The Mercenaries of Nara

Nara is a short trip away from Osaka and is the location of some very aggressive deer that roam freely around the Todaiji Temple and its gardens.

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Todaiji is a Buddhist temple complex, that was once one of the powerful Seven Great Temples, located in the city of Nara, Japan. Its Great Buddha Hall houses the world’s largest wooden statue of Buddha, known in Japanese as “Daibutsu”. I saw an amazing statue of Daibutsu in Kamakura earlier on in my travels, and it was great to see another one here. The Todaiji temple is also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with seven other sites in the city of Nara. Deer, regarded as messengers of the gods in the Shinto religion, roam the grounds freely.

Tourists get mobbed by the aggressive deer
Tourists get mobbed by the aggressive deer
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Yet these Japanese monks can control them!

The construction of the Todaiji Temple complex dates back to the year 728 AD, when the Emperor issued a law in which the people should become directly involved with the establishment of new Buddha temples throughout Japan. Along with his pupils, the Emperor travelled the country asking for donations, and apparently according to records kept in the books at Todaiji, more than 2.6m people helped construct the Great Buddha (daibutsu) and its hall (daibutsuden).

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The statue was built through eight castings over three years, with the head and neck being cast together as a separate element. A ceremony was held with 10,000 people to celebrate the completion of the Buddha. This vanity project from the Emperor nearly bankrupted Japan’s economy, consuming most of the available bronze of the time!

Up until 1998, the wooden building which houses the giant Buddha was the largest wooden building in the world. In addition, the original design of Todaiji Temple had a pair of 100m tall pagodas, which many people claim were second only to the great pyramids of Giza in height at the time. It was a shame that these pagodas were destroyed in an earthquake.

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The Stone Lantern Path
The Ukmido Pavilion
The Ukmido Pavilion at Nara Park

Nara Park is a public park located at the foot of Mount Wakakusa in Nara. It makes use of the temple buildings as adjunct features of their landscapes. Apart from Todaiji Temple, the park is home to the Nara National Museum and it seemed very calm and tranquil. Luckily, I didn’t see many mercenary deer on my trawls through the park, although as soon as I walked the Stone Lantern Path towards Todaiji Temple, the deer came out of nowhere and roamed around like they owned the place!

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According to local folklore, deer from this area were considered sacred due to a visit from Takemikazuchi-no-mikoto, one of the four gods of Kasuga Shrine. He was said to have been invited from Ibaraki and appeared on Mt. Mikasa-yama riding a white deer. From that point, the deer were considered divine and sacred – and killing one was deemed an offence punishable by death up until a couple of centuries ago.

After World War II, the deer were officially stripped of their sacred status, and were instead designated as “national treasures”. Today, visitors to Nara Park and its surroundings can purchase “deer crackers” to feed the deer in the park. However, the deer can be very aggressive if they know they’re about to be fed. They head butt, ram, and batter you with their hooves, and even charge at you at speed.

I was lucky that I wasn’t attacked myself, but I did see many unsuspecting tourists get their arses handed to them! You don’t mess with the Mercenaries of Nara!

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