Japanese Scenery (II): Nara Park
Nara Koen (Nara Park) is a park located at the foot of Mount Wakakusa in Nara City. Many of Nara's major attractions are located here, including Todaiji Temple, Kasuga Taisha Shrine, and Kofukuji Temple. Nara Park is also home to thousands of roaming deer, which is why the park is sometimes called Nara Deer Park or Japanese Deer Forest.
About Nara Park
Established in 1880, Nara Park is one of the oldest parks in Japan. It covers a vast area (about 1,240 acres), part of which is made up of shrines and temples, such as Todaiji Temple which has the largest wooden building in the world. These old architectures are one of the reasons why Nara Park is worth traveling to.
The biggest attraction of Nara Park is the deer. Today, about 1,200 deer live in Nara Park and the mountains nearby. In Nara, deer are sacred and carefully protected. Legend has it that Takemikazuchi, the god of thunder, traveled to Nara in the 700s and appeared on Mount Mikasa (aka. Mount Wakakusa) riding a white deer. Since then, Kasuga Taisha Shrine and Kofukuji Temple have regarded deer as deities. Until 1637, killing one of these sacred deer was a crime punishable by death.
After the Second World War, the deer were downgraded from sacred animals to national treasures. Although most people today do not consider deer to be sacred, the residents of Nara still have great respect for the deer. There is a foundation to protect them. Images of deer can be found everywhere, from sanctioned graffiti of deer to restaurants serving deer-shaped desserts.
Temples and Shrines
There are two temples and a shrine in Nara park:
Todaiji: It is about 1,200 years old and is the largest wooden structure in the world today. The world's largest bronze statue of the Buddha Vairocana locates in its Daibutsuden (Great Buddha Hall). The temple is also the Japanese headquarters of the Kegon school of Buddhism. In 1998, the temple is listed as UNESCO World Heritage as one of the "Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara".
Kohfukuji: Kohfukuji was built in 669 and was founded by the Fujiwara clan, the most powerful nobility in Japanese history. Kohfukuji Temple was damaged and destroyed many times because of civil war and fires. It has also been rebuilt several times, but some buildings, such as one of the three main golden halls, the south gate, and the central gate have never been rebuilt. One of the landmarks of Nara, the Five-storied Pagoda, and the Higashikindo all belong to Kohfukuji Temple.
Kasuga Taisha: It is the shrine of the Fujiwara clan, built in 768. Kasuga Taisha Shrine is the head office of over 3,000 Kasuga shrines all over Japan. The torii of Kasuga-Taisha is one of the oldest and has influenced the style of torii in most of Japan. In addition to its magnificent architecture, the more than 3,000 stone lanterns lining the road are also an important attraction.
How to Play with Deer
Technically, Nara deer are semi-wild - there are no cages or fences to lock them up. They often roam outside Nara Park and scatter all over the city. They are capable of finding food by themselves, including grass, cattails, and other land grasses. However, Nara deer have become accustomed to the presence of humans and view them as a source of food because of the long-term interaction with travelers.
Travelers can buy a shika senbei (deer crackers) for 200 yen to feed the deer. Made of wheat flour and chaff, shika senbei is a nutritious snack specially developed for deer. Please do not feed them pizza or biscuits that may harm their health.
Nara deer have even learned to bow for treats. Normally, they are very docile. However, teasing them with food may provoke them and lead to aggressive behavior, including biting, kicking, and head-butting. Please make sure to feed them after their bowing. If you run out of food, don’t panic! You can show the deer your empty hand. They’ll understand...probably!