Drowning in deer – Nara, Japan

Property 870 – Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara, Japan

So. Many. Deer.

I’ll be honest, this was my main thought for pretty much my entire visit to the ancient Japanese capital of Nara. If humans disappeared from the Japanese islands tomorrow, I know what the next dominant species is. They’re the same deer that seem to be found in tourist sites across southern Japan, but the sheer profusion at Nara borders on the intimidating. There is a legend that an ancient god arrived on a deer to protect the city shortly after its foundation, and as a result they are now allowed to roam the town unmolested. Clearly not being hunted does wonders for their reproduction.

The deer actually make it a little difficult to appreciate the sites of Nara Prefecture. I’d be gazing at a building, only to have my reverie interrupted by being sexually assaulted by a deer that was curious about the contents of my crotch. Nearby vendors sell deer food to tourists, but it’s a mistake to buy it. Once they’ve smelled the food in your pockets, there is no possibility of any peace. Thoughts of revenge fill your mind. Venison seems like an excellent dinner choice.

But where was I? Nara, yes.

Nara is one of the ancient capitals of Japan, known at the time as Heijo. It only was the formal seat of power for around 70 years until 784 CE, but informal power continued long after the government moved elsewhere. Even for the millennium during which Kyoto was the capital, Nara retained the mystique of the “spiritual capital”. Numerous later rulers endowed the city with temples and palaces, and maintained those which were starting to fall down. Modern Nara is open and spacious, and dotted with beautifully restored and maintained structures. And lots of deer.

The World Heritage property (“The Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara”) covers a multitude of buildings over a relatively large area. Once again, my appreciation of the site was limited by my lack of knowledge of non-European history. I did my best, but I know that there were huge slabs of meaning which I simply couldn’t interpret.

That said, the sites in Nara have quite a different look to them compared to the historic sites of Kyoto. Nara has a monumental look  which is quite awe-inspiring. Ancient people seemed to enjoy building big things, perhaps as a statement. Defiance of nature, perhaps?

The temples and palaces in Nara feel intimidating compared to the precise cosiness of Kyoto.  Titanic wooden doors with smoke billowing out of them makes the site feel alpine, perhaps Siberian. The gilded horns on the roof imply some kind of ancient shamanistic ritual to ward off evil spirits, or perhaps an animal predator. Perhaps the animus of this site pre-dates the precise and tidy Japan that we understand. There’s an ancient magic here.

Alms-givers, miniature by comparison with the timbers, light their sticks of incense and proceed inside the temple. Within there is a gigantic statue of a deity. He isn’t one of the serene gods and goddesses of the West. He’s an armoured demon with a snarl of aggression on his face. It seems that he demands tribute, and by and large he receives it. Even his codpiece is decorated with an angry face. The demon seems paused in mid-step, as if he will stride out of the great doors any second and crush the body of anyone delayed in bringing tribute.

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This ancient side of ritual Japan is somewhat ameliorated in one of the Buddhist temples. The savagery of ancient gods has been left behind. Instead we have a statue of the Buddha, surrounded by a disc of golden enlightenment and gesturing with his right hand. But the Buddha feels strangely out of place here. The massiveness of the timbers and the smoke indicate that he may just be overlaid on something more ancient.

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Not all of Nara is so intimidating though. There are a number of small temple gardens that Japan seems to specialise in. Winding walkways are lined with stone lanterns in great profusion. Decorative moss, that great Japanese contribution to garden design, lies on top like a fuzzy green hat. Pine trees screen the view and direct the walker down pre-determined paths. Occasional glimpses of bright orange can be seen through the forest, which turn out to be torii, Japanese ritual gateways or the supporting structures of smaller, more intimate, temples. There are also deer.

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As with so many sites in Japan, Nara is an easy day trip from Kyoto, Osaka and perhaps Tokyo. Perhaps it isn’t quite as photogenic as other parts of Japan, but it’s worth the trip. A trip to Nara is a way of stepping back in time to an ancient Japan of forests, wolves and earth spirits. And deer. Lots of deer.

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