Once upon a time there was a little place called Nara. Its woods were luscious and its wildlife plenty and so the people of Nara rejoiced in stocking up their kitchen with local venison and playing chase among the dense trees with the wildlife. Then one day, a noble family arrived and wanted to invite the gods in to bless the place. A temple was erected and the deity invited. All the way he came, from faraway lands, to answer their plea and as a messenger he sent a deer ahead. Into this hunting village.
The message was clear and the hunt over. From that day onward, deer were known as a sacred animals, not allowed to be harmed and the forest they roamed were left to the hands of nature altogether. More temples gathered around this sacred area and deer took over. Especially when the tourists came to feed them.
Where Greed Rules and Tourists Relent
Today, the town of Nara is a major tourist attraction with its stunning temples, pristine forest and cutest deer. But you should be warn, cute does not mean nice and gentle. On the contrary, Nara deer (and that goes for the deer in Miyajima as well) are greedy and entitled. They just know humans have food and if humans don’t give food, they demand it.
How? By chasing you, jumping up on you, snatching your map as a snack. My advice is not to feed them anything. Nothing. Nada. If they realize you are ‘too stupid to procure food’, they focus their energy on the ones with stacks of deer cookies. But if you must feed, please only feed the cookies they sell and don’t give them banana peel, more maps or other ridiculous things tourists bring along with them. The deer are wild animals and eating this junk is potentially harmful to them on top of that!
Where Temples Will Leave You in Awe
When you are done being all enraptured with sacred messengers in fluffy disguise, then I recommend checking out as many temples as you can. They are all impressive and wonderful to behold. Conveniently, they are clustered in the city centre, only a 30 minute walk from the train station. One thing, though, the five-story pagoda is not as great a sight as is advertised, so instead meander through the parks to the beautiful gardens beyond. There are two worthy of your visit and my top secret is: head to the garden as tourists get free entrance upon showing their passport.
After that, make a beeline for the temples at the edge of the wood. Dare to go further to … with its thousands of stone lanterns beautifully lining the path through the trees like a mystical alleyway. If you are lucky, you are here during the lantern festival when every single one is lit and presents a perfect illumination spectacle. And what I love even more than that is the moss that took reign over the old stone- and woodwork. Adds perfectly to its charm.
Where the Woods Will Lure You in
Last but not least, my absolute highlight. I am a child of the woods, apparently and a forest that has been left to its own devices for hundreds of years in a climate that tends to get a lot of rain creates the best forests there are, if you ask me. Lush forests, eery looking lichen hanging from crooked tree limbs and thick undergrowth with ferns reaching for your ankles. I just love it! But wait, Nara being so touristy, the forest has not been left completely untouched. Through here is the path up the mountain.
This means paved roads. Yes, through this ‘primeval’ forest, as it is advertised a major concrete track leading you to allow noisy cars to go through as well. There are no other hiking tracks and so you have to walk on concrete through an alley of electricity poles instead of just forest. Such a shame! It is still worth a visit, plus cheaper than taking the cable car up the mountain to the lookout.
If you have not had enough of Nara and yearn for a more ‘civilised atmosphere’, then head to the main arcades near the pagoda and your shopping heart will delight. And I bet that you will exclaim ‘kawaii’ when you see all the deer merchandise. Japan really knows how to sell cuteness.