The 1631 Acres that make up Nara Park is one of the most breathtaking places to visit in Japan. Located just east of Osaka, it’s famous for wild deer and amazing temples. One of the main attractions of the place is the deer, based on an old Shinto legend.
There are many forest paths, hiking opportunities, and other kinds of sightseeing wonders. The whole park offers plentitudes of food, beverages, and souvenirs.
There are even older-style teahouses and villas along with museums, gardens, and ponds.
Nara Park Overview
1. The Stuff of Myth and Legend
Nara Park burgeons with echoes of Japan’s Shinto history. A legend from 768 AD tells the tale of how the four gods of Kasugataisha Shrine came down from Kashima Mountain in Ibaraki Prefecture, which is just north of Tokyo.
They traveled all the way to Mount Mikasa on a white deer. Ever since this fabled journey, deer fell under a sacred classification. Killing such a deer from the area was punishable by death.
However, since World War II, the deer lost their sacred status but they do still have wildlife protections.
2. Plentitudes of Deer
Deer are a leading feature of Nara and there are over 1,400 of them inhabiting the entire area surrounding the park. The deer love the deer crackers, or shika senbei, which is the only food tourists can provide to them which is sold by street vendors.
But they can be incredibly insistent and overly friendly if they see people with them in hand.
3. Todaiji Temple
Commissioned by Emperor Shomu in 752 AD during the Nara Period, Todaiji Temple is one of the most impressive of its kind in Japan. It has a solid place in the country’s history and its design was meant to bring peace to a troubling period in the area’s history.
The emperor experienced a number of hardships including the death of his infant son, crop failures, a smallpox epidemic, and an attempted coup. He ordered the building’s commission to bring a sense of calm and unity.
The Great Buddha
The main attraction of Todaiji is the almost 50 foot (15 meters) high giant Buddha statue, also called Daibutsu (or Great Buddha).
It comprises 400 tons of cast bronze and retains its original gilding. Everyone in the country contributed in some way to its construction.
This was carved by famous sculptors, Unkei and Kaikei, around the 12th century AD. It sits in the impressive Daibutsuden (Great Buddha Hall), which is one of the world’s most enormous structures comprising wood.
Its scale and architecture are absolutely stunning. Behind the temple is a model of how the site originally looked.
To see this, you enter through the Nadaimon Gate where there are two figures standing 26¼ feet (eight meters) tall guarding the Great Buddha.
In front of the hall, there’s a very big bronze lantern that’s octagonal in size guarding the doorway. It’s one of the oldest treasures of the temple.
The grounds around and behind Todaiji Temple are gorgeous with amazing views. There are several treasure halls, museums, and extensive gardens.
When facing the temple, to its right is the Nigatsudo Hall and it features other fantastic Buddhist carvings.
4. Kasugataisha Shrine
Continuing on the path from Todaiji, you reach Kasugataisha Shrine, which is an adventure in and of itself. The ambiance and atmosphere are provided by the forest path lined with hundreds of stone lanterns.
Built by the Fujiwara clan in 768 AD, the Kasuga Taisha Shrine houses the four main deities that traveled from Ibaraki to Mount Mikasa.
The Fujiwara family crest adorns the wisteria flower. Mount Mikasa is where all the deer reside. Therefore, the deer is a motif heavy throughout the shrine.
Over 200 wisteria trees bloom in May, right behind the cherry blossoms. Near the shrine’s entrance is the museum which houses some of the most important armor, swords, and other relics since the eighth century AD.
What makes the Kasugataisha Shrine so impressive, aside from the deer, are the vermillion colonnades and white walls with cedar wood roofs. Lanterns made of high-quality brass decorate the buildings.
Priests light these lanterns twice per year. once in summer and then again in winter.
In the northern cloister of the shrine is the Fujinami-no-ya Hall, right behind the main shrine.
In February and August, 3,000 bronze lanterns light up the stone toro lining the forest path. It really gives visitors the feel of how it must have looked ages ago.
5. Kasugayama Primeval Forest
Behind the Kasugataisha Shrine is the sacred Kasugayama Primeval Forest. It’s pristine and virginal, remaining untouched or deforested for over 1,000 years.
There are plenty of paths with fabulous views of Mount Wakakusa. There are even sightseeing busses to view the mountain along the Nara Okuyama Driveway.
These paths begin behind Todaiji Temple and are rather easy for hikers. There are views going as far as the former site of the Heijokyo Imperial Palace.
Both trails take about 15 minutes to reach the observatory and then an additional 20 minutes to the summit of the mountain; which is about 1,100 feet (342 meters) above Nara City.
Cherry trees dot the slopes of the mountain in spring with grass beginning its growth in late January. The paths are not open in the winter.
6. Isuien Traditional Japanese Garden
Stepping stones and large strolling spaces make up the Isuien traditional Japanese garden. There are original teahouses and villas offering food, beverages, and beautiful views. It’s especially impressive in autumn.
7. Kohfukuji Temple
Near the Isuien garden is the Kohfukuji Temple. Here is where you can find the famous Buddhist statue museum and the Nara National Museum.
Both have superb curation from the art of the Nara Period. There’s also the Sarusawa Pond across the way which provides a breathtaking view.