One Day Trip to Nara (2017 East Asia Trip Series)

This is my first blog post on my new blog!

I finished my undergraduate degree in April of this year and immediately started graduate school in May. Many of my friends went on grad trips in the summer, but since there wasn’t enough time at the end of April, I decided that I wanted to take a trip to escape from Waterloo at the end of August, when I have about three weeks off. In the end I decided to visit Japan and Korea, spending approximately one week in each country.

Today is my 6th day in Japan, and currently I’m spending my night in Osaka. I lived in Tokyo on my first full day, Kyoto for the next two, Nara the next, and Kyoto again last night. There are a lot of things to discuss about Kyoto, which will be my next blog. Today I’ll recap my Nara one day trip on August 20th.

If you are not too familiar with Japan, you might not have heard of Nara (奈良) before. I have not before I started planning for the trip. Nara was Japan’s capital from AD 710 to 794, and it was Japan’s first permanent capital. It was modelled after Chang’an (modern day Xi’an, China). The time during which the capital was at Nara was called the Nara Period. Note that during the same time China was in the Tang dynasty. There was a great amount of Chinese influence on Japan during the Nara period. Chinese characters were adopted, Chinese manuscripts such as Buddhist scriptures were copied, and legal codes based on those in China were adopted. [1] At the end of the Nara period the Emperor moved from Nara to Kyoto, and Kyoto would remain the capital of Japan for more than one thousand years.

I took the JR (Japan Rail) line from Kyoto to Nara on a light rail train, which took about an hour, and arrived around noon. My first impression of Nara is that it is a lot quieter than Kyoto and less crowded, like a small town rather than a densely populated city. Upon arrival I immediately headed for the place I’m staying at for the evening to leave my luggage there so I can travel with a lighter load. After eating some beef udon in thick curry sauce in a traditional Japanese marketplace restaurant, I began my adventure.

When I tell others I’m going to Nara, the first word they tell me is deer. It is said Takemikazuchi (god of thunder / sword god) was seen riding white deer, so the deer was considered divine and sacred. Killing a deer was punishable by death until 1637. After World War II, deers are no longer officially sacred, but they are still national treasures. I went to Noborioji Street where there should be a lot of deers, and indeed, I saw them. There are street vendors selling crackers to feed them.

My next stop was the Isuien Garden (依水園). This was the prettiest garden I have seen in my life to-date. It consists of two gardens, a Front Garden designed in the Edo period and a Back Garden designed in the Meiji period. Both have a variety of different views and are made to enjoy tea. There is also the Neiraku Museum beside it, with many Chinese, Korean, and Japanese treasures that date back to the earliest Chinese dynasties.

Beside the Isuien Garden there is also the Yoshikien Garden, which is free to enter for foreigners of Japan.

Next I visited the Tōdai-ji (東大寺, Eastern Great Temple). It is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has the world’s largest bronze statue of Buddha Vairocana, who embodies the concept of emptiness (Buddhist concept). There are many deers inside the area. Inside the temple there is a pillar with a hole in the middle. “Children who can squeeze through it are said to be assured of enlightenment.” [2]

After that began the more spectacular parts of my day in Nara. Amid the 35 degree heat and intense humidity, I made my way to Kasuga-taisha (春日大社) shrine, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, which was first established in AD 768. It is the shrine of the Fujiwara family, who dominated politics during the Heian period (794-1185). The landscape on the way there was also beautiful in its serenity.

After Kasuga-taisha I went directly back to the hotel. On my way back I saw some of the most impressive and awe-inspiring views in my life. Nature and mankind are in perfect harmony. Clouds are illuminated in a hint of orange by the setting sun against the faint blue sky behind the mountains; deers and humans roam the vast green hills. Pictures are not adequate to describe the feeling, one has to go there to experience it for themselves.

On my way back from dinner, I was able to catch these red lanterns illuminating the pond at night.


I would like to thank my friends Bai Li and Shirley Du for travel tips and encouraging me to write blog posts, and Taoling Yang for photography tips.