NARA

It’s coming up to two weeks since we got back from an incredible fortnight exploring Japan, and I think I deserve a thorough pat on the back for whittling down the thousands of photographs we took into these few- these lucky few- that reflect some of my favourite moments meeting some of the country’s most celebrated mammals and exploring some of its wilder spots. In what will hopefully become a trilogy of posts, first up- let me introduce you to wonderful, magical Nara.

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I was ridiculously excited about going to Nara- Japan’s first permanent capital and home to over a thousand tame Sika deer that a) enjoy the status of being ‘national treasures’ and b) freely roam the shrines and temples of Nara-kōen. Seeing them was pretty much top of my list of things to do if I ever got the opportunity to go to Honshu, and I patiently waited for the sunniest day of the week to hop on a train from Kyoto station. I wasn’t disappointed- though Nara is choc-a-bloc with tourists, it was easy to get off the beaten track and experience it in a way that didn’t feel like an anarchic free-for-all.

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We got our first glimpse of the deer from the bus taking us to Nara-kōen, where they were nonchalantly walking into the road and stopping traffic or keeping a vigilant eye for ice creams that could be stolen from unsuspecting victims. Compared to our enormous red deer they were positively dinky, and lots of them had bambi-esque lines of white spots running along their backs. Only a few of the males were still sporting antlers in late October, and their calls, rather than the guttural roars I was used to with the reds, were high pitched and squeaky.

Instead of heading towards Tōdai-ji, where the main part of the crowds were gathering and the deer were decidedly bolshier, we decided to head towards the park’s shrine and into the gorgeous sun-dappled light of the surrounding woods. The deer here were noticeably more polite, and did their famous head-bowing behaviour as we walked past. They would weave in and out of the tōrō and occasionally come up and nuzzle you if they were under the impression that you had just bought some of deer crackers. At this point I distinctly remember feeling like we’d fallen into a Miyazaki film, and quite honestly wouldn’t have been surprised to glimpse some susuwatari scampering between the rocks.

After hours of happy wondering punctuated by green tea ice creams, we found ourselves back on a path leading to the Daibutsu-den (great Buddha) hall. We finished the day by staring dumbfounded at the largest wooden building in the world and the enormous Buddha seated inside, cementing Nara as one of the most memorable places we visited on our trip. It’s so easy to get to from Kyoto that there really is no excuse to miss it- despite multiple attempted ice cream thefts from its most treasured of residents.

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