To celebrate my 23rd birthday we decided to have short break from Kyoto to visit the one time capital of Japan, Nara. As we pulled into Nara station, blessed once more with beautiful sunshine, we were confronted by its beauty. This tiny city is nestled amongst lush mountains, teaming with wildlife and dotted with some of the most beautiful temples in the world.
As it was my birthday we treated ourselves to a night in the world renowned, Nara Hotel, complete with our own bathroom (a luxury after all the hostels) and a mini bar. We dropped off our bags and headed into the centre of Nara, the legendary Nara Koen. This huge park is home to the sacred deer that have made Nara famous across the globe.
Entering the park we were astounded by the size of both the park itself and the shrines that dotted the horizon. The first shrines we came to consisted of a beautiful bell hall surrounded by manicured trees and a magnificent 5 tiered pagoda. It was under this pagoda that we saw our first deer, and soon they outnumbered the people.
The tradition in Nara Koen is to buy small deer crackers and feed them to the deer, who bow in order to receive the blessing from you. In return it is believed that the spirits that watch over the park will bless you with good fortune and happiness. However deer are not as nice as you might imagine.
Being the naive twosome that we are we decided to approach a large male deer as soon as we had our crackers. We should have known from the sly look in his eyes and the swagger in his step that this deer was not to be messed with. Nevertheless I happily bounded over to the deer and offered him a cracker, with a human-like bow he snatched the cracker out of my hand and gobbled it down. Before I could fully turn around to walk back to Yianna he was on me, first with a gentle nudge but soon he was head butting me and snorting. Within seconds our giggles turned to high pitched screeches and panicked looks as we tried to throw crackers at this deer and run away. Eventually we distracted the demon deer long enough to get away and we hurried into a busier bit of the park.
Over the course of the next four hours we wandered all through the park, visiting the small shrines and pavilions that fill the forested expanse. In between these shrines we sat and fed hundreds of deer of all shapes and sizes, beginning to feel more and more in tune with nature. It didn’t take long for the feeling of peace that the original founders of Nara must have felt to come over us. I’m not sure if it was the almost human looks that many of the deer gave us or the humble bowing that even the youngest deer seemed to have mastered but something about Nara and its deer was overwhelmingly emotional.
At the centre of Nara Koen is the magnificent Todai-Ji, an ancient temple in reverence of Buddha, and housed within the gigantic wooden structure is a huge statue of Buddha himself. Walking up the tree lined path to the temple, surrounded by deer and bronzed trees is an experience unlike any other, easily comparable to seeing the Taj Mahal for the first time. This sense of wonder is only made more real upon entering Todai-Ji itself, where the giant lanterns and golden statues sit dwarfed by the temple itself. Huge wooden pillars 5m in circumference hold up the structure and countless shrines and candles fill the temple floor.
My birthdays over the past few years have been filled with friends, frolics and lot of alcohol and they have been fabulous fun. However none of them can compare to the feelings inspired by Todai-Ji, even though the temple is crowded with hundreds of tourists and pilgrims I felt totally alone. I was not lonely, instead I felt serene…something which is quite odd for me and even though it was only for the 15 short minutes that we were inside the temple I didn’t have a worry or a care in the world.
Leaving Todai-Ji we both felt exhausted, the reality of this trip for us was finally setting in. Although it may appear to many of you that this is simply a holiday it really isn’t, this is a lot more than that for both Yianna and I. Hopefully I will be able to explain exactly what this trip is by the time we leave Japan but right now I don’t really know what to say.
By the time we arrived back at the hotel and were shown to our room we just need to sit down and rest, however upon seeing our huge beds and the view from our balcony we turned back into the children we truly are. Jumping on beds, pillow fights and raiding the mini bar were just the beginning. In fact Yianna was so excited she drank a whole cup of soup with a tablespoon of salt in it because she thought it was tea and sugar.
Having spent a couple of hours making ourselves pretty and dancing to our favourite disco hits we headed up to the bar for a birthday cocktail! It was one of those strange moments where you start reminiscing about all the weirdest things, and that is a lot of stuff when you’ve known someone for almost 16 years. With a couple of cocktails down us we wandered out into the dimly lit streets of Nara to find dinner.
The place we stumbled upon was Parco, a teppanyaki house favoured by the locals as it was high quality local food for a reasonable price. It was delicious and we ate a family size meal between the two of us. Squid, scallops, beef, pork, rice, eggs, noodles, vegetables, chicken…essentially all our favourite foods, it was incredible.
On our way home we stopped by 7-11 and stocked up on all the essentials: chocolate, crisps, chicken, pastries, chocolate, booze and chocolate. By the time we made it back to the hotel we looked like we were smuggling in our weekly shop. The rest of the night was spent watching trashy tv, eating copious amounts of food and trying out weird face masks. Yes, we really are that basic.
Waking up the next morning was bittersweet, Nara had been unbelievable but it was time to head back to Kyoto and carry on with our adventure. After a final walk around the park and having said our farewells to our favourite deer we boarded the train north again back to Kyoto.
See you soon,