During our trip to Kyoto, we took a train to Nara one morning and spent a few hours wandering around Nara-kōen. The park is a sprawling piece of land in one of Japan's ancient capitals with many shrines and temples, but is perhaps best known for its large population of deer. The deer were seen as messengers of the gods in pre-Buddhist Japan, and now they hold the status of National Treasures. A friend from Nara told me that the punishment for killing a deer is more severe than the punishment for killing a person!
Once again we took our trusty Lonely Planet guide, and followed the recommended walking tour of the park. It took us about 4 hours; we skipped some smaller temples that charged an entrance fee and spent more time taking photos and feeding deer. It was raining and a little on the cold side, which cut down on the crowds I can only imagine must descend on the place when it's sunny and warm.
We did pay the ¥500 to enter Tōdai-ji temple and see the Great Buddha, a 48.74m tall statue dating from the 18th century that is said to be one of the best sights in Japan. The Great Buddha was flanked by two large gold Buddhas and surrounded by countless other decorative and sacred details, and it really was amazing. I also decided to have my fortune told in the temple, which is done by shaking a cylindrical box of numbered sticks until one falls out, and then the fortune, printed on paper, is taken from a drawer with the corresponding number. I got "Half Luck," which told me that some things might not go may way right now but that I'll be happier later. Hopefully that works out!
Towards the end of our walk we found ourselves in a semi-secluded part of the park, and decided to buy some cookies to feed the deer. Not being so surrounded by people and deer meant better photos, and fewer animals chasing us down! A stack of cookies can be purchased from vendors throughout the park for ¥150, and any nearby deer will come running as soon as they hear the rustle of the package. Within seconds I had a horde around me, sticking their noses in my pockets, trying to eat my scarf fringe, and nibbling on the bottom of my shirt and cardigan. It was really fun and is definitely a must-do, but just keep in mind that the deer are fairly aggressive creatures and have been known to stampede small children innocently eating a snack. One deer actually chomped down on my knuckles and I bled a little bit, so be careful how you hold your hands, and maybe have some hand sanitizer and bandaids ready!
We finished off our morning with lunch at Mellow Café, located right behind Kintetsu Nara train station. Clem and I both had delicious pizza out of their brick oven, which helped us warm up after being out in the rain all morning. It also had an English menu, which always makes things easier. It's a little difficult to find because you have to go around a building down a tiny alley, but is well worth the search.
Nara is the perfect side-trip from Kyoto, as it is only about half an hour by regional train and is fairly inexpensive to get to. Should you want to spend longer in Nara, there are enough other sights in town to be seen over two or so days.