The ancient Japanese city of Nara makes a fabulous day trip from Kyoto, and one of the best ways to find your way around the place is by taking a Nara walking tour. We did the Narawalk Classic Half-Day Park Tour.
Nara is an ancient capital of Japan, dating back to 710, which makes it older than Kyoto. It is a very picturesque city, surrounded by wooded hills and blessed with temple parks containing some of the world’s oldest surviving wooden buildings. All of this is worth a trip in itself, but the big attraction of Nara for our girls was the over 1,000 deer who freely wander the parks and streets of the city.
We took the 8.49am rapid JR train from Kyoto Station, and we were in Nara station before 10am, which was our designated meeting time for our Narawalk Classic Walking Tour. Our guide, Mayumi was waiting for us, and we set off into the pouring rain. Narawalks are led by a group of professional guides who are experts in Japanese history and culture, and have completed a guide training course at Tezukayama University in Nara. Throughout our tour, Mayumi offered lots of information about the history, culture, traditions and stories of Nara.
From Nara Station we caught a local bus to an entrance of Nara Park near the Kasuga Taisha Shrine, which was our first stop.
This shrine is one of the best known and most photographed of Shinto shrines. Although the original shrine was built in 768, in accordance with Shinto belief, the structure was demolished and an exact replica rebuilt every 20 years. This happened about 60 times up until the end of the 19th century.
As we walked along the path to Kasuga Taisha, we were greeted by deer among the 3,000+ stone and bronze lanterns which have all been donated in recognition of faith or as offerings of gratitude. Apparently, the lanterns are all lit up during festivals in February and August which must be spectacular.
Nara Park is home to around 1,200 deer. In ancient times, these deer were considered to be messengers of the Shinto gods, and today they are protected as National Treasures. Mayumi warned us that if we found ourselves surrounded by deer to ‘put our hands in the air and back away slowly’. The deer among the lanterns seemed so passive and gentle, this seemed like overkill advice at the time…how little we knew then… 🙂
From Kasuga we walked through the park via the Nara Prefectural Public Hall which is used to host conferences in its Japanese style Nogaku Hall. It also contains a smaller, traditional wooden Noh theatre, which we were able to have a look at. Noh is an old form of dance/music/theatre which is always performed on a square stage with a roof supported by four corner pillars. At the back of the stage is a wall with a painted pine tree and a bridge connnects the stage with the backstage area.
Then we continued walking on to Nara’s famous Todai-ji Temple. A world heritage site, Todai-ji Temple consists of a number of structures including the Daibutsu-den Hall (Great Buddha Hall), gates and pagodas. The Great Buddha Hall is the world’s largest wooden building.
The current main hall was built in 1709, and is about two-thirds the size of the previous structure. Inside is the giant Daibutsu (Great Buddha). Cast in bronze and gold, this Buddha is over 15m high.
As we walked behind the impressive Buddha, we spotted a wooden column with a hole in the base. This hole is reputed to be the exact same size as Buddha’s nostril, and the belief is that if you can squeeze through it, you are rewarded with enlightenment. The Impossible Princess easily slid right on through. The Poolboy was keen to give it a go…but I suggested that “Emergency services destroy 300 year old temple column to rescue Australian tourist” was not a headline I’d like to see on AAP/Reuters.
A tip for the smaller folks who *do* want to give enlightenment a go…it’s easier if you put your hands over your head and ‘dive’ through the hole.
Outside Todai-ji Temple gates are a number of sellers of ‘deer crackers’ – specially formulated crackers that you can hand-feed to the roaming deer.
Oh, deer… Those creatures are smart…they know exactly what you are buying and mob you as soon as you have crackers in your hands.
Mayumi’s advice about hands in the air and backing away slowly proved very useful!
After surviving our deer-mobbing, we wandered towards Yakushi-ji Pagoda, via Okumura Commemorative Museum. Okumura is a Japanese construction company that makes earthquake resistant technology for high rise buildings. We learned about the Japanese foundation-building advancements that ensure buildings can move with earthquakes without breaking up. A simulator chair showed exactly how three of Japan’s past large earthquakes have felt, with and without the technology.
Our final stop was the three-story Yakushi-ji Pagoda which was built as a temple dedicated to the Buddha of healing by an Empress who hoped for her husband’s recovery from eye disease.
Then our half-day tour was over, but Mayumi pointed us in the direction of the old-town Naramachi District where we found a restaurant for lunch, and then explored a bit more on our own in the afternoon.
Naramachi is the old merchant area of Nara, and in among its narrow laneways a few original machiya remain. These are merchant stores/homes, deep but with very narrow street frontages, and the taxes were levied according to the width of the street frontage rather than the total size of the property.
From Naramachi it was a short walk back to the JR Nara Station to catch a train back to Kyoto.
A great day out.
The detailsNarawalk Classic Half-Day Tour
Time: Daily at 10am from 1 Mar to 30 Nov
Tour duration: approx 3 hours
Cost: JPY 3,000 (kids under 12 free)
To get to Nara from Kyoto: JR Nara line – Miyakoji Rapid Service express takes about 45 minutes.
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