With big, cute doe eyes, a deer pushed its wet face into my jacket, demanding a biscuit. Its horns had been removed for safety, and instead were left two polished stumps. In Nara’s gigantic, sprawling park, there were hundreds of deer roaming all around. At one point in history, the deer population was considered sacred; today they are protected national treasures and popular tourist draws, and very much accustomed to interacting with people. A deer is even Nara’s official mascot, the cute Shikamaro-kun.
Despite the overcast weather and promise of rain, we bought a stack of special ‘deer crackers’ from one of the many cart vendors, a kind of brittle wafer, and began snapping off pieces to feed the deer. It wasn’t long before a group formed around us, bowing politely and sometimes even standing on their hind legs to receive a piece of cracker. Even the young deer came escorted by mothers, their mottled red fur dashed with white spots. And before long, the crackers were gone, and the deer went searching for new friends elsewhere.
We were glad to be rid of the food, once we saw the herds of deer teeming around the temple sites. Enthusiastic deer were snatching crackers from peoples’ hands, before they’d even left the seller’s cart. The grounds here were home to Tōdai-ji, a mammoth Buddhist temple containing Japan’s largest bronze Buddha, which also has the distinction of being the biggest wooden building in the world. We took a look inside, admiring the enormous Buddha statues in the dark, cavernous main hall, as beams of light illuminated dancing dust motes.
The quiet, relaxing park called out to us to explore it’s endless size. Deer moved casually through the forest, ambushing people to ask for treats. Gravel paths meandered deeper into Nara’s expansive forest, and the crowds disappeared. Trees started to soar, old green and brown giants that whispered with life, time and mystery. Guiding the way were stone lanterns blanketed in moss, and carpets of crispy winter leaves. We wandered deeper, finding big vermillion temples with swaying golden lanterns, stone courtyards and verandas; tiny shrines enveloped tall trees and thick vegetation; and skittish wild deer which still weren’t used to seeing humans. Along the way we found a pagoda in the middle of a small lake, where a wedding couple in traditional costume were having pictures taken.
The weather was closing in, and our hands ached from the icy-cold wind, so we walked back towards Nara in search of a hot bowl of ramen. Nara city was quiet, lazy, and laid out across a few criss-crossed main streets. One was packed with okonomiyaki restaurants, curry houses, expensive cafes, and souvenir shops selling everything deer-themed. A famed mochi shop was stretching and beating a lump of green dough in a heavy wooden bowl to make their treats; a crowd had gathered to watch the masters at work. We stopped for one, a sweet matcha and red bean delight, with a perfect chewy, doughy texture. Another street was an enclosed arcade playing what sounded like The Legend of Zelda music, with pottery and kimono shops. Then we found the perfect ramen establishment, and warmed our hands on the hot bowls of steaming soup.
As we walked back, we came across an owl cafe. We knew of cat cafes, and in Tokyo we’d heard rumours of owl cafes, so curiosity drew us inside. A shelf the length of the room had real owls perched on rocks or branches, all in a row, a tethered foot fastening them to their perch. Staff unclipped them if we wanted to hold one, and attached them to a thick leather glove. Some stood, obediently posing for pictures, whilst some larger ones flapped their massive wings in irritation, mussing the hair of the staff. Cindy and I drank our vending machine coffee (the ‘cafe’ of the owl cafe), studying the enclosed outdoor area for the owls to fly after hours. We wondered if their nocturnal routines were in complete disarray. It seemed too cruel, and we wouldn’t go back.
Our Airbnb was in a neighbourhood of pretty wooden houses and immaculately clean streets. It was a guesthouse run by a young man named Yuki, a part-time monk. He ran the property most of the time, and was very proud of his home town. He showed us his ceremonial sea-shell horn, offered cups of sparkling sake, and explained his different types of tea served from lacquered wooden teacups. The dinner suggestion was persimmon leaf sushi (kaki no ha sushi), a Nara specialty. We took off our shoes as we entered the restaurant, and sat cross-legged on tatami mats at a low table. The sushi arrived, none of it familiar. Rectangular blocks wrapped in persimmon leaves absorbed a salty, bitter flavour. Other sushi served included maki, sashimi and nigiri, many of which we couldn’t identify. Some appeared to be wrapped in egg; others contained crunchy pink vegetables; whilst others were topped with slices of silver and bronze-scaled fish. We left, bellies full, into the cold winter night. When we returned from dinner, we found hot water bottles ready for us at our Airbnb. What service!