I knew I couldn’t go to Japan and not visit this historical place, even if just for a day. Out of all the places I researched before the trip, Nara was the one I read about the least because I wanted to discover it by myself. I did not look at pictures, and I did not read about the best ways to visit Nara in a day. No, I chose to just walk and see what I found.
It was also the one day in the trip that I chose to disconnect, and plugged in my earphones, letting the music accompany me as I walked Nara. I may not have seen many of its temples, but there’s no doubt in my mind that what I saw that day was what I needed to see.
A short bus ride from the train station is Nara Park and, quoting Lonely Planet:
“Nara is a stroll through a temple-filled park.”
Perhaps most stunning about Nara are the hundreds of stone lanterns that line the path leading to Kasuga Taisha Shrine, a UNESCO World Heritage Site of great importance to Japan. 3000 lanterns covered in moss, they speak of centuries of tradition and faith that still fill Nara’s unique atmosphere. They are symbolic of the 3000 Kasuga shrines in Japan, and they are a symbol for enlightenment.
Kasuga Taisha is a Shinto shrine, a tradition profoundly connected to nature, and it’s located inside a tree grove. Very much like Meiji Jingu in Tokyo, it feels like stepping into another world completely disconnected from the cities’ modernity. Decorated in the traditional reds and oranges, Kasuga Taisha is famous for its bronze and golden lanterns.
At special festivities throughout the year, these lanterns are lit at night in a beautiful display for visitors to bask in. If you’d like to take a look at what this is like on a normal day, there is a small room inside the Shrine where lit lanterns are on display.
Above is Todai-ji Temple, a beautiful, ancient wooden structure that houses the Daibutsu or Great Buddha, one of the largest bronze figures in the world. Daibutsu-den Hall, its main structure, is the largest wooden structure in the world and it is truly astonishing to look at. The timeworn woodwork is unbelievable: it may look frail, but just look at the incredible and huge building it holds up.
Inside the hall, the towering Buddha greets visitors looking down on them. It is an image of the Vairocana Buddha, or the cosmic buddha.
Today-ji is one of the temples where I spent the most amount of time in Japan because I was truly in awe of this place. The figures decorating the hall, the old wood, the ancestry.. It’s a lot to take in. It’s one of those places you have to visit at least once in your lifetime. At the back of the hall, there is a column with a hole through it, which is said to be the size of one of the Daibutsu’s nostril’s size, and those who can squeeze through it are guaranteed enlightenment in their lifetimes.
And of course, you can’t visit Nara without greeting its super-friendly deer!
Since the founding of Kasuga Taisha the deer have been respected and protected by the locals, believed to be divine messengers. Hundreds of deer roam the streets of Nara, greeting visitors for deer crackers, called Shika Senbei, their favourite food. Some say that if you bow to them they will bow back (I don’t know how true this is, I tried it a few times and all I got was a confused tilt of the head). What I do know though, is that they are not too fond of selfie sticks! But if you approach them nicely and gift them a cracker, they might just take a selfie with you.
I left Nara feeling a nostalgic je-ne-sais-quoi, with some of the most beautiful memories I hold of my travels. It’s also the place where I bought my dear pendants of two Japanese symbols; Dragon & Arrow, and a place I know I could spend wandering for a while.