A few months before traveling to Japan, I started reading guides and blog entries about the country, trying to put together an itinerary that made sense. I really enjoy reading travel guides and Nara was a place that kept coming up. It sounded like a must-see spot and so, on our second day in the country of the rising sun, we decided to visit the former capital.
Following the advice found on a website, we decided to take a train of the Kintetsu private line because their station in Nara is nearer to the temples than the JR station. The train ride took about 40 minutes and as soon as we got off the train we noticed that we were in a very touristy place: already in the station building there were many souvenir shops and little stalls selling trinkets. From the station we walked about 10 minutes to get to Nara park. Soon we encountered the first deer and like all the other tourists we just had to stop to take a ton of pictures. I still can’t believe how cute they all were! In Nara they even make and sell shika senbei, special rice cracker made only for the deer!
The first temple on our to-visit-list was, of course, Todai-ji temple and the Daibutsu-den, the Hall with the great Buddha. This building is the biggest wooden building in the world, and inside you can see one of the largest bronze Buddhas. The whole temple area is very beautiful and well kept, and despite the many people, we didn’t have to queue to buy tickets or enter the hall. Of course the 16 metres high Buddha was very impressive, but I think I liked the fierce guardians of Nandaimon Gate even more. The two wooden Nio guards are there to protect the temple and ward off evil spirits. We were watching them when Isa said that they looked as if they were coming alive, and she was right! I wouldn’t have been surprised had they jumped off their pedestal and attacked some tourists! Unfortunately they are behind a grate so it’s difficult to take pictures that do them justice.
Once we were outside the Todai-ji temple we decided to walk around the park trying to find some of the other temples and shrines. I had a map with me that wasn’t too useful as there were many different paths that were not drawn on it, but somehow that made the whole Nara experience even more interesting. So we wandered around the wood, along the fields and up the hill, we crossed rivers and walked along the shores of some ponds without ever knowing exactly what we would encounter next. All the time there were some deer keeping us company and sometimes walking with us for a short while, maybe hoping for some crackers. I think next time I’ll try to smuggle one home ;)
We soon came upon the Great Bell, Nigatsu-do Hall and Sangatsu-do Hall. From the terrace of Nigatsu-do Hall there is a wonderful view of the area, so climb the many stairs even if it’s scorching hot like it was when we visited.
Then we proceeded towards Wakakusayama Hill, passing red toriis and smaller shrines. At the bottom of the grass slope there are some restaurants and shops, so that would be a good spot for a break or even lunch. I read that in spring and fall you can climb the hill and have an amazing view over the city and the whole park. We opted for going back into the wood, glad for the shadow provided by the trees.
We eventually reached Kasuga Taisha, Nara’s most celebrated shrine. We admired the bronze lanterns donated to the shrine and just had a look around. All around this shrine there are smaller ones, and hundreds of stone lanterns that give the wood a mystical feeling. I so want to go there when they are lit!
In retrospect I wish we had spent more time at the shrine, and in Nara in general. But it was a really hot and humid day, we were starting to feel hungry and were very jet-lagged, so our resistance wasn’t the best. I think we missed out on many things, Kasuga Taisha is surely one of them.
We then slowly walked down the hill, passed under the big Ichi no Torii Shrine Gate, crossed the street and headed towards the five-story pagoda and the Kofuku-ji Temple area: more beautiful buildings and interesting museums that unfortunately we didn’t visit as we really needed to eat something. So we walked to Higashimuki shopping arcade where we entered the first restaurant, ordered a Japanese curry dish and could finally cool down and rest a little. We had a brief look at some shops and then headed to the station to go back to Osaka where we had a quick sushi and then went straight to bed, at around 8 pm :)
Nara was a really wonderful day trip that I can only recommend, but as I said before I feel I didn’t take full advantage of it. Even now, looking back at my pictures, at the map and list of things that you can see, I regret not having spent more time in that special place. I think it’s doable as a day trip from Osaka or even Kyoto, but going there on our second day in Japan maybe wasn’t the best idea as we were simply too tired to take it all in. Also I wish I had a Japanese guide with us, somebody to tell us a bit more about the history of the place and what all the buildings were. Later during our Japan tour we traveled with a guide and everything is so much more interesting when you start to understand the culture. Back in Nara I had no clue what I was seeing, I didn’t even know the difference between temples and shrines, let alone understand what the lanterns, sake barrels and different charms were for. Luckily I learned all about that during the following few days…