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Deer at Nara park sticking tongue out

A suffusion of cute: Nara deer

Kawaii – cuteness – is a religion here. The rest of the world frowns on cartoons, sniffs at toys, and sneers at all things doey-eyed and fluffy. But in Japan, the cuteness levels accepted at a corporate level would make a European shudder. Cities have mascots of adorable little critters, often appearing in unexpected places like manhole covers. Different regions have different specialities – our little rabbit purse from Beppu has elicited cries of ‘Kawaii!‘ from shops all over Japan. Roadworkmen – normally the toughest of the tough – solemnly assemble roadside barriers in cartoon shapes. Public safety warnings are just ducky.

So, of course, Nara might have a ton of wonderful temples and 8 UNESCO heritage sites – but it is mostly adored for its deer. Japan has a cat island and a bunny island, so a deer town is pretty much par for the course. The deer were historically regarded as messengers of the gods for the main shrines in the park, and are now protected as a natural treasure. So there are hundreds of them roaming freely – mostly through the park, but also into the town or wherever they fancy. They’re fed huge quantities of ‘deer cakes’ by selfie-taking tourists. Like us, though we didn’t have any deer cakes (didn’t see vendors till we were leaving the park). But the deer adored Vanessa anyway, who kept fooling them by pretending to have food so I could take photos. And, as usual, the deer ignored me – I couldn’t fool them with fake food, and will never, ever make it as a hustler. And it just seems so unfair that while I love animals, they don’t like me. Meanwhile, Vanessa – who regards nature and all its creatures with a stern eye, as tending to shed hair and dirt – has the little feckers flocking to her.

Yes, we went to the main shrine as well – conveniently part of the deer park. The Daibutsu – giant Buddha – is the largest one in Japan (15m tall, 130kg of gold, and from the 700s – V reckoned that gold would have been long gone if it was in Brazil). It is well guarded by some of the most scowling giant guardian gods I’ve seen, and surrounded by the world’s largest free standing wooden structure, the Daibutsuden. A smaller, red cloaked Binzuru outside heals all ills – rub the corresponding afflicted body part on that Buddha, for a cure. There’s a hole through one pillar which is exactly the size of the Buddha’s nostril, and scrambling through it guarantees enlightenment. Since even small children were finding it tricky to squeeze through, though, we chose to stay unenlightened. Again.