The taxi dropped us off in Nara Deer Park just after dark. The shops at the edge of the park had been shuttered for the night and it was very quiet as we went down the stone steps towards our hostel. We had been told that if we arrived at night to be aware we may startle the deer, but there were none there to greet us. We swung open the door to a warm glow and the scent of cut wood. We were greeted by a very smiley young Japanese man, who gave us a guided tour of the place. The key to our room had a torch attached so that we could go and explore the park in the small hours if we wanted to. We were very impressed by what we saw; the atmosphere was serene, the rooms beautiful and the shared common areas welcoming, so we immediately asked to stay three nights rather than our original two.
Luke, still feeling sore from the ‘can’t cook’ incident, decided that he was going to prove himself as a master chef and insisted on cooking dinner – I certainly wasn’t going to complain! We had heaped bowlfuls of delicious spaghetti bolognese and a rare glass of wine sat at the chunky wooden table in the kitchen. It was a lovely relaxing evening, and we enjoyed talking to the other guests as they came and went.
The next morning, we rose with the dawn and started to explore our surroundings. We soon discovered that the deer were far from shy! Any rustling of bags would bring them creeping nearer in the hope of food. A lady came out of one of the shops and threw a bowl of peelings down on the ground for them, and they flocked around. A little while later, we saw one of the deer going into the same shop; perhaps it had some pocket money to spend! It was wonderfully peaceful early in the morning, the air was fresh and clear and as the deer were so tame, we could watch them close at hand, which was great for drawing. Apparently the Sika deer were considered sacred and thought to be messengers of the gods in the Shinto religion. Killing one of them was punishable by death until 1637.
There were temples and a shrine within the grounds and when Todai-ji temple opened, we made sure we were some of the first visitors in order to beat the crowds. This particular temple was the largest wooden building in the world until 1998. It is 57m long and 50m wide, but it used to be 30% bigger at one point; due to fire it has been rebuilt twice. The wooden pillars inside were huge and straight, like entire tree trunks. This temple is also famed for its enormous bronze Buddha, the largest of its kind in the world. After admiring the building from the outside, we walked in, not looking up at first. Then, starting from the platform on which we could see a huge bronze lotus flower, we allowed our gaze to rise upwards to take in the full scale of the seated Buddha. He is around 15m in height, his toes were bigger than my head, he had an elegant outstretched hand big enough to sit in and his gigantic face was lit by a sweet, calm smile. There were other large statues of guardian gods around the perimeter, some of which were quite scary looking, but none of them were as big as the Buddha himself, who
seemed to fill the room with his presence. We passed the rest of the day milling about between the deer park and our hostel, relishing our proximity to the sights and the opportunity this gave for relaxation.
That evening we attempted to climb the hill next to our hostel to watch the sunset. However, there was still a lady working at the ticket desk and she told us we weren’t allowed to go on the path that led to the top as it was too dangerous at night, so we had to stay within a restricted area. We had our torches, so thought we’d wait until she shut up shop and sneak round anyway, but by that point the sun had set and it had begun to drizzle. We didn’t really mind though, as the slopes still had
good views and it was pleasant just sitting in the dusk and letting the deer nose their way closer, snuffling at us and blinking their wide, shiny black eyes.
Our second day in Nara was spent Christmas shopping! We headed into the town, which was a nice, manageable size and stocked up on Japanese knick knacks for our families so we could sent two exciting boxes back to England. One thing I have noticed is that the Japanese seem to be obsessed with facecloths! Every shop we went in had an array of beautifully patterned textured cotton facecloths. I have sometimes seen people whip a facecloth out of a handbag to mop their brow, and I think it also comes in handy in case you pop into the local onsen (hot spring) for a foot bath. The deer were all frisky in the dusk as we wandered back that evening, yipping, barking and squeaking, skittering about on their spindly legs, springing in the air and trying to head butt one another. Most of the males have had their antlers removed so they can’t lock horns like they would normally; I think the park owners are worried about people getting injured by them as they have no fear of people. I wonder if they find it frustrating when they want to have a good fight during the rutting season.
The next day we got up early to make the most of our last morning and went for a walk to a view point on the top of Mount Wakakusa, which lay within the park. The path led us through ancient woodland, where the writhing, tangled branches added to the air of mystery in the half light. At the top we had splendid views across the valley, with Nara spread out below us, and of course plenty of deer to keep us company! Back at the hostel, we packed our rucksacks and set out on our mission to post our Christmas boxes home. We must have looked more laden down than your average pack horse! We had to itemise, price and guess the weight of every single thing we had packed – no mean feat when you have bought things for about 20 people and already wrapped them up! We finished with five minutes to spare, and made a dash for the train station to catch the train to the Japanese Alps.