MY DREAM CAME TRUE!
Reviews of bucket-list-worthy things to do all over the world

Oh, Deer!!

Visiting the deer of Nara, Japan

Nara, an ancient capital of Japan, is full of historic temples and shrines, but, for me, a major draw was the fact that those temples and shrines are home to friendly deer who love to be fed shika senbei (rice crackers) by tourists. According to Japanese legend, deer are messengers of the gods and they are, therefore, regarded sacred. For this reason, and possibly also because they are good for tourism, they are allowed to roam freely in Nara Park. I’d heard that some of the deer have learned the Japanese custom of bowing. I hoped to find a “bowing deer.”

My friend and I arrived at JR Nara station, after an hour-long train ride from Kyoto (free with our JR pass), with plans to visit Todaiji Temple and Kasuga Grand Shrine’s forest. We stopped by the tourist information booth to pick up a map of Nara and ended up getting not only a map, but a suggested route for exploring Nara. The route was probably the same route that is recommended to every tourist, but, since it hit both of our must-see attractions, we decided to follow it.

Outside the station, I was surprised to find a modern-looking city. We walked past shops that looked like they catered to the locals rather than tourists, straight to Nara Park. Just before we entered the park, we spotted our first deer. They were conveniently located right next to a “deer cracker” vendor. The deer allowed me to pet them, even though I offered no food. As we walked through the park, we saw more and more deer, mostly congregating in lazy, lounging clusters.

Near the Todaiji Temple, we saw possibly the youngest deer in all of Nara, a newborn fawn. The infant was still covered in bloody fluid. I watched her stand for the first time in her life, before falling to the ground. Fortunately, it wasn’t very far to fall. Sadly, the little one was all alone. She reminded me of the Disney’s Bambi. I assume that her mother had given birth early that morning, before people arrived for the day, and been frightened off once tourists descended on the park. A crowd of people gathered around the little one, maintaining some distance, until a park employee arrived. He wrapped the newborn in a towel and took her away, likely to Nara Park’s deer nursery, where she will hopefully bond with another mother deer and the other little ones.

We purchased our tickets to Todaiji Temple, at 500 yen each, and entered the vast grassy courtyard. We walked the wide, flower-lined pathway to the largest wooden building in the world, Daibutsuden (Big Buddha Hall). That building houses a huge bronze Daibutsu (Buddha). Inside the building it was dark, almost too dark to appreciate the Buddha. I walked around her, feeling a bit underwhelmed. Despite the golden decorations and statues around the Buddha, I preferred the simplicity and the outdoor setting of the Buddha that we’d visited in Kamakura.

Behind Todaiji’s Buddha, there was a thick wooden column with a tunnel through it that is the size of the Buddha's nostril, big enough for a thin child or a small-framed teen or adult to pass through. It is said that those who are able to pass though the tunnel will attain enlightenment. I joined a group of high schoolers in the queue to give the tunnel a try.

The teen girls who shimmied through the passageway before me made it look easy. When it was my turn, I put my arms above me and slid into the column. The tunnel felt tight. My shoulders were narrow enough to pass, but I couldn’t figure out how to propel myself through. My eyes darted around the inside of the wooden tunnel. Although I am not terribly claustrophobic, claustrophobia set in. “Help!” I squeaked.

A high school boy saw my distress and grabbed my hands. Quickly, he yanked me through, as amused tourists snapped photos. Safely outside, I took a breath and thanked the boy. “Arigato.” A few moments later, a man, who I later learned was a physician from Italy, showed me photos that he’d taken of my ordeal and offered to email them to me. A few days later, he made good on his promise!



After we left Todaiji Temple, I purchased some deer crackers from a tourist shop and hid them in my backpack. On our walk to Kasuga Grand Shrine, I pulled a few deer crackers from my pack and approached some deer. A doe came close to me, dipping her head for a moment in a way I’d never seen a deer do before. It took me a second to realize that she was bowing! I bowed back to her. She bowed again. I broke my deer crackers into quarters, both because they were too large for the deer’s small mouth and to give me more time with the deer, and fed her.





After a bit more walking through Nara Park, with another stop for deer feeding, we arrived at Kasuga Grand Shrine. I didn’t care about visiting the shrine itself. I wanted to see the adjacent forest filled with lanterns that reviewers online had described as “enchanted.” Inside the courtyard of the shrine, I asked employees for directions to the forest, and although they tried to help me, I wasn’t able to properly explain what I was trying to find.

Just before I gave up, I noticed an unassuming gate that had been to our far right when we originally entered the courtyard. I stepped through it and saw… lanterns… probably a few hundred of them. I spent the next hour wandering through the forest admiring the lanterns. On my walk, I discovered an unusual little shrine that might have had something to do with reproduction given the cartoon-like images resembling male and female anatomy featured on the ema (wooden prayer plaques). The forest didn’t feel as mystical as some reviewers described, but based on my rainy day visit to Yoyogi Park in Tokyo, I believe it would feel quite magical on a foggy morning.

Before we left Nara Park, I pulled out the rest of my deer crackers and approached a lone doe. I bowed to her. She didn’t bow back. I gave her the last of my deer crackers anyway.
 
P.S. Inspired by my trip to Japan, I wrote a novel called Lost in Tokyo, about a girl finding herself and falling in love. Lost in Tokyo is on sale now at Amazon.com and is FREE with Kindle Unlimited or Amazon Prime!

I did this in 2013 in Nara, Japan.

Jen (California, USA)