Nara

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Nara was one of Japan’s ancient capitals. It has many examples of traditional architecture, and Buddhist culture and art, giving places within the city World Cultural Heritage Site status.

After the capital was relocated to Heijo-kyo (now Nara City) in 710, many temples and shrines were built there under the direction of the imperial family and aristocrats. The Todai-ji Temple holds the Daibutsu, the world’s largest Buddha statue, made of copper and gold. It is enshrined in the world’s largest wooden structure, the Daibutsu-den (Great Buddha Hall).  The Toshodai-ji Temple was founded by the Chinese priest Ganjin, who came to Japan spreading the principles of Buddhism. The Horyu-ji Temple is known as the oldest existing Buddhist temple in Japan. Some of the oldest wooden architecture, paintings and sculptures reside here.

Nara city is an intimate place. The formation of an ancient nation started around mid-3rd century, completed by the late 6th century. The 3rd and 4th century heralded unification of Japan with the Nara region as its epicentre. The region prospered as the political and economic center of Japan until the early 8th century, with the ancient capitals of Asuka-kyo, Fijiwara-kyo, and Heijo kyo existing in the region from 694 to 784.

Under the Ritsuryo system of government in the Nara Period, Buddhism was heavily regulated by the state through the Sogo. During this time, Todai-ji served as the central administrative temple for the provincial temples for the six Buddhist schools in Japan at the time: the Hosso, Kegon, Jojitsu, Sanron, Ritsu and Kusha.

The giant Buddha has an interesting history.  The statue was started first in Shigaraki, and following earthquakes during its initial construction, was finally completed in 751 then moved to Nara.  The Great Buddha Hall has been rebuilt twice after fire. The current building was finished in 1709.  The Great Buddha has been recast several times. The current hands of the statue were made in the Momoyama Period (1568–1615), and the head was made in the Edo period (1615–1867).  It is about 15m tall, with The Birushana Buddha’s golden halo being 87 foot in diameter, with 16 images each 8 feet tall.  I include these details as my photographs do not convey the scale of this magnificent work.

Kofuku-ji is a temple that was established in 669 by Kagami-no-Okimi, the wife of Fujiwara no Kamatari, wishing for her husband’s recovery from illness.  In 710 the temple was dismantled for the second time and moved to its present location, on the east side of the newly constructed capital, Heijo-kyo, today’s Nara.

Kasuga-taisha is famous for its many bronze lanterns, as well as the many stone lanterns that lead up the shrine.  Over three thousand stone lanterns line the way.  The shrine became the object of Imperial patronage during the early Heian period, and sits with the Kasugayama Primeval Forest, possibly unchanged since the Nara period.

The 5 tiered pagoda greeted us first. Well, apart from the numerous deer. Nara’s friendly deer have been treasured as messengers from the gods.  A bizarre sight indeed to see these shika wandering and nuzzling people to see if they had biscuits or not. Surreal and beautiful on the one hand, their unabashedness playful, but not necessarily the images of spiritual beings i envisaged.

The 5 tiered pagoda is a wonderful site. Magnificent in structure. Imposing and beautiful. The curvature of these roofs is repeated throughout much of the architecture i have seen, a sight i never tire of.  Constructed by the empress komyoh in 730. The structure is 50m tall.

The various shrines nearby were very beautiful. Serene, with arrangements that invite me to contemplate their symmetry, simplicity, and iconography. I have been sat in front of some of the larger shrines on my journey almost on my own, and have felt a humility and connection, mostly as a place where i felt laid bare, where the place encompasses you and transports you away from away from the world beyond.

The museum for national treasures was marvelous. Collections of historic artifacts, many from the original Nara era dating from the mid to late 8th century. sculptures, paintings, writings, decorative arts and archaeological works.

The scale of Nara’s temple complex are stunning gateways into another world. Todai-ji more so than most. The scale of the Buddha is fairly breathtaking, and the ornate golden halo contrasts with the statues plain texture.  Next uphill we went in the temple complex.  Leading to rewarding views of temple roods with Nara city and the mountains as its backdrop.  Within the grounds there were wonderful veteran trees, circled with tasseled rope to venerate their longevity.

I also enjoyed kasuga-taisha, famed for its beautiful lanterns. I was mesmerized by a dark mirrored room, lit only with these lanterns. This was beautiful, the light shining and silhouetting their individual detailed designs.  Then outside to an avenue of stone lanterns, numbering 3000 in total, forming a boulevard below beautiful forest, again with some lovely veteran specimen trees.  One in particular, a large campher tree with an 11m circumference, thought to be formed as a connate tree from 3 different saplings.

Nara was holding the yamayaki festival, where the hillside of Mt. Wakakusayama was set alight, providing a backdrop for a fantastic firework display. The streets were full with food and drink stalls.  The evening brought a spectacular firework display, amongst the backdrop of Nara’s ancient architecture, which was a fitting stage to some of the prettiest fireworks i have seen, lighting the sky with all colours of the spectrum.  Walking towards a hillside on fire was an interesting experience, perhaps better than the singular bonfire we have for bonfire night, and with very different meanings.  However, Nara certainly knew how to host a good festival, bringing people together with warmth, food, drink, and surprises.

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