I had my reservations about this daytrip to Nara Park because I thought it might be a huge tourist trap – a circus I don’t want a ticket for – however I told me to get over myself and come to terms with the fact that I’m just another fucking tourist in Japan, and that I can’t be a wanker about it. It’s a park full of wild deer, shrines and temples. Surely it must be worth the train ride out there.
Turns out I should have listened to my inner wanker. Nara Park, mostly, is a huge tourist trap. Watching hundreds of tourists chase, feed and hound the poor deer that live in Nara Park made me feel so sad.
The other reason I was hesitant about this daytrip was the cost involved in getting out to Nara, then paying to get into all the temples on top of that. On first glance the day was going to cost me about 3,500 yen ($42 AUD) for transport and entrance fees. This is much more than I usually pay for a daytrip or days adventure. However Nara Park was one of the places I had planned to visit since booking my flight to Japan and so I figured I should follow through with it.
I planned to go out to Nara on Saturday, before Gion Matsuri on the Sunday and be back in Kyoto in time for the after-dark Saturday celebrations. I woke up and decided to put off the trip until after the big crowds for Gion Matsuri were gone. I’d go on Monday. Monday came and my alarm told me it was tine to get up and go to Nara. I switched off my phone and decided to go on Tuesday. I knew that I was just making excuses and deep down I was hesitant to do this trip at all. So Monday afternoon I sat myself down and researched the trip. I found a cheaper train to and from Nara and settled on two temples that I would pay an entrance fee for.
Tuesday morning came around…. and I turned off my alarm and rolled back to sleep. But I did make myself get up eventually and walked my ass down to the train station. I was on my way to Nara. As I rounded the corner to the Kyoto station, I realised that I hadn’t checked how much yen I had on me. I looked and found that I had only 1,000 yen. Not enough to cover the return train journey. The hostel where my money was safely tucked away was a 6km round trip walk and I was already pushing it to make the 11am train. I knew if I turned away now I would never make it to Nara – this should have been my final sign to abort mission. But I pushed on.
To get money out of an ATM in Japan with a foreign card, you have really only one choice; 7/11. I searched for one and 20 mins later had 10,000 yen in my hand and was trying not to think of the unnecessary fees I just paid to my bank.
I purchased my ticket, found a seat on the crowded JR line train and watched in horror as the train filled up more and more. All tourists. Mostly French and American. What had I gotten myself into? I fucking hate feeling like a tourist. Again, I talked myself down and reprimanded myself for being such an elitest wanker. I can’t hate on others for doing the same time thing that I’m doing. Right?!
My first sign that I was not like everyone else on that train came when we reached Nara station and everyone headed for the tourist bus to Nara Park. It’s a 10 minute walk from station to park. You don’t need a bus. I grabbed a map from the tourist beuro and hit the pavement.
I was actually excited to see the deer of Nara Park. I like deer, well any wild animal really, and thought it would be a romantic image to see them wanting around the temples and shrines, eating grass and just hanging out… as deer do.
I could not have been more wrong. What I walked into would have made animals rights activists weep. I was nearly brought to tears. These wild animals have been conditioned to bow to the tourists for food. To expect food from humans. Small vendors sell deer crackers for a couple of hundred yen (a few bucks) and you can feed the deer all day if you like. Children scream as the deer walk towards them and throw the food at the deer as they panic at the sight of their antlers in such close proximity. Adults chase down the deer for the perfect selfie and get angry at the deer when they continue to follow them around after they’ve run out of deer crackers. It was not the sight I was hoping to see.
Laneways that lead to temples and shrines are lined with souvenir shops selling an assortment of deer merchandise. I made my way to Todaiji temple where I had planned to pay to see the Daibutsuden (giant gold Buddha) however as I reached the gates all I saw were swarms of people chasing deer. I could only hear French being spoken around me and I basically cracked the shits and set off in a direction nobody else was walking to see if I could get away from this circus and find the essence of Nara Park that I had read so much about.
I wouldn’t say that I found this ‘essense’ but I did find a couple of places where I could only hear Japanese being spoken around me and the crowds thinned out significantly. One such place was Nigatsudo Hall. It is a bit of a hike to get up there and in the humidity of the day it was a sweaty walk… but we’ll worth it. From the Hall you can see across Nara and down into some of the smaller temples below in Nara Park. There is even free tea (hot and cold) as a reward for making it up the hill! This is as close to a serene moment as I had at Nara Park. Locals were praying and chanting behind me and the view from the patio of the Hall was just incredible.
I continued on hoping to find more moments like this. Small tucked away temples that you had to work to get to and hence were not bustling busy places, but they didn’t really exist. The rest of the park was really busy. I did find a couple of nice walking paths that were almost empty, particualry nice was the Kaminonegi-michi (pictured below). I took these winding, mystical and very quiet pathways and followed them out of the park, before taking a stroll around Nara town. The town on the south side of the park is a nice place to walk through. Not as modern as the Nara the lies between the JR station and Nara Park, it is very green and just a lovely residential area to wander through.
I spent a few minutes contemplating my day at the Surusawa-ike Pond before deciding to head back to Kyoto on a local train. The views from the train on my way to Nara had so far been the highlight of my day. So i would return on a slower local train and take in all the luscious green fields and small towns along the way.
The local trains are only just cheaper than the JR line but are a bit slower. They are, however, not as crowded and not filled with French and American loud-mouths. The train on the way home had 2 other foreign tourists on it across all 8 or 9 carriages. It was great. It was quiet, slower and I could take in the views (and write this little piece on my Nara experience the also).
So was it worth it? I wouldn’t say so. I was nice to see the countryside around Kyoto, but to be honest the temples and shrines in Kyoto are much grander and more impressive than those in Nara Park. Plus, in Kyoto it is much easier to get away from the mobs of tourists and find yourself in your own little piece of paradise – all on your lonesome.
If I were you, I would skip Nara and head to Arashiyama instead. It is much cheaper and a lot more serene.