Steeped in centuries of Japanese history, the city of Nara can make a profound impression on her visitors with a trip that lasts several days or just a few hours.
Nara is easily reached from both Osaka and Kyoto via rail, so include an overnight trip in your itinerary.
As Japanese trains are often crowded you will want to travel light – but not forgo style.
Leather luggage always makes a classic statement, and the Piel Checkpoint Friendly Brief/Overnighter is a perfect choice. The bag is big enough to pack a couple of changes of clothes with two outside front zip-pockets that make finding guide books a snap.
Nara is one of Japan’s ancient former capitals. Nara’s cultural legacy is rivaled only by Kyoto, and the area of Nara–Kōen contains most of the recognized historical sites. Located on the eastern side of the city, Nara-Kōen is easily reached by bus from either the JR Nara or Kinetsu Nara train stations.
Since few Japanese speak English, it is advisable you stop by the visitor’s centers (located near both train stations) or have a guide book that features the Japanese spelling of attractions. Armed with the latter, you can walk up to a pedestrian, smile while looking lost and point to your desired destination. Either way, you are meeting the locals.
Nara–Kōen is mostly a park and inhabited by small and spotted Sika deer, a few hundred of which roam freely year-round.
Docile and nosy, the horned animals were once considered to be messengers of Shinto gods. Often mimicking the respectful bow of the Japanese, the deer now serve as the unofficial welcoming committee as you stroll the wooded walkways or past rows of souvenir stands.
Be aware though – waving a pamphlet or a scarf at them might mean saying “sayonara” (goodbye) to the item: the deer are always on the look-out for food. While feeding them human food will make them ill, deer cookies, called shikasembei, are available from vendors.
Head towards Tōdai-Ji. This is Nara’s most prized attraction and one of Japan’s highly respected Buddhist temples.
Nandai-mon, the massive carved gate you will pass through, sets the stage for the grandeur ahead. It is guarded by two Niō guardians. Their fierce faces and poses, captured in wood during the 13th century, still remind visitors that their best behavior is expected.
As your footsteps gently crunch along pea-stoned walkways, a sense of peacefulness prevails.
Across the lawn looms a large building. Actually, Daibutsu-den Hall is the largest wooden building in the world, and it houses a massive Buddha, the height of which, in a seated position, is close to 50 feet. The gold and bronze statue weighs over 500 tons, and its serene face belies the fact that over the 1200 years since its creation, it has been recast several times due to damage from natural catastrophes – like an earthquake when its head fell off.
As you walk around the back of the statue, you will notice a large wooden column with a hole near the base. Legend holds that the hole, the size of the Buddha’s nostril, is a passage way to full enlightenment. Children have no problem shimming through, however for adults it can be a tight squeeze. Hopefully, you can avoid making yourself into a giant wedgie by raising both your arms above your head as you enter.
A number of other shrines and buildings are located close to the Daibutsu-den Hall. In early February the Kasuga Taisha holds Mantōrō, where over 3,000 stone and bronze lanterns are lit.
A trip to Nara is illuminating in many ways.