More than 1,000 deer live in Nara Park, and feeding them snacks, available for purchase in the park, is often a highlight for guests. // © 2014 Shane Nelson
Feature image (above): The towering Great Buddha Hall is another sight to be seen when visiting Nara Park. // © 2014 Thinkstock
The Japanese deer in Nara Park are big fans of the French horn.
I watched hundreds of them hurry toward a young man playing one of the instruments while he slowly twisted at the waist, spreading the mellow tones of his horn toward all four corners of a massive grassy field.
Of course, that same young man was also wearing a satchel filled with acorns he later distributed to the eager swarm of white-spotted animals — a number of which sported impressive antlers.
Nara was the capital of Japan in the 8th century, and today, the city’s largest park is home to more than 1,000 Japanese deer. The protected animals roam the park’s shady woods and verdant grassy spaces, thanks primarily to a popular legend about a powerful Shinto deity who rode into Nara on a white deer in the 8th century. Deer have been honored in Nara ever since, and killing the animals was once punishable by death.
Visitors can enjoy the popular French horn deer-calling event daily from June through September. The event takes place around 8 a.m. to 10 a.m., but it needs to be arranged beforehand through the Foundation for Protecting Deer in Nara and costs just under $200. The money goes to help care for the park’s deer, and it’s certainly quite an enjoyable spectacle as the animals stream in from various regions of the park, eager for acorns. A great photo opportunity, the deer calling also offers countless chances to pet and feed the deer. June is fawn season, an important detail for folks interested in posing with an adorable assemblage of Bambi lookalikes.
Nara Park’s Japanese deer are, however, only a part of the region’s unique appeal. The area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and features several terrific historic buildings and temples, including the standout Kasuga Taisha Shinto shrine, first built in the 8th century.
Particularly stunning in late April or early May, when the surrounding wisteria are blooming, the Kasuga Taisha shrine is fronted by a long walkway lined with around 2,000 chest- and head-high stone lanterns. Visitors will find 1,000 more hanging, ornate brass lanterns on the temple’s interior, along with a congregation of brightly painted traditional buildings, the rich odor of burning incense and a 75-foot Japanese cedar that is more than 1,000 years old with a trunk the width of a small Japanese sedan.
Another highlight near Nara Park is the Todaiji temple complex and the Daibutsuden Hall, built around the world’s tallest gilt-bronzed Buddha. The 51-foot, 380-ton colossus wears a peaceful look and holds up a flat palm that’s just over five feet tall all on its own.
Also known as Great Buddha Hall, Daibutsuden is one of the world’s largest wooden buildings. It’s a replica of the original, which was constructed in the 8th century but burned to the ground 400 years later. The bronze Buddha has been reconstructed as well, although some components of the original remain, including a portion of its belly, both thighs and the lotus petals. Guests interested in earning some good luck can wriggle through an opening at the base of one of the broad, wooden pillars near the rear of the great hall, which is said to be the size of the Buddha statue’s nostril and a tight squeeze even for children.
After enjoying the temples, shrines and deer, people may want to head over to the reasonably close Nara-machi district, a historic part of town with charming old traditional buildings, a range of shops loaded with great artwork and local products. Travelers can also enjoy a terrific tempura meal at Iwashimizu Rasen restaurant, starting at about around $17.
Sake fans should head just a few blocks up the street from the restaurant to the Harushika Brewery for a sake tasting. The cost is about $5 to try an assortment of five different sakes, ranging from very dry to surprisingly sweet, in an authentic tasting environment. The brewery is another excellent spot to pick out gifts for family and friends back home with a particular fondness for sake.