The ancient city of Nara, Japan, served as the nation's capital from 710-794 (an era not surprisingly called the "Nara period").
Today, Nara remains a major historical and religious center, as well as a mecca for foreign and Japanese tourists.
|The Daibutsuden (Great Buddha Hall) at Todaiji|
Among the city's many sites are Todaiji, a Buddhist temple which is also home to one of the largest bronze Buddhas in Japan:
|The Great Buddha measures 49' high.|
and Kasuga Taisha, one of Japan's preeminent Shinto shrines:
|The front gates of Kasuga Taisha, seen from the side (they're too large for one frame from the front)|
Both Todaiji and Kasuga Taisha lie within the borders of Nara Park, a 502 hectare public park designated a Japanese "Place of Scenic Beauty."
|A few of the stone lanterns that line the approach to Kasuga Taisha, within Nara Park|
In addition to being the site of numerous Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, Nara Park is home to over 1,000 sacred sika (deer), which are designated Japanese national treasures.
|He's sacred ... and he knows it.|
According to Japanese history (or legend, depending on your view), several thousand years ago the god Takemikazuchi (one of the primary kami worshipped at Kasuga Shrine) descended from heaven riding a white deer--an act which transformed the humble sika into a sacred animal. From that time forward, Nara's sika were considered sacred (and until 1637, killing or harming one was punishable by death).
|No fear of humans. Or bicycles, for that matter.|
Today, the deer in Nara park have absolutely no fear of humans, partly because of the strict laws barring people from harming or killing them and partly because park visitors can purchase "sika senbei" (deer biscuits) to feed the deer at dozens of vendors and stalls throughout the park.
|Who's buying these senbei, anyway?|
The deer congregate around the vendors, waiting for
|He bought the crackers.|
|If you buy them -- they won't come. They're ALREADY HERE.|
As soon as the vendor hands over the crackers, all bets are off from the deer's perspective. Visitors who try to hide the crackers in pockets or handbags quickly learn that deer can pull the pockets off your jeans. (And no, that is NOT a joke.)
|Hand over the cracker, and no one gets hurt.|
They will also knock over small children, steal purses, and pinch your wallet if they think you might have hidden a cracker inside.
|Beautiful, fuzzy ... and experienced muggers, every one.|
When not assaulting hapless victims foolish enough to purchase crackers, Nara's deer are actually beautiful, gentle creatures. Many enjoy letting visitors rub their ears and pet them (though they'll generally wander off if someone across the way decides to purchase crackers and you haven't got any left to offer).
|Willing to stay, until there's a better offer.|
If you find yourself in Japan with an afternoon to spare, I definitely advise a trip to Nara. The temples are lovely, the shrines spectacular ... and there's something pretty special about being able to say you fed (or were mugged by) a deer.