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Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Deer hunting (for selfies) and heritage sites in Nara, Japan


‘OH, deer,” I muttered to myself as I sensed how these lovely creatures seem to almost outnumber us two-legged humans, who are all trying to corner them into taking selfies in the park that day. An estimated 1,200 sika deer romp the grounds of Nara Park every day in paramount freedom enjoying an almost rock-star status, brought about by their historical designation as messenger of the Gods for many centuries. According to a story handed down from more than a thousand years ago, Takemikazuchi, a Shinto God from Kasuga Shrine, descended from his world and appeared at Mount Mikasa riding a white deer. In the aftermath of World War II, the deer’s ‘divine’ distinction was replaced by a ‘national treasure’ designation, to ensure their protection while at the same time, tapering down their religious significance. 

'Feeding one of the many Deer with deer cracker
Holding a pack of ‘deer crackers’ seem to signal an invitation for them to approach me. Typifying the polite nature of this country, the deer appear to imitate the bowing-like gesture widely practiced by the Japanese people. Mere seconds into opening the pack, a trio of deer had already bent their heads beside my hips before raising it to expose their wide open mouths – in a final plea for me to feed them the crackers.

The Culturally and Historically-Rich Grounds of Nara

As the lawn covered gardens of Nara Park lead us to narrow pathways surrounded by bamboo and pine trees, we tramped and come across a number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites clustered together inside this historic grounds. A total of eight landmarks encompasses the Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara – most are within walking distance of each other. 

Japanese students on a field trip mingles with the deer
As the morning dew mist over the grass, I smell the fresh leaves from the high rising trees. Rambling gingerly under the canopy of swaying greens, I realized how the current season is a month away from the onset of the autumn. I looked around at the teeming garden around me and wondered at the changes of the colors the impending fall season will bring. Walking further, we passed by a group of park buskers performing a catchy Japanese song that has a few onlookers banging their heads sideways and swinging their hips.

'the big bronze statue of Buddha inside Todai-ji Temple'
I stood and listened long enough to feel my head pounding up and down in slow unison to the song’s melody. Situated at the foot of Mount Wakakusa and established in the early 1300s, Nara Park is one of the oldest parks in Japan. Designated as one of the “Places of Scenic Beauty” by the country’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, a day’s meander over a large part of its 660 hectare property, provides you a combination of visual and historical incursion deep into the rich and fascinating culture of Japan.

Kōfuku-ji

Kofuku-ji Temple and the Five Story Pagoda
Built in the 7 th Century, this Buddhist Temple features a ‘five-storied pagoda’ that quickly attract your eyes upon approaching it. We arrived here by foot under gloomy skies and few patches of rain drops. The mood couldn’t be more muted but as I stare at this small marvel of Buddhist Architecture, I can’t help but notice the striking patterns and lines – while almost similar to other of its own kind, I feel a certain sacred vibe emitting from the all corners of its wall. Kimono-clad women passes by me and as a local family took a group portrait in front of the towering Pagoda, I noticed a hint of pride at the faces of the elders, suggesting a sense of opulence as they enjoy their own preserved culture persisting in this park.

Kasuga-taisha

At the doorsteps of this Shinto Shrine I briefly chatted with an English speaking Japanese man traveling with his family. I accidentally stepped on his foot and when I apologized, he asked me where I’m from. “I am living in the states but I do come home with my family as much as we can” he told me. “You enjoying your trip here so far?” he asked me. I said “Very much”.

Exchanging “What’s up” with this lone deer
We have fascinating culture, even myself who is pure Japanese I am still amazed. What more for you from the Philippines?” I nodded in agreement and before I could expound at my own marveling at their rich culture, he excused himself to buy tickets to enter the shrine.

Built in 768 by the powerful regent Fujiwara family, it is highlighted by the many bronze lanterns that surrounds the path leading to the main shrine. While I sat at the one of the corridors and let myself get lost in my thoughts, a lone deer approached me as if trying to relay a message. Being a mile away from being superstitious, I found myself wanting to believe how the deer sensed that something was bothering my mind that moment.

Walking towards the Kasugayama Primeval Forest
After it sniffed my hands, I figured the female deer was just on a lookout for more crackers. I remember being clouded with uncertainties that morning, but as we walked towards another UNESCO World Heritage Site; the Kasugayama Primeval Forest, a burst of Zen-shot through my mind and in an instant, I just let the environment carry my consciousness and off it went with the flow of our surroundings. It seems like, the beautiful mesh-up of modernity and the olden past that still flourishes in Nara Park worked wonders into clearing my mind that day.

Tōdai-ji

Once a part of the Seven Great Temples of Nara, this Buddhist Temple appear to be the biggest in Nara Park. Housed inside is the world’s biggest bronze statue of the Buddha, the Daibutsu or otherwise known as Vairocana. The vast grounds fronting the main temple are dotted with smaller shrines, belfries, towering gates and a lush garden that surrounds a snaking lake where glass-like waters remains tranquil still.

'Todai-Ji Temple'
Inside the temple, I noticed a thick wooden post that has a hole near the bottom. I saw a line of visitors trying to crawl up through the tiny passageway that could barely fit a medium built body. I overheard an English speaking guide telling her guests that “anyone who passes through it shall be enlightened up until their succeeding life”. I thought about lining up and entering the hole myself but decided against it at the last minute.

Enlightenment Achieved
Immersing at the Overwhelming History and Culture of Nara Park I always associate my traveling to freeing my mind of a bordered mentality. Discovering and learning new philosophies, while on the road has become a life-long journey for myself. A big part of it stems from educating myself of the worlds’ many culture, religion and history. Just by stringing my way from end to end of Nara Park’s significant grounds, I felt like I have covered a lot of grounds into attaining a decent amount of new knowledge.

Heijo Palace
As our legs starts to show signs of weariness, we persevered with more long walks at casual pace – while ogling at the passing sights and festivity occurring at the park. A couple of train rides afforded us to cover additional places included in the historic monuments list of Nara. Other than ticking off these places, the experience left me with more than a visual banquet.

Seeing with my own set of eyes, these old and sacred structures that stood almost similar to the originals that sprung up many centuries ago, elevates my continuing cultural discovery of the country of Japan into greater heights.


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This article appeared on the Lifestyle pages of the October 23, 2016 print issue of Business Mirror.

Travel Tip: Nara is an hour away from Osaka by train. Travelers can avail of a single ticket day pass for trains and buses to explore Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara for a day or two.

Cebu Pacific, the largest airline in the Philippines, flies between Manila and Osaka five times weekly, with lowest year-round fares starting from PHP 6,399. Cebu Pacific also flies from Manila to Tokyo (Narita), Nagoya and Fukuoka, as well as from Cebu to Tokyo (Narita). Book its trademark lowest fares now through http://bit.ly/CEBOsakaflights or (+632)7020888, or follow its Facebook or Twitter pages for the latest seat sales.


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