Nara, Japan: Where a sacred deer might eat your purse

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Nara was the capitol of Japan from 710-794 AD, during which time many beautiful Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines were built that still stand today. In these temples even the air feels ancient and time seems to slow in contrast to the very busy and hi-tech festooned streets beyond.  Laid out in this blog post are the easiest temples and shrines to see in a long day of walking.

The day after getting to Japan my friend Molly and I joined a Kyoto University day tour of Nara. Still jet-lagged we had to navigate our way to Nara from Kyoto. We exited the train after going way too far, then walked around using our iPhone translator to figure out how to get back to Nara. Blessed by one of those weird travel miracles we made it just in time for our tour to start.

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 Deer are believed to be ancient messengers of the Shinto gods and are allowed to freely roam through the shrines, Deer Park, and surrounding mountains. Not knowing this beforehand, I was stunned when a deer nipped my bum, then chased me down the street looking for a goodie.  I couldn’t understand why people were taking pictures of cats on the street but not paying any attention to the hundreds of deer everywhere.  These friendly creatures wander the streets and sprawl on the grass, even going so far as to poke their noses in your purse looking for lunch, clearly feeling entitled to their treats.  It's fun to buy a matcha green tea ice cream and some treats for the deer and stroll among them.

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In the above map I have laid out a walk which includes several outstanding temples and shrines and undoubtedly a lot of deer. Time permitting, the few outliers marked on the map are also well-worth seeing.

Kofuku-ji Temple

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 Constructed in the 7th century AD this temple was a significant Buddhist center as well a center for government. Sadly, parts of it have been destroyed and never rebuilt.

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Kasuga Grand Shrine and Tamukeyama Hachiman Shrine

These two Shinto Shrines are magnificent. The Kasuga Shrine is registered as UNESCO World Heritage Site. Both were built in the 8th century.  This is where some of the first recorded Shinto writings are documented to have been written in the 8th century, which was also when native mythology and beliefs from around Japan dating back to 1000 BCE were collected and used to create the basis for Shintoism, the modern day ethnic religion of Japan.

 Friendly animal of the Kami (gods or earthly elements) at the Tamukeyama Shrine

Friendly animal of the Kami (gods or earthly elements) at the Tamukeyama Shrine

 A sacred deer gazing at the Nigatsu-do Temple.

A sacred deer gazing at the Nigatsu-do Temple.

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Nigatsu-do Temple

Away from the city, up Mt. Wakakusa a bit and tucked into its side, is my favorite temple. Here I could easily have taken pictures of just the lamps, they are so exquisitely ornate. Nigatsu-do is a buddhist sub-complex of Tadaji.  Founded by a buddhist monk in 752 AD, it burned down in the mid-17th century and was quickly rebuilt. 

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 Though too bright to tell in this photo, the view here looks down on Nara.

Though too bright to tell in this photo, the view here looks down on Nara.

Todai-ji Temple

 This picture is blurry because of the lighting in the temple.

This picture is blurry because of the lighting in the temple.

This temple dates to the 8th century AD. The complex houses the largest bronze Buddha in the world. I felt like an ant gazing up at this overwhelming skyscraper-Buddha housed in its massive temple structure. During the 8th century Nara’s temples were the center of Japanese Buddhism. I'm surprised that this large of a Buddha doesn’t have its own gravitational pull. 

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Did this post inspire your marvelous wanderings? Let me know!