Nara lies about an hour south of Kyoto--slightly less if you take a direct train out of Kyoto station. It was the capital of Japan during the "Nara period," which lasted from 710-794.
Today, Nara remains a major tourist stop for Japanese nationals and foreigners alike. It is the home of Todaiji, a Buddhist temple that dates to 728 and houses the world's largest bronze statue of the Buddha Vairocana.
|Daibutsuden - home of the giant Buddha|
During our visit, my son crawled through a hole in one of the Daibutsuden pillars which measures the same diameter as the nostrils of the giant buddha (18", in case you were wondering). According to legend, passing safely through the Buddha's nostril means your soul will reach enlightenment.
|Finding enlightenment by escaping the Buddha's nose.|
In the case of my 6'2" son, it also means you'll get a loud ovation from the crowds around the nostril.
We also visited Kasuga Taisha, a famous Shinto shrine that will feature heavily in one of my upcoming novels--and also, another blog post here at MIE, so I'll leave that story for another day.
|Main gate of Kasuga Taisha|
Another of Nara's unique attractions--and one that draws almost as many tourists as the historical sites--are the sacred deer.
|That's not a cow, deer...|
Sika (which, in Japanese, means "deer") are sacred to Takemikazuchi-no-mikoto, one of the four gods enshrined and honored at Kasuga Taisha. According to Japanese history (which mixes with legend the farther back you go), Takemikazuchi appeared in the area riding a white deer many years ago, and the deer which remain are the descendants of that sacred steed.
Killing, or even harming, a sacred deer in the Nara region was punishable by death until the 17th century, and they were officially considered sacred until after World War II. At that point, the deer lost their official status as sacred animals--but received the designation "national treasure," so it's still illegal to harm or molest the deer. (Deer molesters, take note.)
|Is that a cracker I hear?|
Today, it's legal to feed the deer, provided you purchase "deer crackers" ("BAD TASTE FOR HUMANS," according to the signs) from one of the licensed vendors in Nara Park.
The deer know this, and also know when someone is purchasing crackers. They will swarm you until the crackers are gone--and woe betide the unfortunate soul who tries to hide one in a pocket, or run away.
|He bought crackers...|
They will hunt you down like fuzzy, wet-nosed terminators.
|These people have no crackers.|
Ironically, the deer have also learned the universal sign for "please don't mug me, I have no cookies and I surrender." Raise your open hands in the air, and the crowd dissipates immediately--or at least, as soon as they've sniffed your pockets and tucked a nose up the back of your shirt to ensure there isn't a cracker in hiding somewhere.
The deer have no objection to being touched, and some of them walk over like dogs, hoping for a pat or a scratch behind the ears (or a cracker, if you don't mind...). I'd heard about them before my trip, and "seeing a deer up close" was high on my list of hoped-for events.
|Dozing under the trees...dreaming of crackers.|
|No bicycles...Yes deer.|
As it turned out, I also saw--and petted--the sacred deer on Miyajima Island, which are more relaxed than their counterparts in Nara (perhaps due to the total absence of deer-cracker sales on that island, so the only reason for deer to approach a person is the aforementioned scratch around the ears).
|Relaxing on Miyajima Island|
Whether they're mugging you in Nara, or just hanging out on Miyajima, sika are special. And, at least to me, it's not very difficult to see why.
|Yes, he really did try to follow us in for lunch.|
-- Susan, who finds the sika quite...en-deer-ing.