Nara (14 June 2024)

Nara was the capital of Japan from 701 to 794CE.  A mere 84 years but long enough to leave an impressive Imperial legacy.

Following several years of crop failures, a smallpox plague and a failed rebellion against his rule, the Emperor commissioned the building of an enormous temple in the hope of invoking divine protection for himself and his people.

2.6 million citizens contributed to the project via donations of money, labour, metals, cloth and rice.  The result was the Todai-ji Temple.  Even the entrance gate is gob-smacking.

At 57 metres long, 50 metres wide and 49 metres high, the temple is said to be the largest wooden building in the world.  As noted in our blog post on Andalusia, the Metropol Parasol in Seville is the largest wooden structure in the world, but arguably it’s not a ‘building’ so Todai-ji continues to claim that title.

It was built to house the Daibatsu, ‘the Great Buddha of Nara’.  It took the labour of 350,000 workers, 437 tonnes of bronze and a period of eight years to construct what is still the largest gilt bronze Buddha in the world.  He’s 15 metres high and 28 metres across the shoulders.

The gold aura behind him includes 16 smaller versions of himself.  The craftsmen understood perspective – they increase in size toward the top so that they appear to be identical to an observer looking up from floor level.

The Great Buddha is flanked by enormous bodhisattvas clad in gold.

As well as statues of lesser gods carved in wood.  They may be lesser, but they’re not much smaller than the main man.

Behind the altar, one of the massive wooden pillars supporting the roof has a hole at the base.  It’s exactly the same size as one of the Great Buddha’s nostrils.  Legend has it that anyone who can squeeze through is assured of enlightenment.  Easy for kids, not so easy for adults.  Surely it’s cheating to have a friend haul you out!

Outside the temple is this odd looking fellow.  Pindola was a disciple of the Buddha and believed to be a master of the occult.  According to tradition, if a person has an injury or ailment, they should rub the relevant body part of Pindola’s image and then their own, and they will be cured.

The temple construction project nearly broke Japan, consuming almost all of the country’s supply of bronze and draining its treasury to import the gold.  But it must have impressed the deities.

According to legend, in 768CE, the god Takemichizuki rode on a white deer from Kashima Shrine north of present-day Tokyo to reside on Mount Mikasa to guard and protect Nara down below.

The local shika deer – a tautology since ‘shika’ means ‘deer’ – were thereafter revered as sacred animals, messengers of the gods.  Killing one was punishable by death.  The deer roamed free and over hundreds of years lost their fear of humans.

Their divine status was officially revoked in the late 1940s, but they are a designated Natural Monument.   There’s an estimated 1,400 of them in Nara Park and surrounds.  They are not restricted to the parklands, instead wandering into the city and, in particular loitering along the footpath between the train station and the park.

That’s because vendors in the park and along the street sell shika senbai, deer crackers made of rice bran and wheat flour, for visitors to hand feed to the deer.

Unfortunately, the deer have become so habituated to humans that their lust for crackers can mean bad behaviour.  Deer will appear to bow before a tourist, which looks cute but is really a warning – give me the crackers or I’ll head butt you.  There’s no polite queue-ing.

And when the crackers aren’t coming fast enough, deer will nibble on anything – t-shirt, maps, the contents of pockets, anything loose.

We even read about a tourist who dropped his wallet whereupon the deer set about munching on the paper money that fell out.  Hopefully an urban myth.

And although the crackers are officially sanctioned by the Foundation for the Protection of Deer at Nara, recent studies have found they aren’t actually good for them.  Over-reliance on crackers means the deer risk not getting enough of the nutrients which are only available in their natural diet, grass, leading to malnutrition.   Between the over-habituation and the health issues, we decided against feeding them.  Also not wanting to get mugged by deer yakuza.

Interestingly, inside the park they seemed better behaved.  Just hanging around in the shade near the shrines.

Here’s a fun fact.  Because of the shape of their eyes, when deer look straight ahead, they can’t focus.  They need to turn their head to look at a person standing in front of them.  So they always look like they’re giving you the side-eye.

The Todai-ji Temple is one of a group of sites clustered in and around Nara Park which together hold UNESCO World Heritage status as the Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara.  Another is Nara’s oldest shrine, the beautiful Kasuga Taisha.

Built in 768CE, it’s still in near perfect condition due to a Shinto custom in which objects must be renewed to maintain their divine rank.  Under this tradition, the Kasuga Taisha shrines have been rebuilt to the exact same specifications every 20 years for the more than 1,200 years since the complex was first built.

Its vermillion colour makes it one of Nara’s more eye-catching shrines.

A 20 metre tall cypress tree with a trunk diameter of 8 metres grows next to the shrine.  It’s thought to be more than 1,000 years old.  The roof of the lantern hall next door has been built to accommodate a juniper tree growing out of its base.

Kasuga Taisha is famous for its more than 3,000 stone and bronze lanterns.

Outside many Shinto shrines are panels where devotees can hang ema.  Ema are small wooden votive tablets on which worshippers write requests to deities.

Because of the sacred deer connection, Kasuga Taisha has special deer shaped ema.  They look a bit like Christmas tree decorations.  You can draw your own deer face on one side and your wish on the other.

It’s not all about prosperity, long life and cures for illness. Readers who’ve met our cat, Henry will understand why this one resonated with us.

Nara Park is huge.  There’s heaps of other smaller shrines and temples hidden away in the trees.

Kohfukuji Temple has a distinctive five storey pagoda and a collection of Buddhist treasures but unfortunately was under scaffold and closed when we visited.   But the Nara National Museum which is also in the Park has a collection of historic Buddhist art and sculpture if that’s your interest.

And everywhere you go, there’s more deer.

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    June 18, 2024 / 11:27 pm

    Deer me this was a good read.

    • twotravelcats
      June 19, 2024 / 10:13 pm


  2. Therese Bowes
    June 19, 2024 / 10:52 am

    Fantastic pics of temples and enjoying the history – thanks 🙏 so much Julie & John x

    • twotravelcats
      June 19, 2024 / 10:13 pm


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