Nara: a city of temples, deer and bicycles

I like cities where the main form of transport is the humble push bike and Nara falls into that category. It feels more like a large town than a city and has more in common with my favourite places in England, Cambridge, Richmond and the New Forest, than I’d imagined.

Filmed in 1975 and 2012

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Nara is most famous for the Daibustu, the largest bronze statue of the Buddha in the world that is housed in a large wooden building dating back to the 8th century.  I stood in exactly the same spot that my grandparents did when they came here nearly forty years ago. My grandfather filmed the temples here and the rest of their travels on a lightweight film camera. Until last winter, the reels of film had been stored in an iron chest in my grandparents home, waiting like a time capsule for an occasion to be dug up. My interest in Japan facilitated this occasion and with a projector, another antique-looking contraption, we were able to relive my grandparents holiday to Japan in 1975! The park hadn’t changed in character, it was full of tourists taking photos and deer trying to sniff out food from the tourist’s bags. The main difference was the fashion, especially flares that were so popular back in the seventies!

The deer

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The giant Buddha left no lasting impression on me, so I went for a walk in the park for inspiration. This World Heritage Site may be impressive but it is the 1,500 deer in the surrounding woodland that are the main spectacle of Nara. I could’ve easily tricked myself into thinking I was back in the New Forest or Richmond Park if it wasn’t for all the Chinese tourists tormenting the deer. The ‘thing-to-do’ in Nara is to buy crackers and wave them up and down so the deer bow to you before eating the cracker, but I saw none of this amicable behaviour between the two species. Instead tourists tease the deer, and the deer push, shove and kick until they get the cracker. To me it just looked like the deer were extremely hungry and needed a good meal, not to have to fight for every cracker! So I left the crowds behind and wandered round the outskirts of the large, forested park. The only sound were trees singing in the trees and the cracking leaves under my feet; it was wonderful. I surreptitiously ate the last of my Christmas cake and a fire-baked yam, without attracting any attention from the deer, and savoured the moment.

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New Year preparations

The highlight of my day in Nara was was nosing around the streets of the old town, Naramachi. It was two days before the New Year holiday started and people were rushing around, unlike Christmas Eve in England; buying presents, stocking up on food and cleaning their houses. Here, the latter activity is much more important than in the West, as all houses should have a thorough clean so bad omens are swept out before the start of a new year. I saw men sweeping the temples, women hoovering the houses and futons being aired on balconies. Old women were haggling for the cheapest price on mikan (satsumas) and buying decorations to hang above their doors. My wanderings and photo-taking went unnoticed as everyone else was so busy.

I treated myself to a pot of organic ginger tea in a beautiful cafe in the centre of town. There are many independent and unique cafes here, which is one reason I’ll be coming back. Check out www.naraexplorer.jp/dining/cafe for inspiration.

Another reason is to stay at Yazun Guest House again. It is a 80 year old two-storey house set between tall modern and ugly hotels. A young Japanese couple have taken good care of transforming the traditional building into a warm and friendly guest house, without losing it’s authenticity. The dormitory I stayed in had tatami flooring, sliding doors and minimal style decoration. I would recommend this place for its friendly owners and Japanese-style layout, and it’s just a few minutes walk from the train station.

One night is enough to explore this place in full, but if you only want to feed the deer, an afternoon will do. I’ll be coming back here to see the forest in another season, or perhaps in February, so see the herding of the deer. Maybe I’ll hire a bicycle too and pretend I’m back in Cambridge.

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An old man enjoying free-wheeling down the hill

Now, onto the bright lights of Kobe.

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