Nara: Deer, Temples, and Sake

Our second day trip from Kyoto was to Nara.

Nara is known for two things: temples and deer. I’ll start with the deer. The deer in Nara are described as freely roaming in the town’s parks, which initially brought to mind images of dozens of Bambi’s happily coexisting with people and nature. But the first thing we saw when we got to Nara Park was a sign warning that the deer are wild animals and they may attack you in a variety of ways, such as kick, bite, knock down, or headbutt. Bambi would never headbutt me. Bambi also didn’t have stunted devil horns coming out of its head. These were a different breed of deer, more beast than Disney character. I also would not call their presence happily coexisting in nature as much as benefiting from tourists buying deer crackers to feed them. They actually stood in the way just hoping to get fed. It felt like a petting zoo we couldn’t escape.

The temples though were different. If they were not like I imagined it’s because I underestimated them. At first glance the Kofukuji Temple appeared as impressive as Ninna-ji in Kyoto had, with another five-story pagoda and one-story temple, but once we got entry into the Eastern Golden Hall and the neighboring National Treasure Museum it went beyond previous temple-going experiences. The Hall was filled with statues of Buddha and his allies and protectors. We were given a sheet in English that explained each figure’s importance, which I greatly appreciated. Inside the museum were more statues important to the temple, including the three-faced six-armed Ashura Statute, a highly important Buddhist sculpture in Japanese culture and history. It was spectacular. The entire collection was well worth seeing.

The Todaji Temple had the same result as the Kofukuji Temple. The approach, entry gate, and building at first seemed familiarly impressive, but once I stepped inside and saw the towering Buddha and his guards I was taken back. That was one big Buddha. The wooden sculptures, as well as the building interior, dwarfed everyone and seemed to assert their importance in their stature. Even with another large crowd, they were able to steal all the attention.

Our Nara day ended with a Japanese must-do: sake tasting. There is a neighborhood in Nara that was known for its merchants and still maintains an old school charm. We found it and one of the local shops that sells an abundance of alcohol, so we asked if it was possible to do a tasting there and sure enough it was. 3 big pours of sake for Y500 was a great deal and I learned that I like the most high quality one the best, of course. There’s no better way to wash down a full day of deer, parks, and temples than with some locally produced sake.

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