Nara – The Ancient Beginnings of Japan

“Where deer and human peacefully co-exist at a place of historical and cultural wealth.”


Nara represents the early beginnings of Japan history because it was where the Asuka Period started in the 6th century and Buddhism was introduced from China into Japan and henceforth spread throughout the country. It was also the time when the name of the country was officially known as Nihon. Later, Asuka evolved into the Nara Period and Nara City became the capital of Japan for about 74 years in the early 8th century (before Kyoto), it was known as Heijo-kyo at the time.

At present day, most of the ancient buildings still stand and most have become World Heritage Sites. There is a long list of Historical Monuments in Nara, not surprising for a 1300-year-old city, but too long for a one day visit. Most tourists would only end up in the areas within the vicinity of the Nara Park, not unlike myself.

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About an hour’s train ride from Osaka, this was one of my favourite places during this trip to Japan, although it was also a place that challenges my leg muscles the most… I’m not sure if we’ve walked 20km on this day…, including the rounds taken while we got lost…

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Away from the hustle and bustle of the crowd and traffic and the neon lights of Osaka, it was a refreshing change of atmosphere when we arrived Nara. There is a very… “Japanese feel” to this city; quiet and tranquil, lesser people, the general pace of life seems to be slower here. Even the buildings are a vast difference from Osaka’s, typical old Japanese architecture could be observed here. The temples are ancient monuments and national treasures from the 6th-8th century, and the gardens…, truly a zen place to slowly walk in and let your senses absorb everything,… if you have the time. Unfortunately, time is a precious commodity for a day trip traveler.


Nara Park

It is quite impossible to talk about Nara without mentioning the deer. It is a unique and amazing sight. Yes, there is deer in my country too, but never in my life have i seen so many wild deer and not in an enclosure. Strolling freely and leisurely all over the town, on the roads, in the park, in the temples, along the shopping streets observing the vendors going about with their businesses; they just seem to be everywhere! There are even shops selling “deer crackers” and traffic signs all over the city with a deer picture that says “Attention, Go Slow – Deer Crossing!”

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Walking side by side with humans, they are not hostile too. They seem pretty gentle even as they are asking for food or eating carefully from your hand to make sure they don’t hurt you. Some even say that the deer will bow to you when they ask for food, which i don’t really doubt! It seems that even the wild deer of Japan are as polite and as culturally refined as its people. 🙂

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What’s the story about the deer anyway? Well according to legend, a dominant aristocrat clan who founded the Kasuga Taisha Shrine in the 8th century had invited a mighty deity from another shrine, and when this deity came to Nara, he appeared riding on a white deer. Ever since then, deer have been treated as divine messengers of god and greatly respected and protected by the people of Nara.

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Naramachi is a district at the city centre of Nara, that reflects the typical atmosphere of traditional townhouses (machiya) built with lattice fixtures. We got lost several times in the narrow alleyways here, which all look the same, and all maps are written in Japanese Kanji!

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Then we bumped into a local passerby whom i asked directions from with my broken Japanese. He was so kind as to ask us to walk with him to find the Traditional Japanese house. Then we realised that he wasn’t sure of the way himself, and he actually rang the doorbell of one of the residents and asked for directions on our behalf, and then he escorted us until we reached our destination, and even asked the girl at the counter if we needed to pay and how much, before leaving us with a bow and a big cheerful smile! I’m really amazed with the kind hospitality of these Japanese people. 🙂

Naramachi Koshi-no-ie Lattice House (Traditional Japanese Lattice House)

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The structure of a traditional Japanese urban townhouse is characterised by its long depth and narrow frontage (to avoid tax, which correlates positively with the width of the front facade)

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Kohfukuji Temple         

A temple which has just celebrated its 1300th anniversary. The five-storey pagoda, a symbol of Nara city, had been burned down five times and the current building was constructed 500 years ago.

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Kasuga Taisha Shrine

This 8th century Shinto shrine is characterised by some 2000 stone lanterns which lined both sides of the long walking path through the sacred forest and up the hill leading all the way to the entrance of the shrine. The vermillion-lacquered shrine buildings with cypress bark roofs stand out impressively amidst the thick lush forest. In the vast forest precints there are also 61 other shrines. We never had a chance to explore any of these.

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The history of this Shinto shrine is closely related to the reverence for deer, where the deity of this Shrine arrived riding on a white deer and henceforth deer is respected and protected as divine messengers of god by the people of Nara.

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 Todaiji Temple


Todaiji where the world’s largest gilt-bronze Buddha statue (Daibutsu) is housed, built to bring happiness to the people. We didn’t enter it (it was also approaching closing time by the time we reached there.) By now we’re sort of having “temple fatigue” already… from the endless temples we visited since day one. 😉

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Many students come in throngs, but they seem quite respectful even to the deers. I saw a little school boy bowing to a deer and said: “Sumimasen, Shika-san!” (Excuse me, Mr. Deer!) before politely extending his hand to feed it with a Shika senbei (deer crackers). How cute! Now this is something new, never a chance you find students behaving like this in my country, sorry to say.

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Yoshikien Garden

This was where I finally got my fix of Japanese gardens. Snaking stone paved path around a pond, meticulously tended plants, flowers and trees, with little gazebos and stone features along the way, beautiful surrounding landscapes of mountains in the distance. Simply charming.

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We originally wanted to visit the famous Isuien Garden, but it was already closed as it was dusk by the time we reached there. At random chance we stumbled upon Yoshikien which was next to Isuien, and it was closed too. But, the caretaker was still there and we pleaded with her to let us in for 5 minutes, just to have a quick look and take some pictures. She must have taken pity on our pathetic disposition and allowed us a quick round, albeit reluctantly.

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Well, what i didn’t expect was that the garden was so big and beautiful, i couldn’t help taking more than 5 minutes there. But i stopped myself from wandering further as it was getting dark and i need to respect the promise made to the kind caretaker woman who let us in after opening hours.  So we left after a rather quick fix. Better than nothing, haha.

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