奈良 Deer of the Divine

It took me 6 months, but I eventually did the thing that everyone does in their one week of visiting Kyoto – I visited Nara. Nara is an ancient capital of Japan, preceding Kyoto as the imperial capital, and it gives its name to the Nara period (710 – 794). The Nara period can be characterised as the time of ‘Buddhism-fever’ among the elite in Japan, and both the rise and fall of Nara as a capital can be attributed to this ‘fever’. We visited a few different parts of Nara so this will be a multi-part post so that it doesn’t get too long. While the Buddhist aspect is interesting I actually want to start with the most obvious thing about Nara when you visit: the deer.

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Leaving the train station and walking up a short way, you instantly come across the deer just wandering around. There is no fence to stop them from going on the road or any official ‘deer-limit’, they can do what they want. There were several small stalls run by old ladies selling ‘deer biscuits’ for around 200円 for 15 biscuits. The deer love the biscuits and don’t love you; if you don’t have biscuits then they won’t come near you. If they feel  you’re withholding biscuits that they know you have, they’ll pull at your clothes with their mouths. The best thing about the deer is that they have been taught to bow; if you hold your biscuit up and nod the deer will bow back at you, hoping you’ll then give him a biscuit and stop making him do stupid tricks.

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I was actually very allergic to the deer, which shouldn’t have been a surprise as I am allergic to horses, cats, and most things with fur. Even so, I stupidly forgot to bring allergy medicine so I had the joy of hunting down a 薬屋 Kusuri-ya (like a pharmacy but over the counter drugs only, prescription shops are separate). We eventually found one and I got given some really weak pills; normally piriton or piriteze from the UK would clear me up within 20 minutes whereas with this medicine, even though I took 4 tablets, did basically nothing. I ended up taking double the dose recommended (Japanese dosage seems to assume everyone is a small child) and eventually felt better and able to enjoy my day. If you are allergic to animals, bring allergy medicine to Japan, do not rely on Japanese medicine.

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The deer of Nara have been worshipped as divine messengers of the gods for centuries, if not a millennium. The reason for this sacred nature ties into one of Nara’s main sites, Kasuga Shrine. The Kasuga Great Shrine, 春日大社 Kasuga-taisha, is the family temple of the powerful Fujiwara clan 藤原. Founded by the Fujiwara family in 768, it is said that one of the enshrined deities, Takemikazuchi-no-mikoto, appeared on Mikasa mountain riding a white deer. Since then the deer of Nara have been considered sacred servants of the gods, and until 1637 killing one of the deer was an offence punishable by death. Though they have lost their divine status post World War II, they remain a national treasure of Japan.

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The Fujiwara clan are well known for their influence and power in court throughout Japanese history. The Fujiwara had a tactic of marrying their daughters to the imperial family, producing crown prince grandchildren, which, upon ascending the Chrysanthemum Throne, would owe loyalty to their maternal grandfather. They made use of this system from the Nara period all they way through to the Meiji period, making the Fujiwara a more constant power than the Shogunates in Japanese history.

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The deity that was seen riding the deer is an interesting character in himself. A god of thunder, he is credited with the first recorded sumo match in Japanese mythology; a hand to hand match against another god which he won. This god, Takemikazuchi-no-mikoto, is also credited with earthquakes, as his wrestling with a giant catfish causes tremors that shake the land. This was a theme in a lot of Edo period prints, such as the one below.

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The shrine itself was busy as they had a special opening of the interior shrine for the public. They had relocated the gods to a different section of the shrine so that the public could walk around the inner enclosure without insulting the deities that live there. It would have been more interesting had we understood everything that was going on, but I still enjoyed it. We saw the large X shaped roofs of the inner shrine, indicating that male gods were enshrined there; male gods’ roofs have large upwards thrusting X shapes whereas female gods have flatter X’s with curved ends. The other three gods enshrined at the shrine are less interesting than the sumo-starting catfish-wrestler; two are ancestors of the Fujiwara clan, and the last is Futsunushi, god of swords and martial arts.

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The shrine is also famous for the large number of stone and bronze lanterns surrounding and inside the shrine. During O-bon and a festival in February, they light all the lanterns at once. I would love to see it but I fear I will be home by O-bon.

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We also climbed the famed Mt Mikasa where the god was said to have appeared on his deer. I was pretty reluctant to climb but I did enjoy it once we got to the top. The view of Nara was spectacular and even up on the mountain we found deer eager for the deer biscuits we had bought at the bottom. There were also lots of beautiful cherry blossoms on the walk up, making the climb much nicer.

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There was a snack shop at the top of the mountain which I hoped had Coke Zero, but alas I had to settle for calpis, that wonderfully named yoghurty soda. Sadly they only had flat calpis, which is even more questionable than the fizzy variety. It tastes a little like that watery liquid that forms when you keep plain yogurt in the fridge. Its okay I suppose. Neither of my parents were impressed. I can’t help but think the name doesn’t really give it the best first impression.

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This covers the Shinto aspect of my trip to Nara; much like the Meiji government in 1868 I am dividing the two religions of Shinto and Buddhism in half for the sake of this blog, but there are elements of Shinto mixed into Buddhism and vice-versa. I hope to have part two of my trip up soon!

二条城 Singing Floors and Deadly Doors

The weather while my parents were visiting me was rather miserable; there was a lot of rain and it was pretty cold. While I would expect this of a British April, this is completely unusual for Kyoto and I have heard countless complaints from locals that this is the coldest and wettest April they’ve ever seen. As such going out and enjoying the cherry blossom in the sunshine was not possible on some days. We tried to find alternative activities even though Kyoto sightseeing is quite an outdoor affair.

We decided to go to Nijo-jo, or Nijo Castle, Kyoto’s local castle and World Heritage Site. As it has inside portions we thought it would be better than temples. The weather that day was horrendous with torrential hard rain that soaked through my coat. I was not allowed to take photos inside the castle so most of these photos will be of the very wet gardens.


Nijo castle was founded by Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate that lasted 250 years. I was going to explain to you how he came to power, but it is rather complicated and involves many battles, tactical retreats and alliances. I will therefore point you towards his Wikipedia page for a summary of his battles and instead sum up his victory with the Japanese saying about the 3 ‘great unifiers of Japan’. They are known as the ‘great unifiers’ as Japan had previously been in a state of ‘sengoku jidai‘ or warring states for over a hundred years, these three men, Oda Nobunaga, Toytomi Hideoyosi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu, were the men that enabled Japan to unify as one country.

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We have encountered this saying before when I was talking about Hideyoshi here, however I will reiterate. The saying goes thus: The three unifiers are sitting around a bird in a cage, trying to persuade it to sing. Nobunaga says “if you do not sing I’ll kill you”, it does not sing. Hideyoshi says “if you do not sing, I will make you sing”, it does not sing. Ieyasu says “If you do not sing, I will wait” and eventually the bird sang. This saying sums up the various approaches to unifying Japan; as you can see Ieyasu is credited for his patience – he was careful and strategic, ensuring that his shogunate had a strong foundation once he gained power. He was also good at making allies and ensured that those that had supported his campaigns in the war were rewarded, creating a loyal base to his regime. He ordered the construction of Nijo-jo and ordered the Daimyo (lords) of West Japan to finance it, establishing a seat of power for the shogun in the imperial capital of Kyoto.

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Nijo castle consists of two palaces and two sets of fortifications. The Ninomaru palace sits on the outside of the second moat and wall but within the first and the Honmaru palace, which is actually the relocated Katsura palace, built 1847, is within both walls. The decoration of the palace was intended to impress; the samurai, not well versed in subtle Buddhist or Chinese art, favoured the more lavish and impressive styles, opting for a lot of gold leaf and bold designs. There are many screens made by the Kano school, the dominant art school of Japan at the time, which focussed on Chinese-inspired bold, brightly coloured designs. These lavish designs were intended to impress upon the lords the wealth and importance of the shogunate.

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These impressive designs worked with the system of dignitaries from Daimyo visiting the Shogun while he was staying in Nijo-jo (the shogunate was actually based in Edo, modern day Tokyo). The castle has many different audience chambers, meant for different levels of importance; lowly visitors only got to see outer rooms, whereas important officials and old supporters were welcomed into the inner rooms. The audience rooms were set up so that one third of the room was raised a step above the rest, this was where the shogun would sit, while the lords would sit beneath him in the lowered portion. There were highly visible cupboards with tassles on the handles to one side, which weren’t actually cupboards at all, but where the Shogun’s bodyguards would sit; whereas in most castles these would be hidden, the Tokugawa decided to make them more visible as an intimidation tactic.

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In case all this intimidation and ceremony went awry and someone decided to sneak in to kill the Shogun, Nijo-jo is equipped with Nightingale Floors, 鴬張り uguisubari. These are special floors that make a squeaking noise when stepped on, like an old trampoline. They are made by having the nails supporting the floor rub against each other or some other metal, giving the squeaking noise. These were named after the Japanese bush warbler, a noisy bird you can hear during springtime in Japan. These floors were intended to prevent anyone sneaking around the palace and assassinating the occupants.

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The palace is surrounded by several beautiful gardens of various styles; the Honmaru has traditional ‘circuit’ gardens of the Tokugawa period while the Ninomaru has a half-western-half-Japanese style garden that was built in the 1960s to receive official guests to Kyoto from overseas. It has traditional Japanese rock gardens but also lawns, a concept not native to Japanese gardening. Sadly the gardens were rather wet when we visited and I was distracted from enjoying them by the rain soaking through my clothes.

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Nijo castle is definitely worth visiting on your trip to Kyoto. The main gate is under construction and not due to be finished until 2018, so bear that in mind. It is a good rainy day activity but if you want to enjoy the gardens I’d say it’s best to go when it’s sunny.