If you’re looking for a day trip from Osaka or Kyoto, the Deer Park should definitely be on any photographer’s Nara itinerary.
Hundreds of deer just chilling all around a beautiful park, weaving through temple grounds and these stone lanterns called tōrōs.
Osaka to Nara by Train
We went to Nara in fall last year and got super lucky with perfect fall color. Japan has just the right trees for fall to turn into an incredible spectacle – I think they’re maple and gingko. I say we got lucky because some people plan such things, but we just happened to be in Japan around that time.
Nara is an easy day trip from Osaka. Trust me, I was fighting a cough at the time and managed to have a lovely day in Nara and still get back to Osaka in time for ramen and a nice hot bath.
We got from Osaka to Nara by train, the express train costs only 600 yen and takes about 40 mins. You can take a faster train but it will be more expensive.
One thing about this, Google maps always tries to show you the fastest time. Unfortunately that’s also the most expensive and it’s pretty hard to fool google into showing you the slower cheaper options. I did not figure out a good trick for this, other than trying routes from different stations and seeing how the prices changed.
Nara park hours are basically all day – but of course you want to go when you have some light to wander about.
Before you head to Nara deer park, check out Yoshiki-en garden. It’s a free little garden that’s right next door. It’s small but so well taken care of that it’s just delightful. I hope to write a post about it soon as I have some amazing photos of this garden. It’s free for tourists.
Next to it is Isuien garden, which isn’t free but also beautiful and you may want to check it out. We skipped on this one as I was too excited to see the deer and we spent a long time at Yoshiki-en.
Nara park is huge and you can spend a lot of time here. We started at the main Todai-ji temple, then wandered up to Nigatsu-do hall finally meandering back down to the entrance, feeding some deer and seeking out the best fall color. It took us most of the daylight as we were there in fall.
After we were done, we headed to Harushika Sake in the town of Nara to do a sake tasting, which was a fun way to end the day. This makes for a super easygoing Nara itinerary, which is just perfect for me as I hate feeling rushed.
Close to the entrance is the Todai-ji Temple. Start off around there and check out the reflections around the pond. You may even catch some turtles sunning on a rock. A polarizer can come in handy when shooting ponds as you can control the reflectiveness.
The Todai-ji temple actually contains a large Buddha statue. Funny story, I didn’t know about the status so we missed it but after coming back, literally EVERYONE asked us if we saw the big Buddha. So don’t miss it! Or you’ll never hear the end of it. Let me know what it’s like. Do check the link for admission times and fees though.
The park is full of deer which is the main draw to the crowds. The deer are very habituated to people and will come right up to you. I tried to take photos while feeding them but wow, they are super aggressive the moment you pull out the crackers.
A better idea is to get away from the large groups of schoolchildren feeding deer as those are where the most hangry aggro deer seem to hang out. Also crowds ruin photos so it’s always good to walk in the opposite direction of milling tourists. Head to the quieter areas where the introverted deer hang out and you’ll be able to take better photos of them.
It took some searching to find a good spot with deer and beautiful trees behind them. To get a better framing, get down low to have the trees behind the deer.
There are loads of temples and shrines within the park so it would be tough to visit all, but one that is quite pretty is up at the top of the park. If you can be here around sunset, you’d have an amazing view of the forests outside Nara.
We had pretty grey weather as you can see, the day we were there. So instead I focused on details around the temple. This is why I like to use a pretty versatile zoom when travelling. Are primes sharper? Yes sure, but it’s not as easy to react to different situations when using multiple lenses.
This large range is called a superzoom, and means you can shoot landscapes as well as zoom in for detail. Due to complicated optics, they are usually not as sharp as more limited zooms or prime lenses. However, for travel they work very well as you often do need to be flexible. They allow me to get the shots I want and I even sell the shots on Society6.
A step up from this lens is Panasonic’s own 14-140mm f/3.5-5.6 lens which is about $200 more expensive but has better image quality.
Finally, if you shoot Canon or Nikon, you can get similar performance from this Sigma 18-200m lens. In fact a lot of my older photos used this lens when I had my Canon 70d.
I loved the rich wood in the old temple doors, ornamented with metal brackets. Look for details and the way the light falls to get interesting photos around the temples.
There are also a number of buddhist rituals you might catch temple visitors partaking in. Like ringing a bell, writing wishes on paper or pouring water into with these metal cups.
I am usually a bit sensitive to shooting people doing their rituals though, I don’t like to interrupt their moment. Sometimes it’s possible to catch a moment without getting in the way, sometimes you find your shot in the objects instead.
Finally we made our way back to the entrance. Honestly I didn’t want to leave just yet but we were hoping to catch a sake tasting at Harushika sake before it closed at 5.30pm. But this was so hard to walk away from!
Still, if you’re not a pro, much of your photo time is interleaved in the process of experiencing and visiting places, often with friends or family. So my Nara itinerary included some non photography fun – namely tasting some delicious sake to round out the day, not a bad deal. After the sake, we headed back to Osaka for some yummy takoyaki.
Our last views of the park were down this long path of lanterns – a very beautiful and peaceful walk.
Hope you enjoyed this walk through Nara Park and let me know if you visit!
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