Day 5: Nara, Japans First Capital

Day 5: Nara, Japans First Capital

Kyōto, Nara, deer, Kasuga Taisha, Todai-ji Temple.


By Adam May 10, 2014

Just outside of Kyoto is Nara (奈良市), the capital of Japan about 700-1300 years ago. The area is famous for its deer and ancient temples in close proximity of each other which are collectively a UNESCO World Heritage site.

We took the train down from Kyoto, which is actually about a 1 hour ride due to the number of stops.

Sacred Deer

We you get off the train and make your way east, before too long you’ll run into the famous deer of Nara. I like Wikipedias explantation of why there are so many.

According to the legendary history of Kasuga Shrine, a mythological god Takemikazuchi arrived in Nara on a white deer to guard the newly built capital of Heijō-kyō. Since then the deer have been regarded as heavenly animals, protecting the city and the country.

So it’s basically like cows in India, except tourists come from far and wide to feed them. At night they are penned up and fed for their own safety and population control reasons. From what I’ve read, they keep their antlers short to protect visitors.

You can pet them, but if you have food they’ll head butt you for it. For only $1.50 you can pick up a pack of rice crackers to feed to them from any of the many vendors lined up on the main street. If you get some crackers here and keep them for the deer in Kasuga Tasiha, you’ll be able to feed them one at a time rather than all at once.

Shrine deer

Hiding between the shrines.

Deer in forest

Deer chew down everything green, so they fence off some to grow before unleashing the deer on them.

Marilyn feeding a small deer

Marilyn feeding one of the smallest deer. It was tough to not be overwhelmed by the other deer during the taking of this photo.

Adam feeding deer
Deer chewing

Deer chewing on chains.

Adam feeding a deer

Adam feeding the deer.

Marilyn feeding deer

Marilyn feeding the deer.

Deer food vendor

For $1.50, you can buy a handful of crackers to feed to the deer.

Deer horns

Every year, they cut the antlers off all deer, making them safe for tourists.

Engagement photo shoot

A couple doing a photoshoot was constantly interrupted by deer.

Kasuga Taisha – 春日大社

After pushing our way through the deer, we started the walk up to Kasuga Taisha. I’d heard from Marilyn it was a nice walk, but this was probably my favorite walk throughout the entire trip. If you know the scene at the beginning of Spirited Away where Chihiro is passing by many stone lanterns in a very close forest – this reminded me of that.

Leading up to the main shrine, you’ll travel through the Kasugayama Primeval Forest. This ancient forest has a close, damp feel to it. The path is surrounded by thousands of stone lanterns all along the walkway, which you’ll see deer peeking through.

Compared to the walk up, the shrine itself is anticlimactic, but worth the $5 admission while you’re there.

Shrine maidens

Shine maidens going about their day at Kasuga Taisha.

Adam lanterns

Adam in front of lanterns on the way up.

Lantern moss

Roots stop at the lanterns.


On the way to the shrine, we spotted this rooftop.

Marilyn and a lantern

Marilyn in front of a huge stone lantern.

Shrines and roots

Roots stop at the lanterns.


Prayers tied to trees.


Gnarled tree roots.

Cleansing outside the temple

Cleansing before visiting the temple.


Shrine guardian.

Plum bloom

Within the shrine sat this beautiful plum blossom.

Bronze lantern

One of many bronze lanterns at the shrine.

Adam at Kasuga Temple

Adam in front of the main shrine.

Lanterns old and new

New and old lanterns.

Lanterns and water

Stone lanterns on the way up.

Lunch at the Garden

Closer to Todai-ji Temple there are a number of restaurants and roadside food stands, but farther up towards Kasuga Taisha the options are limited. There is a small botanical garden you can pay a few hundred yen to tour, or if you only want a view you can stop in for lunch. We got off our feet for a while for a light lunch before heading to Todai-ji.


A light lunch we split to save room for sampling more options later.


Mackerel wrapped in persimmon leaves.


Sweet lychee jellies for dessert.


A small omelet with a few other textures.

Green tea

Green tea with a small dessert.

Rice porridge

Rice porridge.

Todai-ji Temple – 東大寺

The most visited site in Nara is Todai-ji temple, a monstrously large Buddhist temple housing the worlds largest bronze Buddha statue. This was our last stop in Nara. When we rounded the corner and saw Todai-ji for the first time, we both gasped at the sheer size of it. Due to the surrounding gate houses, you don’t get a close view of Todai-ji until you’re close, and at that point it is the most impressive.

The walk up to Todai-ji is littered with stores and street food. I made it my quest to try each and every one.

Todai-ji temple

Todai-ji temple

Marilyn next to the door

Marilyn seeing how huge the door is.

Temple guardian

Temple Guardian.


Its good luck to squeeze though this support beam.

Large buddha

The huge buddha inside the Todaiji temple.

Opening gate

The opening gate to the temple.

Gold buddha

A huge gold buddha.

This day involved a LOT of walking. We started early enough that we were able to finish before it got dark and make it back to the hotel to pack. Our plans had us leaving on the bullet train the following morning to travel to Hakone.

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