Nara was the capital of Japan from 710 when it used to be the center of Japanese religion and politics until the Emperor Kammu moved to Kyoto, ending the Nara period in 784.
Since then, although it’s lost some of it’s former glory, it still remains as one of the finest cities in Japan, deeply steeped in history and beauty. People from all over the country and the rest of the world still flock to Nara to appreciate its World Heritage site – Todaiji amongst it’s other world famous pagodas, gardens, towns and other temples.
Nara, like most other cities in Japan, relies heavily on tourism and should you happen to go during some of it’s busiest months (ie. cherry blossom season) you won’t find it hard to bump into more gaijin than Japanese people as you jostle your way towards the main attractions. I really recommend getting a guide or someone who knows what they’re talking about to really get the best out of this wonderful city.
otaku Japanologist that I am, I arrived early one day to grab front row seats to Nara’s most spectacular show – the sacred Omizu-dori matsuri, also known as the ‘Fire Festival’ that happens just once a year. It happens in March and is really a must see if you’re in the Kansai area during this time.
On the way, you may see street vendors selling freshly baked sweet potato. There probably aren’t that many requirements that are compulsory to be a successful street vendor – except to be very old, because it’s those sad wrinkled faces that stir up the kind of guilt that make you want to buy such overpriced food – but at least it’s delicious and you could use the skin scraps to feed the deer…
Deer are believed to be sacred creatures, and have been protected for hundreds of years in Nara. It is illegal to harm or kill them, so it’s a good thing they’re all tame. They roam freely all over the city (and sometimes cross roads as cars wait patiently for them to make it to the other side) occasionally nudging tourists’ elbows for shika senbei (deer biscuits).
Be warned however, if a deer manages to sniff you up and discover that you’re hiding a delicious piece of recycled paper (or whatever it is the biscuits are made from), they’ll be after you like a herd of bees. You can tell who are the more seasoned travellers and who are the tourist newbies about to be terrorized because something like this always happens:
- Person sees Deer and exclaims “aww, how cute!” (or sometimes, just “kawaiiiii!“).
- Deer approaches timidly, and makes cute eyes.
- Person feels sorry for the Deer and buys a small pack of biscuits for them.
- Deer nibbles politely… but just as Person starts to smile or pose for a picture…
- Deer opens it’s jaws and snatches pile of biscuits straight out of the person’s hands quicker than you can say “Holy *%$& Bambi!”.
I’ve seen deer grab entire stacks of biscuits straight out of toddler hands and run away, leaving kids who were giggling just a second before wide-eyed with shock and now empty handed. It’s a cruel world.
If you find yourself being pursued by insistent deer, there are several ways I have learned (from experience of being chased by a half a dozen deer) that can get them off your back:
1. Drop everything. Scatter any/all of the biscuits you are holding onto the floor and walk away quickly. Try not to throw them at the deer, this may not be received well if there are Japanese people nearby.
2. Put your hands up in the air like you just don’t care! No, actually do it exactly as you would if a cop told you to “FREEZE!”. If you can speak Japanese, grovel profusely that you don’t have any food or else repeatedly apologizing often works. There are some deer that will grant your mercy.
3. Take cover. Dash into the nearest shop and hide behind some shelves… the old shop ladies know how to deal with stalker deer. In fact, old ladies in Japan (the elite obaachan) run the entire country. I wouldn’t be surprised if they control politicians and yakuza alike, so they can probably handle wild animals just fine.
Follow these tips and you should be able to get away from even the most desperate deer. If all else fails, deer also like to eat coats (see the deer teeth marks on my trench coat) and maps (since these seem to be plentiful in Nara) – you can drop these behind you and hope your enemies will be stalled long enough for you to get away…
… not unlike Mario Kart really.