Despite being one of the most historically and culturally significant cities of Japan, Nara is most famous for one thing in particular: deer. The city is overrun by over a thousand of these creatures revered in Shinto as sacred beings for centuries and centuries. Nara dates back to the early 8th century, staking its claim as the first permanent capital of Japan, and many temples and monuments from ancient history still stand today. Nowadays, tourists mainly flock to Nara to pay worship to these sacred creatures, in the form of giving them cookies and then fleeing in terror as a dozen more of them surround you in search of their own treats.
I visited Nara as a day trip from Kyoto and boy, was it full of surprises, both good and bad. Here’s everything you need to know before visiting the “friendly” bowing deer of Nara.
Table of Contents
- How To Get To Nara
- Where To Stay in Nara
- Where To Find the Deer in Nara
- The Nara Deer: Expectations vs. Reality
- Other Things To See and Do in Nara
- More on Japan
How To Get to Nara
Nara is easily accessible by train from either Kyoto or Osaka. This is the train station you’ll want to end up in, and it’s easy to use Google Maps to find the fastest or cheapest way to get to Nara. The Kintetsu line is the fastest way as it only takes 35 minutes. The one-way ticket costs 1,110 yen but it isn’t covered by the JR Pass. If you have the JR Pass, the JR Nara line takes 45 minutes by express train or 70 minutes if you catch a local train from Kyoto Station.
If you’re coming from elsewhere besides Kyoto, check here to see the fastest or cheapest way to get to Nara.
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Where To Stay in Nara
While I think a day trip is enough to see Nara, it does have plenty of hotels and hostels for those who can’t get enough of deer and temples. Among the highly-rated hostels of Nara are Yuzan Guesthouse, Guesthouse Kamunabi, and The Deer Park Inn. The first two are in the city center while staying The Deer Park Inn will put you in the heart of Nara Park. Although it is further away from the train station, you’ll be right next to many of the shrines, castles, and temples, along with the deer of course.
Here’s a full list of hostels in Nara.
Where to Find the Deer in Nara
From the train station, one doesn’t have to walk far before stumbling upon some deer. Before going to Nara, I was envisioning a big park where the deer were enclosed and we could just go and visit them. Nope. The entire city is a playground for the deer mafia that control the city. Within a few blocks of the train station, you’ll already have likely seen a dozen deer crossing the roads, plopped outside the 7-Elevens, or chasing down hapless tourists for food.
Walk towards Nara Park, and the deer will multiply in number. There are plenty of wide open spaces, forests, and gardens where you’ll find the deer roaming freely. Be sure to buy some shika senbei (deer crackers) before going deeper into the park if you plan on feeding the deer. You’ll find vendors selling them for about 200 yen for a packet of 10-15 crackers.
The Bowing Deer of Nara: Expectations vs. Reality
This whole adventure seemed like a cute and harmless day out. I mean, you’re just going to play with some deer and feed them cookies, right? I wouldn’t even say that you’re feeding the deer. They’re kind of snatching the food from your hands. If you’re a bit too slow with giving them their mouthwatering treats, they will not hesitate to bite you.
The deer are most famous for bowing, which they often do knowing that it will lead to them getting treats. Most of them will get up close to you and repeatedly bow if they know you have food. Don’t be fooled into thinking they are polite creatures because they can be vicious once they notice you have their beloved cookies. They will bow and then get impatient and snap at you if you don’t give them a treat right away. Deer have a keen sense of smell, so even hiding the treats might still attract hordes of them to you. The worst thing you can do is carry the crackers visibly in your hands, as deer from far and wide will come flocking to you. It’s not quite the fairy-tale experience that you’d imagine.
Although the deer are used to tourists, they are still wild animals. You might run into male deer getting territorial and fighting with other male deer. I got bit a few times, but I don’t even want to know the pain of one of those deer attacking me with their antlers. After the first half hour or so, I did my best to simply avoid the deer altogether.
Other Things To See and Do in Nara
Thankfully, there is much to do in Nara that doesn’t involve deer. I went with a friend, and though he was happy to play with deer the entire day, I was kind of over them pretty quickly. They stopped being cute after the fifth or sixth time I was bitten or cornered against a wall. Luckily, there were plenty of things in Nara to do that we just stumbled into. Despite having done no research about Nara, I absolutely loved it. Here are some of the highlights of Nara.
Todai-Ji Temple dates back to 752 and is the most iconic of Nara’s historic landmarks. It houses a massive bronze Buddha statue, Daibutsu, which is one of the largest in the world. The temple complex itself is impressive and surrounded by beautiful gardens. There was an entrance fee of 600 yen to get in and see the Buddha, but I just took in the views of the castle from the outside.
Known for its lantern-lined paths, Kasuga Taisha is a Shinto shrine that dates back to the 8th century. The shrine is famous for its bronze lanterns, which are lit twice a year during the Lantern Festival. The setting inside one of the forests made for very Studio Ghibli vibes. There are a few deer roaming around the shrine and the forests, adding to the magic of this beautiful shrine.
Nara National Museum
Walking from the train station to Nara Park, you’ll likely stumble upon Nara National Museum, which houses a vast collection of Buddhist art and artifacts from centuries past. The museum provides insights into the cultural, religious, and artistic history of the region. If you’ve got an hour or two to kill, this museum is definitely worth the $5 entrance fee.
Naramachi is the historic merchant district of Nara, where traditional machiya (wooden townhouses) line the narrow streets. Some machiya have been converted into boutique shops, quaint cafes, and small museums. This neighborhood is perfect for an aimless wanderer.
All in all, Nara is much more than just the bowing deer. I didn’t have too many expectations for the city, expecting to just see some deer and go back to Kyoto. However, I was truly in awe of some of the cultural monuments, intricate shrines, and historical sites of Nara. The combination of historical significance, abundance of natural beauty, and unique cultural experiences make Nara a compelling destination for any traveler interested in exploring Japan’s ancient heritage. And of course, cute deer.
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