Towering Temples, the Great Buddha, and Roaming Deer
The highlight of the parkland called Nara Koen is a colossal bronze image of a sitting Buddha housed in Todai-ji (the Great Eastern Temple), which is believed to be the world’s largest wooden structure. Nara’s most-visited site has drawn Buddhist pilgrims and foreign visitors for centuries.
The 53-foot Daibutsu Buddha, the largest in Japan, was originally commissioned in 743, not long after Nara was founded as the capital of a newly united Japan. (The court was moved to Kyoto in 794, where it remained for over 1,000 years.) Buddhism, imported from China in the 6th century, flourished, and so did Nara as a center of politics and culture.
Nara remains more intimate in scale, and its ancient buildings and temples more intact and authentic than in neighboring Kyoto, where ancient neighborhoods are being encroached upon as the city’s unplanned development continues. Nara Park’s 1,300 acres of ponds, grassy lawns, trees, and temples are home to the famous deer believed to be sacred emissaries of the temples’ gods. More than 1,000 roam the grounds, unintimidated by human visitors and endearing – until they start to eat straw handbags, schoolchildren’s lunches, even your paper map of the city.