Casey Hawkins

Arrival

Beat the tourist filled coaches to the hot spots by arriving in Nara City the night before. If you’re coming by train, you’ll most likely get off at the JR station-around 2.5km away from Nara’s main attraction, Todai-ji Temple. Although it may be tempting to sleep close to Nara Park, if you want to live like a local, stay close to the station and hire a bicycle that’ll get you uphill.     

Morning

Visit Todai-ji Temple and its surrounding gardens

Todai-ji Temple opens its doors bright and early, welcoming guests from 8 o’clock to pray to the Great Buddha. Housed inside the world’s largest historical wooden hall, the ginormous 15m bronze statue possesses symbolic attributes said to bear fortune and peace.

Twice a year (March 1-14th & August 5-14th) festivals involving excessive amounts of fire and water are held on the temple’s grounds. In addition to sampling festive foods and watching dances, you can witness the lighting of a 8th century lantern.

On special days such as these, there are free English speaking guides to explain fascinating features of the buildings and provide you with some basic knowledge about how the area was impacted by war and the shifts in religion and power.

To enter the Main Hall you must pay 500 yen (roughly £4). Once inside, you’ll witness many young children lined up to crawl through a hole the same size as Great Buddha’s nostril. Its believed that if you make it through without becoming stuck, you’ll be granted enlightenment in your next life.

When you step outside the Main Hall, turn left and head up the hill. Make sure you stop and enter Nigatsudo Hall to check out the view from the expansive deck running its full length. After admiring the distant features of the city, included remains of an abandoned amusement park, continue heading left until you reach the main walking path heading towards Nara Park.

Todai-ji Temple 

Feed and pat the playful deer

If you cleverly plan to arrive as the cherry blossoms bloom (early April), it’s likely you’ll spend most of your time strolling the surrounding traditional gardens and playing with the friendly deer that roam free in abundance. Buy special crackers to feed the deer but be warned-their friendly face and tolerance for humans doesn’t stop them from being robust and impatient around food. Part of the spectacle is getting to watch other people squeal and struggle to regain posture after a deer’s head has shovelled its way inside their bag. It’s easy to become entrenched in what’s happening on the footpath, but I assure you, the grandest scenery lays among the trees and greenery in the central section of the park. 

Nara deer 

Midday

Try Nara’s intriguing delicacies

Don’t spend all your change on deer crackers, for you’re going to want to try the sticky green mochi rice balls. During busy periods, you can witness the burley men pounding the rice with big wooden mallets while shouting words of encouragement.

Once the mochi is gooey, it’s placed in a machine to be filled with red bean paste called anko. The green morsel is rolled in a fine powder coating before being distributed to the masses for around $1AUD. The unusual flavour combination of the mildly sweet bean paste and the matcha mochi is not to be missed.

Another Nara speciality is the permission leaf sushi. While the leaf itself is disregarded, it distinctly impacts on the taste of the rice and spikes the interests of most visitors. There are plenty of small take-away businesses operating within walking distance of the 5-storey pagoda. I recommend ordering a bento box full of different varieties of sushi to eat by the tranquil Sarusawa pond.

Japan food 

Afternoon

Buy unique hand crafted souvenirs on Sanjodori

Wait until the afternoon before hitting Sanjodori to avoid getting caught up in a shopping frenzy. With such a diverse range of stores, it’s easy to chew through time and money. Venture down the several arcades intersecting Sanjodori Street, and make sure you don’t stop until you find a collection of independent art and craft stores. It’s here you’ll find the very best souvenirs and one-of-a-kind pieces; from plastic replicas of your favourite Japanese food to luxury leather goods. By this time you’ll be thankful for the lack of deer paraphernalia.

On weekends you may see a market pop up beside Nara’s JR station or witness some interesting store demonstrations such as traditional string weaving to make the belts for men’s and women’s kimonos (fabric robes).

 Nara Japan Sanjodori

Get hands-on at the adorable wooden toy museum

It’s difficult to determine who has more fun out of the adults and children dropping into the free toy museum. Featuring over a dozen hand-crafted traditional toys, you could easily spend over an hour sitting on the tatami mat (bamboo flooring) attempting to solve mind-puzzles. Each toy is set out for guests to admire and tinker with; showcasing how early day toy makers discovered innovative ways to make toys move. In addition to learning some interesting toy mechanics, you’ll get to see what a small traditional home looks and feels like from the inside. Before entering a large room enclosed with paper-panelled doors, you’ll be asked to exchange your shoes for slippers.

Wooden Toys 

Getting there

Take a shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo station to Kyoto in roughly two hours. Switch to JR and board the train bound for Nara. Expect total travel time to equal approximately 3.5 hours.   

Deer Nara 

Things To Know: 

  • Learn the customary way to pray to the Great Buddha- you can simply stand and observe or ask for help!
  • Try the thinly sliced mackerel ‘Kakinoha-zushi’ sushi. It’s wrapped in a permission leaf which was an old method for preserving fish and adding subtle flavour. 
  • Every so often there’s a brilliant hand-crafted design market operating outside JR Nara station- either try your luck by randomly stopping by or ask a local for upcoming events. 

 

Casey Hawkins grew up immersed in Australia’s sea, sun and surf culture. She first became a teacher because she was passionate about sharing ideas and experiences. Teaching has led her to explore some unique, remote locations and make friends with people from all walks of life. She is most passionate about learning and sharing their stories with others. Website: www.nansluckyduck.com.au 

The views, opinions and positions expressed by the author and those providing comments are theirs alone, and are meant as travel inspiration only. They do not reflect the opinions of Cover-More Insurance. You should always read the PDS available from your travel insurance provider to understand the limits, exclusions and conditions of your policy and to ensure any activities you undertake are covered by your policy.

 

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