Sadly, Nara lives in the large shadow of its big sister Kyoto. Few people know that Nara was briefly once the capital of Japan for about 75 years, before it was moved to Kyoto (for over 1000 years) and finally to Tokyo in the mid 1800s. During its brief stint as the capital, Nara’s imperial family pushed for the spread of Buddhism into Japanese culture.
The impressive Todaiji Temple with its daibutsu (big Buddha) and Kofukuji Temple with its famous Ashura statue (among others) is a testament to just how hard the artisans and builders worked to create something awe-inspiring to attract potential worshippers. Todaiji is one of the very few temples we’ve come across that allows photography of their religious statues so don’t forget your camera!
Oh and we can’t forget the deer! The deer of Nara are believed to be heavenly creatures, and they are everywhere. They are also beautiful, with spotted sides and fuzzy, rounded antlers (strangely reminiscent of a succulent).
The deer wander comfortably among the tourists, looking for deer crackers which must have crack in them judging from how aggressively they stalk you for them. Holding up a cracker will get them to bow their heads. There are signs that warn people that the deer bite, kick and mug you, but we didn’t have any problems feeding them, except for a bit of deer drool on my shirt. Yum.
For a lovely lunch in a tranquil atmosphere away from the hustle and bustle of the touristy area, head over to Kotan, a Japanese restaurant run by a friendly husband and wife team.
Not knowing that they only offer lunch with a reservation, we stumbled in from the heat and asked them if they could accommodate us. They couldn’t have been nicer, and we were promptly seated in an air conditioned private room. We had an amazingly fresh and thoughtfully-prepared meal, with enough time between each course which allowed us to take our time and savor the flavors of each dish. The price of 2800 yen per person didn’t hurt either.
We started with mushrooms and mountain greens with a delicately flavored white sesame sauce.
The next course was chock full of my favorite ingredients including tuna, madai, sea snails, etc.
The final course (of our choosing among about six different entrees) was beef with dengaku miso cooked at the table over a leaf.
Dessert was a brown sugar ice cream.