Japan Log #10: Nara, the Old Capitol

There I was, sitting on a rock with a small Japanese deer and a pigeon, a massive five-story pagoda and Shinto shrine behind me, and surrounded by a horde of tourists taking my picture. In the back of my mind, I wondered what people would do if all of the sudden I kicked the bird and put the deer in a headlock. Of course, I would never do such a thing because deer in Nara are sacred.

As the story goes, the deity Takemikazuchi rode into Nara on a white deer to guard the newly built capitol. This would have been around 710 CE, when Nara became the capitol of Japan. The part that doesn’t make any sense is that Takemikazuchi is said to have participated in the first Sumo contest in history, so how he rode in on a deer is beyond me.

Point being, the deer are now seen as messengers of the kami or spiritual deities of Japan. Numbering around 1,500, these free-roaming deer are also considered a National Treasure. People flock from all over the world to buy senbei, or deer crackers, to feed the little guys and watch their curious behavior of bowing for treats and bowing again after receiving treats.

They live in the 1,240-acre Nara Park which, combined with the surrounding shrines and ruins, is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The park invites walking, and draws you down path after path seeking more interesting views and new flocks of deer to feed. Multiple ponds lined with flowering cherry trees and full of turtles and koi provide perfect spots to relax between destinations.

Ruins are spread throughout the city, but within the park a crumbling wall remains near the Ukimidou pavilion, which stands on stilted legs in the water. While investigating this wall, a herd of deer came running up the hill, making strange high-pitched whining noises towards an old man and his wife who just so happened to have a handful of senbei.

On the edge of the park is the Kofukuji temple and accompanying 5-story pagoda – the second tallest pagoda in Japan. The dark brown sloping roofs are bifurcated by small white walls, intricately decorated with woodwork and upheld by knots of sturdy beams held together like interlaced fingers. On top is a tall metal rod wrapped in disks, reminiscent of some kind of ancient Tesla coil. 

I was taken by this building and found myself snapping many pictures trying to capture the perfect angle. Between the tidal fluctuations of people, I would grab a few shots before the next wave. Finally, I sat on a rock near an etched stone tablet to rest my feet when I noticed there was a peaceful little deer next to me. Lazily glancing at me for a moment, it decided I was of no threat and closed its eyes.

Soon a grey and green pigeon hopped up and the three of us just hung out in the temple atmosphere, which smelled faintly of incense wafting over from a nearby shrine. No sooner had the deer’s peaceful mentality spread to me than I realized a group of gawkers had gathered.

Pointing, giggling, taking pictures, and murmuring cute and kawaii, no longer was the pagoda the main focus for aspiring photographers. The peace in my heart was fleeting and soon replaced by a sense of sarcastic disdain for people. Now the deer, perhaps sharing my attitude, got up and left with the pigeon and me right behind it.

On my way back to the train station, I decided to stop at Nakatanidou, a renowned mochi shop known for its demonstrations of pounding mochi with hammers, the traditional way of making it. Unfortunately, there was no demo that day, but there was a crowd surrounding the entrance and groups of natives and foreigners stuffing their faces with the peanut-covered green goodness.

When I arrived home that night, I thought about how much more there was to see in Nara. It’s a big place and one should dedicate an entire day to hitting every corner. I also thought about the silly little deer and how I had never actually pet a deer before. Then I thought about how I had pet many deer, but forgot to wash my hands before eating like 5 mochi balls.

By Anthony Vitale