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Deborah Howell’s Japan Joursey: Nara, The Deer-est Place in Japan

On to Nara, one of the original capitals of Japan, before Kyoto became its permanent capital. There are no real hotels in town but the government built a guest house for diplomats up on a hill on the outskirts of the city. The Nara Hotel is a bit legendary, with A-list celebrities that patronize this classic handsome temple-like residence–and tonight, shlubs like us. A Helen Keller, Charlie Chaplin, the Dalai Lama, Princess Margaret, various emperors, John Lennon, Richard Nixon, Robert Kennedy and countless others have stayed here, dined here, drank here and socialized here. Einstein himself played the piano in the open lounge off the lobby. Wouldn’t you have loved to have heard what that sounded like? I wonder if his genius extended to his musical ability.

PHOTOS: Nara, The Deer-est Place in Japan

A beautiful 9 course Japanese dinner was presented, accompanied by superb sake from the hills surrounding Nara. I was a little sad we had to wear western clothes and real shoes to dinner. ( I’m beginning to greatly prefer the kimono and slippers and no makeup routine! ) In the morning we made the 10 minute walk to Nara Park, where the people and the wild deer mix freely. And I’m talking a LOT of deer!

They’re beloved, revered, and are everywhere– at the end of the snack lines, grazing in the grass, peeking into the gift shops and practically in front of you in line for the rest room. They’re wild, but incredibly tame and love to be petted, fed and given water directly from your water bottle. And get this–after you give them a treat, I am not kidding–they bow their heads to you in thanks. We all lost it when we saw them doing that. Manners are so important in this country that even the wild animals employ them to perfection! It just doesn’t get any better than that.

Inside this humongous park there are so many national treasures I can’t possibly tell you about all of them, but I’ll choose a select few. There’s the five-tiered temple built in 835 AD. It burned down 5 times and had to be re-built each time. So magnificent!

Then there’s the famous Todai Temple, housing the biggest bronze Buddha in Japan. And he is absolutely resplendent in his glory. You look up and up and up and imagine the making of such a sculpture….bronze plate by bronze plate by bronze plate. And you just stare.

The temple itself is just enormous, but even so were told that in fact it’s a re-build of the original one, which was three times larger than this one. Are you kidding me??? Nothing could possibly be three times larger than this thing.

After being slayed by the deer, we followed Yuki to some of the main sites and some of the offbeat ones in Nara Park. This man knows his stuff. And what he doesn’t know, Hiroko does. They’ve been touring and documenting their homeland for the past twelve years, having founded Japan Geographic together. Yuki takes film footage using drones and sophisticated equipment and Hiroko is a whiz with still shot photography. I was leaving through a photo guide book to Japan I found in their car and casually remarked that the photos were remarkable.

“Thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed them, replied Hiroko. .” Wait– you took these shots? “Yes, we made this book, and hundreds of videos, too.” (You can see these videos at http://japan-geographic.tv) How lucky are we to have them as our friends and guides?

But Bill is resourceful as well. On our way out of Nara Park, suddenly a cloudburst took us by surprise and we were getting soaked. Fearing for Yuki’s video equipment and Hiroko’s camera and lenses, Bill ran across the street and found a plastic garbage can liner straight from a garbage can and ran back with it and covered the equipment, saving the day. Even so, we were a rag tag group by the time we got back to the hotel and were received in the lobby with smiles and towels and lots of bowing.

See more of my adventures through Japan here.

More from Deborah Howell
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