Nara is a 40 minute train ride from Osaka, making it a perfect day-trip for anyone staying in the city. If you’re planning your first ever trip to Japan, it is a must-see. You’ll find shrines, enormous historic buildings and the a beautiful park.
Nara is famous for the huge number of deer that wander the area. So many, that you’ll probably spot one before you see a shrine, which in Japan is saying something! There’s even a deer mascot that features on the signs for the train station.
Cunning vendors have made a business out of tourists’ desire to feed these cute animals. You’ll find little stands where you can buy a bundle of deer biscuits for about 300yen. But be careful, once it becomes obvious you have these biscuits, the deer will come for you.
The deer are creatures of two halves. The first half is polite and patient (well, almost). Over hundreds of years living in the vicinity of buddhist monks and then tourists, these deer have learned to actually bow. It sounds amazing but it’s true, the Nara deer will bow their heads in the hope of getting food.
Then there’s the other half. The deer can also be aggressive and determined. Not all of the deer are patient enough for food to stop and bow. Some prefer to nibble at your clothes or nudge you. There are even signs warning you to be careful around them.
Path to the Giant Buddha
Finding your way from the train station is pretty easy. Look for signs to Nara Park or Tōdai-ji temple. The park is fairly large and is home to Nara’s main attractions so it’s unlikely you’ll miss it.
Once you’re at the park, you should be able to just follow the crowds. If you happen to go on a quiet day however, take the main path to the left, at the edge of the park. This will take you through the giant gate, Nandaimon Gate of Tōdai-ji.
The gate is incredibly impressive and could be a tourist attraction in its own right. Behind grates on each end of the gate are big statues. You’ll see these as you pass through.
Continue on through the gate and keep on walking until you get to the large construction. A big wall surrounds the garden and main temple where the Buddha sits. To go in you’ll need to buy tickets from the huts at the side of the path.
Unfortunately, when we were there, there was a lot of restoration work happening to the outer wall so we couldn’t see what the wall itself was like. Thankfully there was far more for us to see that wasn’t blocked by scaffolding.
The main building is amazing to look at from the outside and the gardens and cherry trees make the place even more beautiful.
Go inside the main hall and you’ll see the giant Buddha. This enormous statue is one of those things where it’s difficult to grasp it’s actual scale. It’s only when you read the nearby signs telling you the height of its fingers that you understand what you’re looking at.
Elsewhere in the hall are two more statues, Bishamonten and Komokuten, the Buddha’s guardians. These statues might not be as big as the main Buddha, but they’re still impressive in their own right. At the back of the hall is a miniature model of the building and its surroundings.
Off to one side of the hall is another popular attraction, a large post with a hole through it at its base. This hole is the size of the Buddha’s nostril and it’s said that those who can pass through it will be blessed with enlightenment in their next life.
There was a queue of people waiting to try it when we were there. I didn’t attempt it myself, I’m not sure my hips would fit through it!
Just outside the temple is a rather creepy looking statue. This is Binzuru, also known as Pindola in other cultures. Don’t let his looks fool you, Binzuru has healing properties. If you rub the part of the statue that corresponds to the area of your body that is in pain or has problem, Binzuru will heal you.
Tōdai-ji temple is one of Japan’s most famous temples and it’s easy to see why. I highly recommend making the trip to go and see it.
If you’re interested in reading more about Nara, we also walked around Nara Park and went in search of the 5-story pagoda.