Though compared to its cousin, Kyoto, Nara’s tenure as capital was short-lived, it was nonetheless influential in shaping Japan’s history. It was here that Buddhism not only gained a foothold in the country, but grew in power to rival even that of the Emperor. Beyond temples and emperors, Nara also has something else to set it apart from most other cities: a thriving population of deer. Considered sacred here, the deer are protected. The animals are quite calm and relaxed around people and can be hand fed special deer crackers sold on the streets. Be careful though, as some animals are not so polite when taking, and they may not only be interested in crackers (so keep all food sealed and out of sight!).
Places to visit in Nara
Built in 752, Todaiji once served as the head temple of Buddhism in Japan. So influential was the temple, that the Imperial court relocated from Nara to Nagaoka to reduce the temple’s influence. Among the many treasures at Todaiji is the Daibutsuen “Big Buddha Hall”, not a misnomer at all. The Daibutsuen is the largest wooden structure in the world, and the Buddha around which it was built stands (or rather sits) at a whopping 15 meters.
Naramachi was once the merchant district of old Nara. Though the hawkers and peddlers have long since left many of the old buildings have been preserved. Within the small district are several small museums and cafes. It’s a pleasant spot for a stroll and a little bit of history.
Kasuga Taisha Shrine
Lanterns are to Kasuga Taisha what torii gates are to Fushimi-Inari. That is to say, there are thousands of them donated by devotees to the shrine. The shrine was founded at the same time Nara became Japan’s first permanent capital, and has existed ever since.
Founded in 607, Horyuji Temple has the distinction of containing the world’s oldest wooden structures: it’s main hall, a five story pagoda, and its main gate, around 1,300 years old. The temple hosts incredibly rare artefacts from the Heian period and has an interesting display of Buddhist relics and artwork.