Nara (奈良)

I was just having a look around the excellent blog by Jacqueline M. Hadel, in particular at her photographs of Kyoto and Nara. One image of a telegraph post sticker depicting a Police Deer in Nara reminded me of our trip to this shrine and temple town in 2013.

I don’t know why it took us four years to go to Nara. Our friends Bob & Anna, who had married a couple of weeks before us and also honeymooned in Japan, urged us to go each time we told them we were planning another trip. Maybe there was a little bit of perversity going on – a reluctance to do the typical tourist thing, somehow.

In 2013, we were staying in a machiya off Gojo Dori close to the Higashiyama area of Kyoto. We headed up to Gojo Zaka and caught a bus that took us to Kyoto Station where we took a train on the JR Nara line. Our usual train station ineptitude came into play and, instead of waiting 15 minutes for the rapid train, we hopped straight onto a local train. It set off 15 minutes earlier, but arrived 20 minutes after the rapid train!

The train was deserted when we sat down, but soon filled up, and taking the leisurely route meant that we saw more of small town Japan than we would have if we’d zipped through on the rapid line. Heading out of Kyoto on this line is like journeying into a Miyazaki film.

When we arrived in Nara, we went to the tourist information desk and the friendly woman on duty produced an English language map for us and drew all over it, highlighting the places we should prioritise and the bus routes we should take. She advised us to start with Nara Park, and directed us to the bus stop. We hopped on the next bus, along with a large group of French tourists. It was a very cosy journey.

Nara Park is huge, and is home to some very friendly deer! This lip-smacking specimen fair menaced me for deer treats.

I’d bought the obligatory packet of deer snacks (shika senbei) from one of the street vendors at the entrance to the park. No sooner had I stepped away from the stall, than I was inundated. Lots of soft noses nudging my pockets and tongues checking my hands. The Menacer was very bold and had a strong head butting technique. It also liked to rear up slightly on its hind legs to get some height over the other deer. Even after the snacks had gone, it didn’t believe me and followed me, nudging my legs, for quite a while before it gave up. I saw too late the signs that warn tourists what deer are capable of in their pursuit of shika senbei.

The sika deer in Nara Park are sacred. Legend has it that, when the capital Heijyo Kyo was newly established in the Nara Basin, the god Takemikazuchi arrived in Nara riding a white deer, in order to protect the new city. Now, the deer are considered to be guardians of not just Nara but of the whole of Japan. As you walk around the temples and shrines in Nara Park, you will come across many carved and sculpted representations of these precious, heavenly animals.

 

Walking away from the deer we approached Todaiji Temple (東大寺) through the Nandaimon Gate.

As we walked along the path to the ticket office, the Great Buddha Hall (Daibutsu-Den/大仏殿) was an arresting sight.

 

The hall is the world’s largest wooden structure – and it’s half the size that it used to be. The current building was reconstructed in 1692. The Todaiji was founded in 752 and moved to Nara from Nagaoka around 30 years later, to try to reduce the temple’s power and influence over government. Historically, it’s a really significant place. It’s also really popular with tourists.

As large as the hall is, it’s the statue it was built to house that really impresses. The Daibutsu (Big Buddha/大仏) is mesmerisingly big. None of the photographs I took really do the sense of scale any justice. You have to see it to really understand how monumental the statue is.

 

 

We didn’t walk up past the Buddha ourselves, but wandered through the hall, looking at the exhibitions and displays. There were models of what the temple has looked like across the span of its existence, and examples of carved wooden heads and replacement statues of the Nio Kings who guard Todaiji in the Nandaimon.

 

Around the back of the Buddha statue, heading towards the shop, we found lots of school children crawling through a narrow hole at the base of one of the supporting pillars. They were being egged on by their teachers, who found the whole thing hilarious. I don’t like taking photographs of children without permission, though, so I can’t show you what a sight it was!

After a stroll around the temple grounds, we headed on to the next stop on our itinerary – Kasuga Taisha Shrine (春日大社). The path led us up past some shops, where at the door of one shop a group of deer were patiently waiting. As we approached, a man scurried out of the shop, carrying a bag of food which he then proceeded to scatter on the grassy slope across the street from the shops.

Those deer had him very well trained! I think the phrase “Making a rod for your own back” applies here.

The approach to Kasuga Taisha through the woods via Mizuya-jinja is lined with stone lanterns.

 

The shrine is famous for its hundreds of bronze lanterns within the main hall, all of which are donated by worshippers, but there must be as many stone lanterns on the various approaches to the shrine as there are inside.

We arrived just in time for a quick look around the free to enter offering hall and paid the 400円 entrance fee to go through to the inner hall, where the bronze lanterns line the passageways between the buildings. The day was starting to draw to a close, so the light was perfect for photography.

 

 

It was also good to be reminded, as we wandered around, that Kasuga Taisha is a working shrine and not just a tourist destination. A shrine maiden slipped off her geta before slipping through a set of sliding doors into one of the shrine buildings.

 

We headed back to Nara Park via the main approach to the shrine, following worshippers and other tourists.

Along the way we encountered more deer.

We decided not to take the bus back to the station, but to walk west through the park to Kofukuji Temple (興福寺). The temple was originally a Fujiwara family temple in Kyoto, but when the capital moved to Nara, the temple also moved. The five storey pagoda is a National Treasure. It was originally built in 725, but the current building was reconstructed in 1426. It is the second highest pagoda structure in Japan and stands alongside the Eastern Golden Hall, also a National Treasure.

 

The Eastern Golden Hall is open to visitors, but we arrived too late in the day to get to look around. Apparently, there’s a large wooden statue of a Buddha in there.

The Central Golden Hall was shrouded in scaffolding, undergoing reconstruction work, and there was an event on at the Southern Octagonal Hall, so we didn’t linger.

SONY DSC

Instead, we strolled down the main shopping street towards the station, pausing to go into a cluttered secondhand/antique store where I purchased a pilgrim’s bell shaped like a persimmon with a ladybird on it, which pleased me greatly. The next day, I discovered that I could have bought a new one from a shop in Arashiyama close to the house where Basho once stayed, but I liked the weathered appearance of this one. It looked like it had seen some things.

Further along the shopping street, we saw a curious adornment on one of the buildings, which put me in mind of Murakami’s Wild Sheep Chase.

And at a junction close to the station, we saw the deer police sticker similar to the one on Jacqueline M. Hadel’s blog that reminded me that I needed to write about our trip to Nara.

I’m glad that we finally made it to Nara. It really is worthy of its Tourist Destination tag. We filled an afternoon looking at the three main sites, but there is more to see and do than just Nara Park. I’d like to wander around the town a bit more, exploring the side streets, as well as visiting the museums, shrines and temples that we didn’t manage on this trip.

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