Navigating Nara

What I loved most about Nara was the connection to nature that you felt everywhere. Beautiful temples crafted from ornate, carved wood that were nestled amongst trees, lakes and pristine parkland. Not to mention the deer! It just felt so different to Kyoto, no better, no worse, just beautiful.

Most people go to Nara for the temples and the friendly little deer that roam free, bowing politely for a biscuit or two. In April, on the way back from Shima, we decided to stop in at Nara for the afternoon. We visited Tōdai-ji (東大寺), a Buddhist temple whose immense Great Buddha Hall is the most breathtaking backdrop for the world’s largest bronze statue of the Buddha, known in Japanese as ‘Daibutsu’ translated into English as ‘Big Buddha’! It’s one of the many listed UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Japan and you can totally understand why. The huge temple structure is quite imposing in the pretty parkland and you can really appreciate the craftsmanship that must have gone into building something of this size and sheer quality.

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The temples in Japan have always caused a stir in me, they’re numerous but each one is more lovely than the last. They’re beautifully taken care of and restored to perfection. They really hold a special place in people’s hearts. They’re loved. Much more so than churches in England and not solely for religious purposes, but as a really deeply engrained part of Japanese cultural heritage that needs to be reserved and protected. You get a special feeling of appreciation when you visit and that’s what I love about Japanese temples, I could visit 1000 of them and still find them fascinating.

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Nara park grounds are stunning too, and full of incredibly domesticated deer that are seen as messengers of the gods in the Shinto religion. This means that the park deer are protected animals and have become a symbol (and main sightseeing attraction) of Nara, so much so that various stalls have popped up selling deer biscuits (¥100 per pack) so that you can feed them, and possibly entice them to a selfie, during your trip! Being Japanese, the deer obviously have impeccable manners and will bow before and after receiving their tasty treats even though some of the braver ones might make a beeline for your pocket or your bag… Or a bite on the bum! 

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I adored Nara, the feeling of tranquility and beauty made me feel so at ease, the Pavillion jutting out into the koi-filled lake just below the Nara Hotel is for me such a stereotypical image of traditional, old Japan that it was really wonderful to be able to spend time wandering the park. I mean, isn’t this image exactly what you imagine when you think of Japan? 

As we were leaving the park, we found a tiny shoyu (soy sauce) producer selling his wares in an old machiya shop. Fourth generation, 135 years in the same family and still doing everything by hand using organic soy beans. The barrels below are for ageing the sauce (for a minimum of 6 months, maximum 2 years) and they have been at the business since its inception 135 years ago! After buying a few bottles of the most delicious soy sauce and ponzu I’ve ever tried, the owner showed us into the warehouse where the beans were being fermented and aged. It was incredible! 

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Nara is really easily accessible and well worth the hour or so trip from Kyoto on the Kintetsu line (costing around ¥800), it’s perfect to do as a day trip and compact enough to do in half a day. 

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