Prancing with Deer in Nara, Japan
A rough start to international travel yields to the magic of the deer (and people) of Nara, Japan.
Hot Take: Our favorite day in Japan; the Nara deer must be experienced to be fully appreciated (4.5 stars)
Pro Tip: Early mornings are the best to explore before all the other tourists wake up.
We woke up in a hostel at an ungodly hour (thanks to jet lag). We shuffled to the (shared) bathrooms in the near freezing corridor (thanks to a booking miscommunication). We had missed the night in the plush hotel in Osaka that was supposed to have begun our time in Japan in style and comfort (thanks to Matt not accounting for crossing the international date line). We had no local currency (thanks to many of the ATMs in this small town only functional to someone who speaks Japanese).
The foreign start to our trip around the world had seemingly begun in disaster…but then something seemingly magical happened, it all started to get better. (in no small part because of the warmth of the Japanese people).
Cracks in the doom the shrouded our first international leg had begun the night before. After almost 11 hours in an aluminum coffin (aka economy class on an AirAsia X flight), we touched down in Osaka almost 45 minutes early at 8p (but the time was now very late in our heads). This early arrival was key as it (plus a VERY efficient customs/immigration process) allowed us to catch the last bus to Nara (since we had now ‘lost’ a day of our itinerary due to a miscalculation by Matt of the impact of international date line).
The lucky breaks continued when (despite there being no taxis at 10:30p in the small town of Nara), Matt managed to somehow communicate to a local Japanese man picking up his wife/sister/friend (it was hard to know since they spoke no English and we spoke no Japanese beyond a badly mispronounced ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’) that we were desperate for a ride to our hostel that was a 30 minute walk away, uphill in a forest (note: the temperature was below freezing and falling). Without accepting anything in return (other than a broken ‘thank you’ and a hug), the man drove us to the front door of our hostel just as it looked like all hope was lost.
Fortune also shown on us the next morning when we opened the curtains to find half a dozen deer in the courtyard of our hostel. These is nothing quite like waking to see a herd of the focus of our trip to Nara right outside our window to perk up the spirits.
The next morning also held more unexpected warmth when the only restaurant in the area turned out to be cash only (remember, we still had no Japanese currency) but offered to feed us breakfast on the promise that we would be back to pay later in the day (note: it was delicious, and we settled the tab later that afternoon). Similarly, the purveyor of deer cookies (more about those later) gave us cookies on the promise to pay later (and with only the most basic shared language between us, that was quite an act of trust on her part).
It was at this point that we knew everything would be ok (and Kelly was fed) so we found our mental happy place and started our exploration.
The first thing that you need to know about Nara is that the place is crazy for (and virtually overrun with) deer. We mean that in the most inspired way possible as we saw about 500+ deer in our 8 hours of walking around the city. Without further delay, feast your eyes on the cuteness.
Beyond the deer that literally dot the landscape, Nara is home to a number of cultural sites that we were able to explore. Accessibility is one of Nara’s more enduring traits (versus the larger cities of Kyoto and Osaka) is that many of the shires/temples/sites were free (or very cheap) and they are collected together in the large Nara Park, (instead of in urban sprawl) which makes for some amazingly peaceful walks in nature.
The first major site we visited was Kasuga-taisha. It was a perfectly preserved complex like you would imagine out of a Hollywood blockbuster, but filled with deer! If you’re like us, you’ve probably imagined what it would be like to live in one of these sacred areas 500 years ago. Well Kasuga-taisha in Nara would be the one that we might choose.
After a stroll down to town (feeding deer cookies to our new furry friends), we finally found an ATM that spoke English (in a 7 Eleven of all places). Stocked with yen, we were hungry again (we had already walked a few miles) and found a 5 table restaurant that was highly reviewed on tripadvisor and decided to give it a try. Terakawa was everything we hoped for with the owner/chef/waiter/host providing excellent table service and delectable Japanese cuisine. He even made a tofu dish that was so good that even Matt loved it (just not as much as Matt loved the duck slices).
After a meal like that, we got back on the cultural walking trail and made our way to Tōdai-ji temple. This very impressive building complex held a large sitting Buddha as well as Shinto shrines. One of the things that we would come to appreciate about Japan was the way that they have assimilated many cultures into their own and preserved the better elements of each (as opposed to in the US were it sometimes feels like we are overly hostile to different religions – or even merely permit them). No where was this on display as much as at Tōdai-ji temple where Buddhists and Shinto adherents shared the same religious space. Can you imagine if a place like Jerusalem were treated as a communal property instead of something to be possessed by one sect at the expense of all others?
The day was getting away from us (and we needed to be in Kyoto that night), so we strolled casually back through the forest littered with deer to recover our luggage. While our feet were sore, we knew in our hearts that this trip was blessed and that we were humbled to be making it.