. Nevertheless, I enjoyed feeding them Shika Senbei (deer crackers). They are so polite that they even bow when they ask for Shika Senbei!
Why are there so many deer in the park?
“According to legend, when Kasuga Taisha Shrine was founded as a family shrine for the Fujiwaras, a dominant aristrocrat clan in the 8th century, they invited a mighty god from Kashima Shrine. The god is said to have come to Nara riding on a white deer Since then, deer have been respected and protected as divine messengers by local people.”
Wide-eyed with enchantment, I stroll leisurely through the narrow lanes of Higashiyama District, overflowing with complete disbelief that I was not a) time traveling and/or b) lucid dreaming. The streets of Higashiyama are paved with cobble stones and are lined with wooden Japanese buildings. Cafes, restaurants, and traditional merchant shops are situated side by side along the historic area, selling local specialties including but not limited to the best mochi desserts you will ever taste and the best matcha ice creams you will ever taste.
Unlike its metropolitan counterparts, Kyoto is devoid of the hustle and bustle of city life, but rather possessing the quintessential Japanese charm. Age old temples and shrines can literally be found in every corner and the unique architecture invoke a feeling of old Japan. If Lost in Translation is to Tokyo, then Memoirs of a Geisha is to Kyoto.
If you’re like me and Tokyo is your first stop, make sure to book your flight to land at Haneda, not Narita International Airport. Flying to Haneda will save you not only time but money as well. Narita airport is located about an hour or so away by train from central Tokyo. Although visitors can ride the Narita Express from Narita, a one-way trip costs around $30.00. Haneda airport, on the other hand, is closer to the heart of Tokyo, and visitors can reach the city center by riding the Tokyo Monorail and the JR Yamanote Line in about 25 minutes for a fraction of the price.
It was eight long months in the making… eight months of hunting cheap airfare, reviewing shrines, booking hostels, researching restaurants, studying subway maps, and learning conversational Japanese.
It was almost an out-of-body experience. Eight months of planning all leading up to this moment. My brain needed time to register it all in. Am I really doing this? Am I really traveling solo… for the first time… across international borders? Am I really about to board a plane and fly across the Pacific Ocean and spend the last day of 2015 with complete strangers in a foreign land 5000+ miles away from home? Am I really going to ring in 2016 and my 25th birthday in my dream destination? Am I really doing this… by myself? Every molecule in my body answered a solid unanimous “HELL YEAH!”