Directly bordering Kyoto is Nara prefecture, and we decided to visit Nara, it’s capitol city. As we got off the train and began walking up to one of the main temple sites, there was a strange presence at the souvenir stalls along the way. Reindeer. Reindeer trinkets, reindeer keychains, plastic blow up reindeer….. I started to wonder whether they had their calendar mixed up–was is December already? Or maybe these souvenir stalls were kind of like those houses in the not so great areas of town–you know, the ones that leave their Christmas lights up all year round and even worse, a giant Rudolph on the roof until at least February….
As we reached the temple area, my queries were answered. It was, in fact, only September, and Nara really is a pretty classy town. No, the reason for the reindeer souvenirs was standing right in front of me:
Turns out, the deer here are regarded as heavenly animals, and allowed to roam freely through the town, especially in Nara park. This is because, as legend has it, the mythological god Takemikazuchi rode into town on a white deer to guard the capitol (Nara was capital of Japan from 710-774, before Kyoto, which was capitol from 794-1868, and then finally Edo, later renamed Tokyo, which of course remains the capitol today. Fun fact, these city names correspond with the names of periods in the history of Japan: the Nara period, the Heian period, the Edo period…you might see Japanese artwork labeled as such.)
It also turns out that the deer are fairly friendly. Vendors even sell little biscuits that you can feed to them. We didn’t do this though, on recommendation of our friends Viet and Thad who were here on their honeymoon, fed the deer and got nipped at!
….and because we saw signs like these:
Aside from the deer, we toured Nara’s Kohfukuji temple. Kohfukuji is a Buddhist temple founded in 669 AD by the wife of a member of the Fugiwara clan, to pray for his recovery from illness. It was moved several times, destroyed and rebuilt many times by fires and civil wars, and became one of the most influential Buddhist temples in japan, holding not only religious power but political influence as well.
As much as the temple complex was full of history, I preferred some of the smaller structures: fountains where ritualistic hand cleansing and drinking occurs (similar, I think, to the ritual and wish granting legend of drinking from the waterfall in Kyoto), and shrines where passerbys would pray and bow.
Our walk back into Nara woods to see the The Kasuga Grand Shrine was also strikingly beautiful, and my favorite part of the day. The walk to the shrine was lined with 3000 stone lanterns. The Shrine is a Shinto shrine, and the lanterns symbolize illumination–a guiding light saving you from darkness. The lanterns are strong, stone, moss-covered structures, that seemed to integrate themselves into the surrounding woods, yet to also project a presence all of their own.
The actual shrine (shrines?) were tucked away off the side of the path. We also saw many small wooden plaques, some in the shapes of hearts, with writing on them. Although I could not figure out what the exact purpose of these were, my guess is the writing was prayers or wishes….
Divine deer, temples devoted to wellness and guiding lights, what more could you ask for in a days walk!