Japan’s Nara Park: Deer-Central

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Why go to Nara Park?

Nara Park is famous as one of the most picturesque and oldest parks in Japan. It is a sprawling 502 hectares of beautiful sights and is home to many cultural landmarks of the City of Nara. But what the park is famous for is the 1,200 residents of the Park: Deer. That’s right, Nara Park is best known as the Deer Park of Japan.

Established in the late 19th century, the park is in Japan’s first capital city. Nara is recognized to be the birthplace of the country’s high culture. It is home to Japan’s earliest accounts of art, literature, events, and myths. This is also the city where Buddhism first thrived in the country. The park itself is home to 3 UNESCO World Heritage sites (with there being a total of 8 UNESCO sites in the Nara).

Shrines and Temples

The beautiful temple is home to the largest bronze Buddha statue in the world.

The Tōdai-ji Temple

Tōdai-ji is actually a Buddhist Temple Complex. It is also the first of the three UNESCO World Heritage Sites of the park. The Great Buddha Hall, or “Daibutsuden”, is home to the world’s largest bronze statue of Buddha.

The Complex was built in 741 AD by the Emperor Shomu. Its purpose was to establish the Temple as a Central Temple for all the provincial Temples in the entire country. The Complex has actually since been rebuilt twice, first in 1293 and then in 1709, after multiple fires. The Complex at present is actually smaller than the previous reconstruction. And the large bronze Buddha has been recast several times. The Complex attracts a large number of tourists throughout the year and is an amazing site to behold in person.

The Kōfuku-ji Temple

Kōfuku-ji was once a family temple of the Fujiwara clan, the most powerful clan during the Nara and Heian Periods. Once again, the Kōfuku-ji Temple is actually a Temple Complex. It consists of two pagodas (one five-story and another three story), the Kōfuku-ji National Treasure Hall, and the Eastern Golden Hall. The Eastern Golden Hall is home to a large wooden Yakushi Buddha statue. Currently, the Central Golden Hall of the temple is closed for renovations until 2018. The Temple Complex is the second out of the three UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the park.
 
The Temple Complex is located nearest the entrance of the Park from the Kintetsu and JR Nara Stations. It is one of the first sites you may encounter when entering the park. You can learn more about the Temple from its website here.

The Kasuga Taisha Shrine

The Shrine was established in 710 by the Fujiwara clans Fujiwara Fuhito for the purpose of using it as the clans’ tutelary shrine. This was the same time as Nara City was established as the Country’s first Capital City. It is the third of three UNESCO World Heritage sites. The Shrine was rebuilt from scratch every 20 years, however, the custom was discontinued during the Edo Period. At present, it has been rebuilt a total of 57 times. The Shrine consists of an Inner Sanctuary, a Treasure House, and Three-Thousand lanterns.
 
The Shrine is known for its 3,000 lanterns, two-thirds of which are made of stone, and the rest of bronze. The lanterns were originally donated by the Fujiwara clan in the 11th century. Yet, ordinary people have also donated lanterns as symbols of worship.

Museums

Nara National Museum

The Nara National Museum primarily features Japanese Buddhist Art and Artifacts. It was built in 1889 and still uses its original building. The newer wing connects via an underground passage. The permanent collection includes various Buddhist statues, paintings, scrolls, and ceremonial objects. The Museum focuses on the collection and preservation of Buddhist artifacts as these were vital in Japanese art. It boasts artifacts from the Asuka, Nara, Heian, and Kamakura periods. There are different exhibits held throughout the year and different events during specific days of the week. So if you plan on seeing a specific event or exhibit, you can check their website here.

Kōfuku-ji National Treasure Hall

The Kōfuku-ji National Treasure Museum is part of the Kōfuku-ji Temple Complex. It is a must-visit for those who love Buddhist art, as it features exhibits such as the famed Ashura Statue. It was originally built in 1959 to house great Buddhist art from the Temples that are no longer in use or are defunct. Many of the pieces are National Treasures and Important Cultural Properties. The Museum was remodeled back in 2010 to place LED lighting. This allowed the statues to be viewed without their glass cases. Their temporary exhibits change three times a year.

Gardens

Yoshiken  Japanese Garden

The Yoshiken Japanese Garden was named after the Yoshikigawa River, which is a small river located adjacent to the garden. The garden was built on the former site of a Kofukuji Temple priest house. The Garden is actually a collection of three different kinds of gardens. It features a pond garden, a moss garden, and a tea ceremony garden. It is located near the Isuien Japanese Garden, on the other side of the River.

Isuien Japanese Garden

Isuien Japanese Garden was named after the ponds that are fed by the Yoshikigawa River, with Isuien literally meaning “garden founded on water”. The Garden consists of a front garden and a back garden. The front garden has been around since the mid-17th century while the back garden was built in 1899. Other than the beautiful plants within the Garden, it is also home to a number of tea houses and a museum.

Kasuga Taisha Shinen Manyo Botanical Garden

Found within the Kasuga Taisha Shrine Complex, the garden amplifies its’ beauty. The Shrine’s Garden is home to 270 plants. These plants were mentioned in the Manyo-shu, one of Japan’s oldest collections of poetry. In the garden, each plant is located next to a pillar where their corresponding Manyo-shu poem is written. It’s a feast for the eyes and of the literary mind.

Deer

A young resident of Nara Park

You may be wondering why so many deer live in the park in the first place. Well, the Deer were once considered sacred as they were viewed as messengers of the gods in the Shinto religion. There was a time that killing any of the sacred deer was a capital offense. The last recorded breach of that law resulted in the death of the offender in 1673. The Deer, however, were officially stripped of their sacred status after the second world war. Despite the fact that they are no longer considered ‘sacred’, they are now considered as national treasures and are still protected.

Deer Cookies

Before you enter the park, you will immediately notice a few vendors selling crackers known as “deer cookies”. These cookies cost about 150 yen (at least at the time of writing). Be warned that many of the Deer like to wait around near the vendors to watch people buy the cookies. If you don’t want to be swarmed, you should hide the cookies or cover them up as soon as you buy them. The deer are known to surround and follow you if they see you carrying the cookies. Don’t worry about giving away the cookies too quickly, there are a few vendors situated around the park if you want to buy more.
Proper Deer Feeding Technique
The proper way of feeding the deer is as follows. First, raise the cookie up high in front of the deer and wait for him/her to bow to you. Once s/he bows, put the cookie behind you and wait for him/her to bow again. Finally, raise the cookie up high once more, and if s/he bows, you can now feed him/her the cookie! Getting to three bows is the ideal way. However, it is my experience that the deer may get overly excited and swarm you. Thus, rendering one-on-one deer bow cookie time to be a bust.
 
If you do not have any cookies, try to bow to the deer anyway! Some deer will bow back to you. It’s a great experience that I recommend to everyone!
 
Now, this is an official warning: the deer can bite, kick, and swarm you. Do not be afraid. Because sometimes, they might just give you a peck on the cheek instead.

“I don’t have any more Deer cookies!”

Shika (Deer) selfies!

 

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When to go to Nara Park?

Well. That depends on what you want to see or take part of. Nara Park is absolutely beautiful 365 days of the year. There is a unique allure to the park for each of the four seasons. I was able to visit the park 31 March 2017, the in-between of Winter and Spring, and I was absolutely floored by the views. However, there are different events held at the park that you may check to make most of your Nara trip. See them listed here.

Awe-inspiring views of Nara Park

Early March-Mid April

Nara Park is a prime Hanami (flower-viewing) spot during Sakura (Cherry Blossom) season, with many locations to view the beautiful flowers. Many tourists make their way to the park in order to enjoy the 1,700 Cherry Blossom trees in the Park. Sakura season usually occurs anytime between the end of March to the start of April. The tricky part of planning your trip around a Hanami is that Sakura is shy, and due to changing temperatures, it is often hard to predict in advance just exactly when they will bloom. When I arrived, I was about a week too early for the peak of the Sakura bloom. But I was lucky enough to see some early bloomers.

Early bloomer Sakura in Nara Park

Mid-October

There are also many other cultural events that occur at the park, including the famed Deer Antler Cutting Ceremony. The Shika no Tsunokiri (Deer Antler Cutting Ceremony) occurs for three days in the middle of October. The deer are wrangled into an enclosure located near the Kasuga Taisha (Kasuga Grand Shrine). Once there, they are wrestled to the ground and their antlers are cut off. The festival began in 1671 when people were getting injured by the aggression of the Deer during the Autumn Mating Season. If you plan on taking part in the Festival, there is a fee of approximately 1000 yen. The actual antler-cutting ceremony occurs five times throughout the three-days, and each ceremony lasts about 30 minutes.

 

How to get to Nara Park?

Nara is nearest the Osaka International Airport. If you are traveling from another country and plan to go to Nara, I would recommend landing here. Then either take the Airport Limousine to Osaka, then getting a train from Osaka to Nara.
 
As many people know, Japan is always famous for its elaborate train system. Travelers can get almost anywhere by just taking the right train. But it can get a bit confusing, and a bit expensive. In my case, I was coming from Tokyo. So I had to travel to Osaka in order to go to the neighboring Nara City.
As many people know, Japan is always famous for its elaborate train system. Travelers can get almost anywhere by just taking the right train. But it can get a bit confusing, and a bit expensive. In my case, I was coming from Tokyo. So I had to travel to Osaka in order to go to the neighboring Nara City.

Traveling between Tokyo and Osaka

One of the options available to me was to take the famous Bullet Train, or the Shinkansen, to and from Tokyo and Osaka. This is the fastest and most comfortable means to travel between the two cities. In order to make use of the Bullet Train, I had to either buy a Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass) or a single-use ticket. There are two types of JR Pass: the Green and Ordinary Pass. Each Pass can be bought for either 7, 14, or 21 days validity. If you want to learn more about it, please see their website here. A Single-Use Bullet Train ticket is also available if you will not be traveling to too many places in Japan. I recommend buying this instead if you are not planning on going to too many regions or if you are on a budget. Another option was to use a Bus. Night buses and Day buses are available to go to and from Tokyo and Osaka. In my case, I took a night bus from Tokyo. I purchased my tickets here.

Osaka to Nara

Nara Park itself is a five-minutes away from the Kintetsu Nara Station. Th Yamatoji line connects Kintetsu Nara to three key stations in Osaka: Osaka Station, Namba Station, and Tennoji Station. But if you used the JR Line, it’s about 20 minutes from the JR Nara Station. Either way, you enter the park near the Kofukuji Temple. You’ll know you’re there when you see the deer hanging around the park entrance. Oh, and Entrance here is free! Though, you may have to pay a fee to enter some temples, museums, or gardens.
 

Traveling in Japan

My personal tips for when you travel to and around Japan:

  • Get a Train Pass
  • Have an International Data Plan or Rent a pocket Wifi
Firstly, as anyone will tell you when you mention about traveling to Japan, get a Train Pass! There are lots of options for foreign travelers. There is the JR Pass, the PASMO, and the SUICA. If you are lucky enough to be traveling around the country, the JR Pass is the one for you. If you are going to stay in one region, the PASMO or SUICA is a safer bet. Take note that if you do get a PASMO or SUICA, the famous Bullet Train needs its own ticket which costs a bit. If you do have a JR Pass, there will be no need to buy a Bullet Train Ticket. The best part of having the JR Pass is that you can use the Shinkansen, as well as the other trains. Though, you have to go through the station master every time you leave a station. Unlike the PASMO and SUICA, you do not tap your pass on the gate machines to leave. So it’s a bit inconvenient if the line is a little longer. And unlike the JR Pass, the PASMO and SUICA cards contain only the amount of money you initially put into it. It will need to be refilled as you deplete it.
 
Secondly, please tell me that you booked a pocket wifi. Unless you have an international data plan, this is a must. You will need the data not only to post the amazing pictures of your travels but to power up your choice of navigation apps. There are a lot to choose from. It’s easy to book a pocket wifi from many services. For example, you can book a pocket wifi unit online with Japan Wireless. You can choose to either pick it up at the Airport Post Office or have it sent to the address where you’ll be staying! The unit comes with a charging cord, a plug, and a power bank. There is also a bag and a large envelope. When you are about to leave, it’s quite easy to return it. You can place all the items in the bag, then place the bag into the envelope, seal it, and just drop it into any postal box. It’s that convenient. But if you want to go about it old school, there are signs in both Japanese and English around the train stations. You can also ask the Train Station Master if you are still unsure about directions. Most of them speak at least a little conversational English.
 
And now you are ready to travel Japan. 楽しんで!(Have fun!)
 
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