Nara is the birthplace of Japanese Buddhism and was briefly the capital of Japan from 710 to 784. Because this title lasted only 74 years (compared to Kyoto's 1,000+) it doesn't have the same complexes Kyoto seems to have. It is a quiet, picturesque town peppered with UNESCO World Heritage monuments...and deer.
According to legend, a Shinto deity arrived in Nara on the back of a white deer some time in the 8th Century. Since then, the deer have been regarded as divine messengers by the local people.
Growing up in California, deer are a rare sight. You are lucky to see the skittish creatures from a distance on a trip to the mountains. I hadn't walked more than 100 meters from the train station in Nara when I saw one on the sidewalk. This elicited an "aww-look-a-wild-animal-just-hanging-out-on-the-street" reaction from me. A few minutes later there was another. And another. And another. I soon realized they were everywhere, like pigeons in New York or London. They were in the park, in the street, at the gates to the temples and shrines, at the doors to shops and cafes, they were poking around the booths of the food vendors. Then I noticed their incessant scratching and their rather mangy coats. They stopped being so cute. I decided against petting them or feeding them the ¥150 cookies that they survive on. For me there is always something a little sad about a wild animal that has become completely dependent on man.
Todaiji is the largest wooden structure in the world. The scale of the temple overwhelms and you can't help but marvel at such an incredible engineering feat. Giant buildings of stone or brick or steel, sure. But wood! The current structure, built in 1709, is actually two-thirds the size of the original that burned down.
Kasuga Taisha Shrine sits on the edge of a primeval forest and its brilliant vermillion red is a striking contrast to the fresh, rain-touched green of the new spring foliage. Like the gates of Fushimi Inari it is the repetition that charms visitors. There are some 3,000 bronze and stone lanterns donated by worshipers over the last 1,200 years. The centuries of weather have given the hanging bronze lanterns a lovely grayish-turquoise patina and most of the standing stone lanterns wear a colorful jacket of moss. Adding to this gorgeous riot of color at Kasuga Taisha is the purple wisteria around the grounds that is at the peak of its bloom.
There must be a hundred jinja (shrines) in and around Kasuga Taisha. I have seen people pray at shrines in Kyoto, but because of the sheer volume here the praying becomes almost obsessive. It seems every 10 meters people stop and go through the prayer ritual: bow twice, clap twice, invoke and bow again. It's as if earlier prayers will be voided if not followed by another prayer.