Nara, Japan’s First Permanent Capital

While Phil and I have seen a fair bit of Japan since we arrived here three weeks ago, so far we have always had the advantage of a Japanese guide in the form of Mori, Tomoko or Professor Hirata. Today though it was time to brave it for ourselves and take a trip to the ancient city of Nara. This may sound easy enough but negotiating several changes of transport and buying tickets for each leg of the journey is not easy with next to no Japanese. Happily we made it there and back in one piece and gained a greater understanding of the Japanese rail network to boot. Anyway, on to Nara… 

Built in 710, as Buddhism began to hold sway as the foremost belief system, Nara was Japan’s first permanent capital city. Prior to this the capital had moved location with the passing of each emperor as Shintō taboos surrounding death decreed it necessary to move on. However, Nara time as a capital city lasted only 75 years before a new city was built in Kyoto far away from the clutches of Nara’s powerful clergy after a priest seduced the empress in an attempt to seize the throne.

There is much to see in this former capital and Nara’s compact size and grid-like pattern of streets makes navigation on foot an easy way to explore (or at least it does if you have Phil’s sense of direction – I am pretty sure I would have gotten myself quite lost if I’d made the trip alone). One of the things Nara is most renowned for is its deer – over 1,200 roam the streets of Nara-kōen, the park to the east of the city. While they may obstruct the paths and harangue the tourists for food they are not considered a nuisance but one of Japan’s ‘National Treasures’ – a prestige enjoyed due to their pre-Buddhist status as messengers of the gods. Nara’s deer are so tame that you can feed and pet them, a novelty not lost on me as I love deer and have spoilt the peace and quiet of many a herd back in England in my attempts to get up close and personal. Needless to say I jumped at the opportunity to buy a packet of shika-sembei (deer biscuits) from a local vendor and do my part to help sustain these national treasures.

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I have to say that the novelty did wear off a bit by the end of the day as the deer could be pretty persistent in their quest for food, as witnessed by these poor tourists…

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Perhaps they had not read the warning signs…

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The first stop on our tour of Nara was Isui-en garden.

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Isui-en is a traditional Japanese-style garden dating back to the Edo Period and which today has status as a ‘Famous Scenic Spot of Japan’. Isui-en actually has two gardens – a front garden and a back garden, built during different eras but united with the establishment of the Neiraku Museum at the site. The front garden was once part of the Manishu-In, Kōfu-kugi Temple but was modified during the Enpo era by the Kiyosumi family. The family also erected two thatched-roofed houses in the garden in which to entertain important literary figures, artists and friends.

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Isui-en’s much larger back garden was created in the late 19th century by the wealthy Nara businessman Seki Tojiri. The garden is a typical go-round style Japanese landscape garden with a central lake replete with islands, bridges, stepping stones and carefully positioned plantings, a network of paths meandering around the wooded perimeter, the ‘borrowed scenery’ of Mounts Mikasa, Kasuga and Wakakusa, and a number of tea ceremony houses and hermitages.

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Next we took a short walk along to the Tōdai-ji pausing briefly at the huge wooden gate of the Nandai-mon to admire the two rather intimidating Niō guardians. Created by the sculptor Busshi Unkei in 1203, these Niō guardians are manifestations of Bodhisattva Vajrapāṇi; the deity who, according to Japanese tradition, travelled with the Buddha in order to protect him.

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The vast temple of the Tōdai-ji is Nara’s most famous historic landmark, and it’s not hard to see why with buildings this magnificent and imposing…

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The temple houses the Daibutsu-den, or Hall of the Great Buddha which, at 48 metres high, was the largest wooden structure in the world until it was replaced by the Ōdate Jukai Dome. Astonishingly the Daibutsu-den currently stands at only two thirds of its original size, having been rebuilt twice in its 1200+ year old history.

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I followed many of the Daibutsu-den’s other visitors in observing the Shintō tradition of burning incense before entering the building.

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No Great Buddha Hall would be complete without a Great Buddha to house and at 15 metres tall this colossal Daibutsu is the world’s largest gilded bronze Buddha. Originally cast in 746 but since extensively repaired and renovated after damage incurred by earthquakes, the Daibutsu contains an impressive 437 tonnes of bronze and 130kg of gold! It’s hard to get a sense of its impressive scale, until you see the statue’s original hand on display at the back of the Daibutsu-den.

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Behind the Daibutsu is a wooden column with a small hole at its base, of precisely the same dimensions as one of the Great Buddha’s nostrils. According to Japanese tradition if you can squeeze through this hole then you are guaranteed of enlightenment. While I could certainly do with a bit of enlightenment any attempt I made to squeeze myself through the hole would only guarantee me getting stuck.

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This impressive Sorin is a replica of the one that sat atop the seven-storied pagoda that stood in the Tōdai-ji compound some 1,200 years ago.

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Next we wandered a little up the hillside of Mount Wakakusa to visit another of the Tōdai-ji’s temples – Nigatsu-dō – which offers impressive views out over the Daibutsu-den and the Nara countryside.

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Sadly we did not have time to visit the Tōdai-ji Museum. Instead we made our way back through the great Nandai-mon, past the many deer-themed ‘souvenir’ shops and the copious shika-sembei stalls surrounded by determinedly hungry deer and eager tourists, towards the great Kasuga Taisha Shrine.

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Passing through the torii (the correct term for the gateway of a Shintō shrine) we took a long walk along a wooded path beset with hundreds and hundreds of lanterns donated by some of Kasuga’s many worshippers. As dusk approached it would have been wonderful to have seen the lanterns in all their illuminated glory but sadly they are only lit twice a year during the lantern festival in February and August.

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Kasuga Taisha is one of Nara’s eight World Heritage Sites and is dedicated to Takemikazuchi, the deity responsible for the protection of the city. Kasuga was established at the same time as the capital, and originally served as the tutelary shrine of the Fujiwara, Japan’s then most powerful family. However, the current shrine dates back only until the late 19th century as before this date the Shintō practise of rebuilding the shrine every 20 years was carried out.

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The last stop on our tour of Nara was the Kōfuku-ji temple, which was transferred from Kyoto to Nara in 710 to serve as the Fujiwara’s main temple.

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While it was too late in the day to take a look inside we were able to see the two pagodas, for which it is famous. Built in 1426 this five-storey pagoda is the second tallest in Japan after the one at Tō-ji in Kyoto.

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Although this is already a fairly lengthy blog I’d like to share a few photos of our walk around Nara to show how the city fuses history and antiquity with modern buildings and urban life. And humans and deer of course.

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And finally, some words of wisdom for anyone thinking of visiting a temple anytime soon…

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