The most pleasant route into Nara-kōen (奈良公園) is along Sanjō-dōri, which cuts across the central district and brings you out near Sarusawa-ike (猿沢池) with the Five-Storey Pagoda rising from the trees to your left. The pagoda belongs to Kōfuku-ji (興福寺), which in the eighth century was one of Nara’s great temples. Founded in 669 AD by a member of the Fujiwara clan, it was moved to its present location when Nara became the new capital in 710.
The prime draw here is the fine collection of Buddhist statues contained in the Tōkon-dō (東金堂) and the Kokuhōkan (国宝館). The Tōkon-dō, a fifteenth-century hall to the north of the Five-Storey Pagoda, is dominated by a large image of Yakushi Nyorai, the Buddha of Healing. He’s flanked by three Bodhisattvas, the Four Heavenly Kings and the Twelve Heavenly Generals, all beady-eyed guardians of the faith, some of which date from the eighth century. Perhaps the most interesting statue, though, is the seated figure of Yuima Koji to the left of Yakushi Nyorai; depicting an ordinary mortal rather than a celestial being, it’s a touchingly realistic portrait.
The modern Kokuhōkan is a veritable treasure-trove of early Buddhist statues. The most famous image is the standing figure of Ashura, one of Buddha’s eight protectors, instantly recognizable from his three red-tinted heads and six spindly arms. Look out, too, for his companion Karura (Garuda) with his beaked head. Though they’re not all on display at the same time, these eight protectors are considered to be the finest dry-lacquer images of the Nara period. The large bronze Buddha head, with its fine, crisp features, comes from an even earlier period. Apart from a crumpled left ear, the head is in remarkably good condition considering that the original statue was stolen from another temple by Kōfuku-ji’s warrior priests sometime during the Heian period (794–1185). Then, after a fire destroyed its body, the head was buried beneath the replacement Buddha, only to be rediscovered in 1937 during renovation work.
The large, grassy areas of the park are kept trim by more than a thousand semi-wild deer. They were originally regarded as divine messengers of one of Kasuga-jinja’s Shinto gods, and anyone who killed a deer was liable to be dispatched shortly after.
During World War II their numbers dwindled to just seventy, but now they’re back with a vengeance – which can make picnicking difficult and presents something of a hazard to young children; try to avoid areas where vendors sell special sembei (crackers) for feeding the deer.