Osaka is a booming metropolitan area and because Nara is so close, it is also heavily populated. However, Nara Prefecture couldn't be more different than Osaka. Nara is full of nature, it is especially known for it's wild deer and Nara Park. My three days in Nara were spent mostly outside and consisted of exploring nature trails, relaxing in the park, and then returning early to my -big for Japan- hotel room. It was a great!
When you apply to the JET program, you have the option to select three prefectures where you would like to be placed. I chose Nara as my number one destination. Part of the reason being that Nara is close to Osaka. I did want to live in a populated area where there would be more English speakers, with more things to do and see, and more diverse food options. So I figured selecting neighboring prefectures would give me a better chance at landing up in a more urban area, since the most common selections are Osaka and Tokyo. I have always been most interested in Osaka. After some research, I came to the conclusion that Osaka is more comparable to San Francisco/West Coast of the U.S. whereas Tokyo is more comparable to New York/East Coast of the U.S. Additionally, I thought that all the trees, natural life, and abundance of deer in Nara would be a similar setting to that of Santa Cruz. So when I found out my placement wasn't even on the main island, I was a little nervous. However, I am happy with where I am. Even though Nara is beautiful and has a lot to offer, my visit solidified that where I am is a good fit for me. Although, it would be nice to live somewhere that had food delivery service! Hopefully that happens within the next year or so down in Southern Kyushu.
Upon arrival in Nara, my first stop was at a soba restaurant. I ordered a lunch set that came with tempura soba (which had tempura shrimp, seaweed, green onions, and kamaboko - fish cakes), nigiri, and now looking back at the picture there is a third item on the plate that I don't remember what it was. Although, let's be honest, I probably never knew what it was. I believe it might've been some sort of pickled onion topping. If anyone knows what it is, please feel free to leave the answer in the comments below!
After lunch, I strolled through the outskirts of Nara Park. I was so excited to see the deer! The deer in Nara park are a different breed. You can buy shika senbei (rice crackers) from vendors in the park and feed the deer. Because of this, the deer are comfortable around people and will directly approach you. Since so many people frequent Nara park the deer rely heavily on the crackers. In fact, when travel completely stopped in Japan at the beginning of the pandemic, the deer lost weight because they were no longer being hand fed crackers and had to scavenge for their own food. The deer have also learned to bow for the rice crackers. They will approach you and immediately bow, which is extremely adorable and very Japanese. The deer are photogenic and don't mind being pet if you are feeding them. With that being said, these deer are wild animals, and it's not hard to forget when there are warning signs at the foot of every path around Nara Park. I saw many people being chased by the deer, I saw deer grabbing bags, and I saw deer being aggressive and pushy with some people. As cute as the deer are, I didn't have any interest in hand feeding them. They get plenty of rice cakes on the daily, I figure they don't need anymore from me. However, one deer did boop me with it's nose. So I can officially say I have touched a deer!
The first day in Nara I encountered a large group of people on my trip. I do believe the days that I was in Nara were the most popular travel days during Golden Week. So, with this in mind, I woke up extra early on my second day in Nara. Day two in Nara was dedicated to exploring shrines and temples.
I started off big and went to Todai-ji. Todai-ji is a Buddhist temple located in Nara Park. It was originally built in 738 C.E. and has since gone through several reconstructions, including in 1709 with the construction of the Great Buddhist Hall. The Great Buddhist Hall houses the world's largest bronze statue of Buddha and, because of this, is listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. At the time of Todai-ji's creation, Nara was the capital of Japan. In fact, Nara was the first permanent capital of the country from 710 - 784 C.E. It was modeled after China's capital so in addition to the development of Buddhist temples, Chinese language and literature had a great impact on Japanese society. Eventually, Chinese characters were adapted into Japanese characters. They are called "kanji" and are one of the three written scripts in the Japanese language that are still used today.
Kasuga-taisha was among the other shrines I visited. Kasuga-taisha was built in 768 C.E. Legend has it that a deity from Chiba, named Takemikazuchi, rode to Kasuga-taisha on a deer. It is believed that all of the deer residing in Nara today are related to this deer and are thus blessed by Takemikazuchi.
This shrine is most famous for all of it's bronze lanterns. Kasuga-taisha is one of my favorite shrines I have visited so far because there is a room you can walk through where the only light comes from the many hanging bronze lanterns.
At this shrine, I also paid for a plaque where you can write down your prayers and attach it to the shrine. I prayed for good health, new friends, and more adventures! (Will it come true now that I have told you what I prayed for?) There are two different kinds of plaques you can purchase at shrines. One is a wooden plaque (called "ema") and the other is a paper plaque (I am not sure if these have a name). Ema are more expensive and often have beautiful artwork on them that differ depending on the shrine that you are visiting. For example, the ema in Nara were often in the shape of deer or had images of deer on them.
My last day in Nara I spent relaxing. I found an area that had a pond where I spent some time as well as a café that would do well in California. As much as I love sightseeing, nothing can beat relaxing on days off of work. Nara is a great place to do this because of all the beautiful nature it has to offer.