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A Hazard of Deer

A Hazard of Deer:
Exploring Nara, Japan

by Marc Nair, 19 March 2017


If the Internet is to believed; the deer are as ubiquitous in Nara as the rabbits on Okunoshima Island. Nara Park, where the sacred deer are allowed to roam freely, is just part of the city of Nara, which in itself occupies just a fraction of Nara Prefecture. Of course, most people can only afford a day-trip to Nara from Kyoto or Osaka, but if you do have time, do check out other places in Nara Prefecture like Yoshino, Nishinokyo and Imaicho.

As we walked up the road from the train station at Nara, we were surprised by a profusion of traditionally garbed men emerging from one of the unending shopping arcades of Nara. It seemed far too elaborate for a tourist attraction, unlike the honest mochi sellers putting on a pummeling show just behind us.

As we followed the procession, we discovered a giant area where different groups were parading, jousting and moving in formation in front of a bandstand. Across a narrow dirt track was a melange of costumes ranging from the regal to the ridiculous. We found out later they were waiting for Jidai Gyrotesu (Procession of the Eras) in which customs and manners of each era are reproduced. More than 500 people take part in the annual parade, which showcases fashion trends from the Heian Period to the Edo Period; from the 9th Century to the 19th Century.

On-Matsuri was first organised in the 12th Century during an epidemic. Prayers were offered to eradicate the plague and also for a fruitful harvest. Today, the festival spreads over four days, and remains one of the largest annual events in Nara Prefecture.

After the parade, first to lunch (okonomiyaki at a very local joint and then we walked on a parallel path to the parade, encountering numerous deer who seemed very at ease (almost over-friendly!) with us. They obligingly posed, preened and pranced for our amusement. Crossing a road, the vista suddenly opened up, and we got a glimpse of the kind of views we would experience the further away from the town we deign to travel.

Our okonomiyaki chef at work

It’s not just space, but air, and the feeling of an elemental peace we found in Nara Park. Ironically, that wasn’t really the case around the rather crowded temples, but more so in the quiet groves, with deer watching slyly out of a corner of lazy eyes to see if we had shika senbei (deer crackers) for them. Don’t ever try one by the way, they taste terrible.

Anticipating his next snack!

The town grows more tranquil as night approaches, and what we intended as a half day trip turned out to be a lovely, languorous day wandering small paths and revelling in discovering the seamless mesh between nature and the sacred in Nara.