“Japan” Starts Here
The city of Nara is often referred to as an “ancient capital” of Japan. Indeed, it was Japan’s first permanent capital, dating back to a time almost before Japan was even called “Japan” or “Nippon.” As Professor J. S. A. Elisonas writes:
Although the Japanese archipelago was inhabited as early as (pick one) 150,000 or 500,000 or 600,000 BCE, the country’s first written historical records date from the sixth century CE. The traditional date of the “founding” of Japan is 660 BCE, when Jimmu, the first emperor, descendant of Amterasu-Ōmikami, the Sun Goddess, descended to earth. Obviously, this “history” is oral tradition, since it was not until 405 CE that a writing system was introduced to Japan from China by way of Korea, and it was only after the introduction of Buddhism in the sixth century that writing became relatively widespread, especially after it was simplified and adapted for application to the Japanese language.
During prehistoric times, the ancestors of present-day Japanese and Ainu immigrated from Southeast Asia, Siberia, and other Pacific islands. At about the same time that priests from Korea were introducing Buddhism and writing, there was also a flood of refugees into the Nara area from the kingdom of Paekch’e in Korea, which was warring with rival kingdoms Silla and Korguyō. In Nara and South Korea, it is widely accepted that most of the city’s notable monuments were built by Paekch’e architects; some believe that the city’s name itself comes from the Paekch’e word for “nation” (narat or nara), which has endured to modern times to become the Korean word “nara.” Others believe it is derived from Nadaraka (‘flat place’).
During the Asuka or Yamato Period, the influence of Chinese culture and religion, introduced by Korean Buddhist priests, began to dominate the Japanese court. Early in the eighth century, Empress Genmei ordered construction at Nara of a new imperial capital modeled after the capital of T’ang China, Chang’an (present day Xi’an). This capital, Heijō-kyō, was completed in 710, and the court moved to Nara. Although Emperor Kammu moved the capital to Nagaoka, north of Nara, in 784, the period from 710 to 794 (when the capital was moved again, to Kyoto) is known as the “Nara Period” (also called the Tempyo Period in referring to art).
In December 1998, seven temples, shrines, and ruins in Nara were collectively inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List as the “Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara.” Two of these are located in Nara Park.
A famous attraction of the Nara area is Nara Park, which covers 525 hectares (1,297 acres) of woodland and is the largest municipal park in Japan. It became a park in 1888 and is the location of the Todaiji Temple, the Kasuga Taisha Shrine, and the Nara National Museum. It is also home to over 1,000 extremely tame deer who roam freely among the temples and shrines. Historical records show that the deer of Nara have been protected for over a thousand years, since the Nara and Heian eras.
The origin of the practice of honoring deer here is a legend connected with the Kasuga Taisha Shrine. The shrine is dedicated to a god who, legend has it, rode in on a white deer from Kashima Shrine in Ibaraki Prefecture in the year 768. Deer have been protected in the area ever since as sacred servants of the gods.
The deer’s main source of food is the grass in Nara Park, eliminating the need to mow the grass, and their droppings serve as fertilizer, which also helps to spread seeds throughout the park. This natural process keeps the park’s lawns beautiful all year round, without maintenance work by gardeners. Deer also eat the leaves and branches of trees, up to two meters off the ground, contributing to good visibility in spite of the large number of trees in the park. An additional food source is the “deer crackers” sold by vendors in the park to visitors, but these account for little more than snacks and are the only food the deer are given by people, as anything more would cause them to stop foraging for themselves.
Because of their historical place in the city, and for their interest to scientists as wild animals with no fear of human beings, the deer were designated natural monuments under the Cultural Properties Protection Law in 1957. In other words, the deer of Nara Park have been recognized as valuable national assets on a par with the many structures and artworks that are designated National Treasures or Important Cultural Properties in Nara, the ancient imperial capital.
According to our guide, Kyoko, this protection means that killing a deer is a capital crime. Yet, although it is probably politically incorrect to say so, the deer are really a nuisance. They not only roam freely throughout the park, leaving droppings as a snare for the unwary, but also venture into coffee shops and annoy patrons. Tradition has it that the deer “bow” to tourists, begging for the “cookies” or “crackers” they have purchased from the park vendors, but I was unable to get a shot of deer “bowing”; all I saw was deer menacing Barney as he attempted to dole out his cookies.