One of the best parts about my trip to Japan were the many day trips I was able to do from Kyoto. Kyoto is in such an awesome location because not only does it have the most UNESCO world heritage sites in Japan, it is also located a short train ride away from some other amazing locations.
Nara was one of the places on my list. This was the first official capital of Japan, and its history dates back to the 8th century. Despite all of this history, Nara is perhaps most famous for its deer population. In the Shinto religion, the deer is considered the messengers to the Gods. For this reason, the deer were treated with great reverence by the people of Nara, and therefore they always came back to the same places to be fed and pet.
Nowadays, One could say Nara has gone a little bit overboard with the deer thing. It is clearly a great source of tourism and the city takes great pride in its friendly deer. The deer cartoon below is considered as the mascot of Nara, and you can see it depicted in multiple locations throughout the city. Of course, Japan wouldn’t be Japan if you couldn’t also pick this little guy up in plush form at some of the many gift shops. The city of Nara also has an official basketball team called “Bambitious”. I’m not really into sports, but I’m considering getting some of their gear just because it is the single best name for a sports franchise I have ever heard.
All of the main attractions in the city of Nara are located like 5 minutes away from one another. You may be asking what do I consider the biggest tourist attractions in Nara? The most well-known tourist attraction in Nara is probably the deer park. The place with the highest degree of cultural significance is Todaiji, the largest bronze Buddha statue in the world. The greatest architectural achievement is the Kofukuji temple and my personal favorite tourist attraction is the hand made mocha station in the market. Let’s explore them a little!
First off, I headed to the Deer Park. In case you are wondering, the deer here are completely wild and free to leave the park whenever they please. The reason they stay here is because of the food. Do not feed the deer your own food, purchase the special deer crackers they sell around the park. These are pretty cheap to buy and the deer know exactly what they are.
The best part about the deer park of course is the bowing. These deer have been conditioned to bow to you before receiving the food. Some of these deer bow more than others, but it is kind of hit or miss. Sometimes the deer will bow to you, other times they will just go right for whatever hand you are holding the crackers in. I spent most of my time and crackers with a mother deer and her baby. These animals are so beautiful and peaceful, you can really see how they have found their way into religious iconography.
Less than a minute walk from the deer park is Todaiji, best known for its enormous bronze Buddha statue. After learning about this amazing temple and statue in college, I was eager to see it in person for the first time. I have to say, I do not believe it is entirely worth the entrance fee unless you are extremely passionate about this. There are no pictures allowed inside the temple, so the only thing you really get from the admission fee is a slightly closer look at the statue. You can see the statue without going inside, just not that well. If it is important to you to see, I would do it but if not, you get more for your money at other temples.
Next on the list is Kofukuji, a beautiful Pagoda located a literal stones-throw away from Todaiji. This temple was built in 710 AD, the same time that Nara was established as the capital. It was built by the Fujiwara, at the height of their power. Japanese history buffs will definitely know of this powerful aristocratic clan that shaped the history of early Japan. This is really cool to see. Although a city like Kyoto or Nara can have hundreds of shrines and temples, cities tend to only have one or two pagodas, so you never really get tired of seeing them.
The final destination on my list was the mochi making demonstration. This is something I saw online, and one of the things I was most looking forward to seeing in Japan. Unfortunately, it was also the most time-sensitive of all the things I would see that day. I’m an early bird, so I pulled into the city at around 8am and the mochi place didn’t even open until 10:00. I milled around the various shops in the area and when I came back at 10:00, they said they didn't start making the actual product until 11:00. Turns out I would have to wait a whole hour more!
I decided to attempt another tea quest. This area of Japan was steeped in tea history, so many stores were eager to overcharge unsuspecting tourists for this magical beverage. Unfortunately for me, I have been studying tea for quite some time, so I would only buy if the price and quality were fair. After doing some searching, I found a back alley tea shop that sold just what I was looking for!
The man there was so nice and used whatever English he knew to converse with me. This is a nice opportunity for me to try out some of my Japanese and to show off my knowledge of Japanese tea. I eventually settled on a Hojicha that he roasted in house as well as a Kiragane and a Genmaicha. At the end he said to me “you know very much green tea” a phrase that still echoes in my head and makes me smile.
After some more leisurely strolling, the time had finally come. At 11:00 on the dot they began starting the mochi making. Tourists lined up from all around the block to capture this beautiful event on video.
There were three people involved in the making of this mochi. One person threw down a giant ball of the mochi dough, and the other two began whacking it with comically sized wooden mallets.
While they were pounding the dough, they were yelling and grunting to one another. This functions similarly to a sea shanty, allowing them to coordinate and time their actions. This becomes really important in the next step, which is by far the most dangerous and the most fun to watch.
There was a brief “changing of the guard” and then they got right back into it. One man swung the mallet in lightning fast repititions and the other man began to quickly karate chop it screaming “hiya, hiya, hiya”. Apparently he does this at a rate of 3 slaps per second. They have to use the yelling and grunting to perfectly coordinate these slaps in between mallet swings, otherwise the man could hurt his legendary hands.
This was one of the most bizarre and entertaining things I had ever witnessed, and to this day is probably the biggest highlight of my trip to Japan. I waited for 2 hours to see this 2 minute presentations, but it was so worth it! I headed back on the train with a big smile on my face. I must’ve watched that video about a dozen times that day and it still makes me laugh. Next stop, Uji!