Japan: Day 7 - Nara / Uji / Kyoto - Deer oh deer!

Today's excursion ends down back alleys and narrow cobbled streets ... but that's not where it began! 
A day trip to Nara was planned for today which meant an early start as there were a few things I wanted to do when I got back to Kyoto before having to leave in the morning. 

Nara is the capital city of the Nara Prefecture and is around a 50-minute train ride from Kyoto Station. I caught the 09:33am JR Miyako Rapid line train, which arrived at Nara at 10:20am.

Nara was relatively small, made even easier to get around by these bright red buses that hit each of the main tourist attractions for only 100 yen (55p) per ride.

Now … upon arriving in the station, the first thing I noticed was this rather strange cartoon character that featured on posters, station shop window displays and bus vinyl’s. There was even a life-size statue of him by the station entrance!

Nara is famous for two things: 1. Wild deer that roam the streets and parks of Nara, and 2. For being home to the world's largest bronze statue of the Buddha Vairocana. SO … when the Nara City Office got together to try and work out how they could maximise exposure of their attractions, potentially capitalising on bringing in further revenue for the area from tourists purchasing souvenirs, what do you think the result of that meeting was? I don’t it could have lasted any longer than 5 minutes. “Deer … and a Buddha … hmmmmm, how about a half deer, half Buddha guy? … SOLD! “

And here he is - Sento-kun is a yuru-chara mascot created by Nara City Office to commemorate the 1300th anniversary of Nara Heijo-kyo, the ancient capital of Japan, in 2010.

The city of Nara has a long tradition of adopting guardian deities such as Nio (a pair of temple guardians) and Shitenno (Four Guardian Kings). The new mascot was chosen by the city office to inherit their mission, and as a "personification of the energy" of the ancient capital dotted with temples, gardens and shrines.

Sento-kun is meant to resemble an amiable young boy who has the antlers of a deer, an animal that has long been regarded as a heavenly protector of the city.

The reaction to this mascot hasn’t entirely been that great. Some people have positive views about Sento-kun and describe it as kimokawaii (creepy but cute) or adorable, but they are not the majority and has received a lot of negative press since its introduction 5 years ago. But they’re sticking with the crazy little guy, and good on them I say. Throughout the morning he grew on me – I even considered buying a toy of him … but alas it was not to be.

I digress - back to my trip to Nara. The first stop was Nara Park; the park is public and is located at the foot of Mount Wakakusa. Over 1,200 wild silka deer freely roam around in the park and are classified as a natural treasure. The park itself isn’t just your standard park, it includes within the grounds the majority of the sites I wanted to check out; both Todai-ji Temple and the Kasuga Shrine.

The moment you step off the bus you have deer all up in your face hoping that you’ve got something for them to eat! The deer are also known as "bowing deer", as they bow their heads before being fed special shika senbei ("deer cookies"), which are sold by vendors every 100 meters or so within the area.
Boy are they persistent! The moment I purchased a stack of senbei I was surrounded by five deer all hoping to get a slice of the action. You’d be wrong in thinking that because of the whole ‘bowing’ ritual it means that they’re polite. The moment you turn your back on one they head butt, bite and pull you by your clothes until you turn around and give them attention. Throughout the park you can hear a cacophony of shrills coming from women who are being ‘attacked’ by the blighters as handbags are usually good snack hunting ground!
They form packs and chill by the vendors that sell the cookies, as they know there will soon be another punter to harass for food! 
I think I’m giving them a bad reputation – it was a fun experience and all in all they were pretty sweet.

The bus stop was outside the Nara Prefecture Office. So who did I stumble upon ... only
Sento-kun himself!! 
As I went to take a picture a guard came rushing up to me. I thought he was going to tell me off, because somehow subconsciously he knew I was mocking their mascot! But in actual fact he came over to tell me to check out the 11th floor of the building I was standing in front of because it was free and had a 360 degree view of Nara! How could I turn down an offer like that ... thank you very much Mr Security Guard! 
One place you could also see from the rooftop was Dreamland, which was somewhere that I was really gutted that I don't have time to go and explore. Nara Dreamland was a theme park which was built in 1961 and inspired by Disneyland. Dreamland closed permanently due to low visitor numbers on August 31, 2006. It has been left exactly how it was the day it closed and has been explored by many since, who have captured some amazing photographs. Check it out ...
From here I jumped back on the bus and made my way to Todai-ji Temple. The Eastern Great Temple is a Buddhist temple complex, and as mentioned earlier, houses the world's largest bronze statue of the Buddha, Vairocana. The temple also serves as the Japanese headquarters of the Kegon school of Buddhism.

I knew this fella was going to be large but I didn't realise just how huge! The hall in which he is housed was massive but so are most things in Japan of cultural significance so I was a little blown away when I first saw the sheers size of this statue.

The temple gives the following dimensions for the statue:
  • Height: 14.98 m (49.1 ft)
  • Face: 5.33 m (17.5 ft)
  • Eyes: 1.02 m (3.3 ft)
  • Nose: 0.5 m (1.6 ft)
  • Ears: 2.54 m (8.3 ft)
The building was just as impressive as the Buddha and you can’t help but to think what was built first, the Buddha or the hall?

Oh, and yes, there were plenty of deer hanging out in the temples grounds!  
From here I jumped back onto the little red bus for another 100 yen ride to Kasuga-taisha. This grand shrine was built in 768 AD but has been rebuilt several times over the last few centuries. The interior is famous for the number of bronze and gold lanterns, with just as many (if not more) stone lanterns leading the way up to the shrine. The shrine is deep within the Kasugayama forest which makes the long paths that are littered with these stone lanterns which are covered in moss an amazing sight. You’ll also find deer hiding between the lanterns (maybe ready to pounce on unsuspecting tourists for the hope of a tasty reward!)
Look who also made an appearance at the entrance ...
When you finally get inside the shrine, the number of lanterns do not disappoint. It’s a very peaceful place and would definitely be somewhere (if I lived close) that I’d go to if I needed a bit of time alone ‘with my thoughts’.

One of the highlights for me was the blacked out room which had around 100 lanterns lit up. The walls were mirrored to make it seem as though they went on forever.
With a balanced mix of peaceful moments finding my inner peace in the presence of the massive Buddha, laced with moments of sheer terror from deer attacks it was time for me to leave Nara and head back to Kyoto. 

InsideJapan had recommended within my itinerary to check out the Byōdō-in Temple, which was on the same line back to Kyoto and wouldn't add much time to my journey. The Nara bus route meant that I got around the city a lot quicker than I was hoping, giving me more time in the afternoon than expected, so I thought what the hell!

Once at Uji I made my way to the temple. Uji is a city located on the southern outskirts of Kyoto. Whilst on the train from Nara I mapped the journey to the temple from Uji station on my iPhone using the Maps app. It seemed doable on foot instead of the recommended bus route, but only because I had satnav on the go! This is where the Pocket Wifi from Japan Experience has been a massive asset to my trip so far – almost priceless! Not only was I able to jump online whenever needed, but it meant that I could use the maps app to navigate me to the temple. I went down the back streets of Uji, checking out the local restaurants and wandering down the tiny residential streets heading up the hill. The option of going off piste is definitely adding to the experience as I feel I’m getting to see more than I would have.

It was a 20-minute walk to the temple (which is pictured on the back of the 10 yen coin) and was
definitely worth the stop off.  
The main building in Byōdō-in, the Phoenix Hall consists of a central hall, flanked by twin wing corridors on both sides of the central hall, and a tail corridor. The central hall houses an image of Amida Buddha. The roof of the hall displays statues of the Chinese Phoenix, called hōō. 
After walking around the grounds, grabbing a few shots and checking out the on site museum full of national treasures, it was time for me to head through the back streets again to the station to catch the train to Kyoto.

It was looking hopeful that I’d manage to fit in the ‘nice to check out if I have time’ list for Kyoto as I was still ahead of schedule.

Once the train arrived at Kyoto I jumped on the subway to Toji to check out the Toji Temple. 
This Buddhist temple is most famous for its pagoda, which can be seen from all over Kyoto. This shot was from the train heading back into Kyoto – as you can see it towers over a lot of the surrounding buildings. 
The temple is just a 5-minute walk from the station. There's an outer wall and moat which run along all 4 sides of the grounds with only one main entrance ... you can't really miss it!
This Five-story pagoda of Tō-ji stands 55m high, and is the tallest wooden tower in Japan. It dates from the Edo period, when it was rebuilt by order of the third Tokugawa Shogun, Iemitsu. The pagoda has been, and continues to be, a symbol of Kyoto. Entrance into the pagoda itself is permitted only on a few days a year, and thankfully for me today was one of those days! No photography was allowed inside but it housed a gold Buddha surrounded by a series of smaller Buddhas.
The beautiful grounds feature a garden and a pond in which turtles and koi can be spotted. I saw a few rather large koi but unfortunately didn't see any turtles!

The next stop was only one stop south on the subway and was somewhere I had to check out otherwise the 7-year old version of me would have kicked my ass! (No joke).

Kyoto is the home of Nintendo and the headquarters are based in Minami-ku, south Kyoto. The building pretty much overlooks the subway so it wasn’t hard to find. In all honesty there wasn't much to see. I walked around the whole complex which you obviously weren’t allowed in seeing that it’s a working office, but I can now leave Kyoto rest assured that the 9-year old me who was obsessed with Mario Brothers would be smiling and nodding his head, satisfied with my quest!

From here I took the subway 3 stops back to Kyoto where I hopped onto a bus heading for Ponto-chō. This is where I had dinner last night but didn't have time to explore. Ponto-chō centres around one long, narrow, cobbled alley running from Shijō-dōri to Sanjō-dōri, one block west of the Kamo River. I stayed on the bus for an extra stop so I could walk back over the river.

Geisha have lived within Ponto-chō since the 16th century, along with other forms of entertainment such as prostitution. Today the area, lit by traditional lanterns at night, contains a mix of very expensive restaurants (often featuring outdoor riverside dining on wooden patios), geisha houses, tea houses, brothels, bars, and cheap eateries.

And guess what … I SAW A REAL GEISHA!! She came out of one of the establishments and disappeared down a side alley which led to Kiyamachi Street. I wasn't quick enough to get a shot but I’d seen a geisha girl and that was enough for me.

After walking up Ponto-chō and down Kiyamachi Street checking out all of the cool little bars and restaurants in the smallest of spaces, I headed back to the hotel on the bus to pack my stuff ready for a 10am train ride to Ise in the morning. 

It was finally time to say goodbye to Kyoto and I must say that I feel sadder than I thought I would. It’s been an eventful 3 days and I’ve taken a lot in … safe to say I don’t think the animals around here like me that much!

Good bye Kyoto
Onto Ise in the morning …


  1. I photographed a fundraising conference here recently. What a wonderful place for photos. I almost always hate being anywhere at 6am, but this breakfast event proved an exception. The event spaces manger and his staff were extremely professional.

  2. Wow wonderful post and images. I visisted here in April and I too loved it. Just wished I had more time in Nara. Please read my travel experience and some amazing sakura pictures here


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