the sacred deer of Nara
Much as we loved Kyoto, after a couple of days of jam-packed sightseeing, it was time for a change of scenery. The crowds might have been less oppressive had we planned our stay midweek. Instead, as luck would have it, our visit to Kyoto fell on the first pleasant weekend after a massive typhoon had rocked the country. After two days of battling the crowds and trying to squeeze in a representative number of sights, we realized we needed to take the intensity down a couple of notches. Instead of spending a third day shuttling between temples in Kyoto, we headed south for a day trip to Nara.
We took it slow in the morning, getting the kids some pastries at a local bakery so that the two of us could enjoy a traditional Kyoto breakfast at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in our neighborhood. We planned to stop by Fushimi Inari Taisha – the shrine made famous by the film adaptation of Memoirs of a Geisha – but Junebug fell asleep almost as soon as we got in the car. We decided to skip the shrine’s vermillion torii gates, which by one count number ten thousand, so as not to disturb her nap.
Nara’s claim to fame is twofold. First, its Todai-ji Buddhist temple houses Japan’s largest Buddha statue. Words and pictures barely hint at its immensity. The bronze statue itself is 49 feet tall and has been recast several times after being damaged in an earthquake. While its hands date to the 16th century, the head was remade sometime during the Edo period (1615-1867). The cavernous hall where the Great Buddha sits also has been rebuilt twice after sustaining fire damage. The current building was completed in 1709. Even though it is 30 percent smaller than the original, it ranked as the world’s largest wooden building until 1998.
The city’s other claim to fame is its deer. According to Japanese folklore, a local deity visited Nara astride a white deer, which led authorities to proclaim the animals sacred. Killing one of Nara’s deer was considered a capital crime well into the 17th century; the last recorded case of somebody being sentenced to death for this offense dates to 1637. The deer roamed Nara freely long before the lands surrounding the city’s major temples were incorporated into a park, and continue to do so to this day. In recent years they have multiplied to such an extent – their population now numbers more than 1,500 – that authorities have authorized the limited culling of deer who stray too far from the park.
We hoped that a close and personal encounter with Nara’s wildlife would sweeten the deal on another day of sightseeing, and boy were we right! The sacred deer of Nara were easily one of the top highlights of the entire Japan trip, as far as our kids are concerned. There are little stands throughout the park where one can buy crackers to feed the animals, which are apparently produced by a single company that has somehow cornered the deer cracker market. We bought a packet for each kid and made our away toward Todai-ji.
The deer have gotten used to being fed by tourists and some have even learned to bow for their crackers. Despite these apparent signs of domesticity, it is important to keep in mind that these are wild animals; every year municipal authorities register at least a hundred injuries sustained by tourists feeding the deer. Unsurprisingly, the bucks tend to be more aggressive than the does. Several tried to nip us from behind and one tugged on D’s shirt while he was helping Junebug avoid being swarmed by holding the packet of crackers aloft.
The first doe Junebug fed was a total sweetheart. Not only was she gentle in taking the crackers right from Junebug’s hand, but also she allowed herself to be petted, and even hugged. Unfortunately, the experience opened the floodgates of Junebug’s affection. Feeding and petting another deer, Junebug grew too animated in her excitement, which ended – predictably – with the doe nipping at her hand and nudging her away.
Fortunately, this happened after we had visited Todai-ji and were making our way out of the park because the experience was mildly traumatizing for Junebug. She got into her stroller, demanded her pacifier, and for the remainder of our stay would start whimpering and whining whenever another deer approached too closely.
This blemish aside, we quite enjoyed our day in Nara and, because of its relative proximity to Osaka, decided to change our hotel reservations and return there for the final night of our trip.