When Japan came under imperial control way back in 710, Nara became it’s first Permanent Capital.
Yamato, as modern day Nara Prefecture was then known, was birthplace of the emperors and it’s name graced the bow of Japan’s World War II Flagship. Prior to Nara, the Capital city changed with each Emperor’s death – due to Shinto beliefs. After only 75 years as Capital, a priest of Nara’ powerful buddhist enclave seduced the Empress, causing a near coup and the hasty withdrawal of the Capital to Kyoto, which although only 40km away was out of the clergy’s clutches.
Although Buddhism became more politically powerful, Shintoism was and is the original Japanese belief. The religions co-exist happily, so much so that is common to find Shinto Shrines at Buddhist Temples. Nara-koen is a delightful mix of both.
There are eight historic monuments in Unesco World Heritage Nara making it second only to Kyoto, the cultural capital of Japan. The monuments are not all monuments – there are 5 buildings, 1 forest, 1 palace and 1 Shinto Shrine.
The biggest draw cards are the Daibutsu or Great Buddha and the deer that roam freely in Nara-koen (park). Absorbing influences from China, Japanese culture evolved in Nara. In the 8th century the Chinese street grid pattern was adopted and some beautiful buildings from that era have survived for us to see today.
Although some visitors overnight in Nara, express trains from Kyoto take only 35 to 45 minutes, making day trips a breeze. To make things even better, Nara-koen where most of the sites are, is compact and walkable.
The 660 hectare park (includes temples) on the eastern side of the city is home to 1200 semi tame roaming deer who do a good job of manicuring the park’s grass. They linger outside temples, shrines and restaurants and walk freely elsewhere. If it’s not gated – it’s deer country. On arrival two frantic deer were jumping barriers and running helter-skelter down the road bringing traffic to a standstill.
In Shinto days the deer were believed to be messengers of the gods. To supplement grazing, these National Treasures are fed deer biscuits (sold by vendors) and I imagine the town needs all the help it can get to keep the deer fed. Some studies suggest that the Sika Deer are endangering the park by debarking trees to deer height. As they are accustomed to being hand fed it is best that small children don’t walk around eating.
Vie de France at JR Nara Station Nara
We hadn’t seen a Japanese/Chinese Bakery since the one we practically lived at in Montreal’s China Town. The soft roll on the left was stuffed with fried potato, cheese, egg and tomato sauce and the half eaten dough ball held a moorish curry filling. Together with the hot dog and raisin bun the meal cost 6.70 Yen ($6.70AUD). Ooh Lah Lah, we left there with a spring in our step, a smile on our faces and a jingle in our pockets.
Sanjo Dori, Nara
As well as finding an excellent budget lunch, arriving at JR Nara train station, as opposed to Kintetsu Nara allows for an enjoyable (recommended) walk down Sanjo-dori all the way to where it terminates in the 169 road and park. Sanjo Dori has an interesting mix of shops and a pleasant vibe that provides a balance with the cultural pursuits of Nara-koen.
Watch out for Mochitsuki (traditional Mochi pounding) on the right side of Sanjo Dori. The two man act takes place at the hollow log, with one man holding and moving the soaked glutinous rice mass in the hole and the second whacking it with a wooden mallet. Timing is crucial!
Mochi are not made like this anymore and the demonstration and showmanship pulls a huge crowd. Some of the sweets are filled with red or white bean paste and sometimes Mugwort (Yomogi) leaves are added to the mochi ball to give a green appearance. Evidently the Yomogi Moshi here are just like what Mum used to make. Having already consumed lunch and an icecream we gave them a miss. Experience has taught me however, that I am not a lover of Red bean paste!
I’m taking you directly to Todai-ji where the number one attraction in Nara is housed. From JR Nara station follow Sanjo Dori, all the way until it runs into the 169 and park then turn left.
Having turned left continue down the 169, through the major Nobori-Oji intersection. After rejoining the 169, take the first right toward the Neisuku Art Museum and follow the route shown to Nandai-mon.
Visit Nandai-mon then back track and continue on the path through the park to Todai-ji. The entrance is to the left of the complex.
Angyo and Ungyo the fierce protectors of the gate were getting a facelift. A Great Buddha needs Great Protectors and this photo hints toward their massive size.
Todai-Ji is the name of the temple complex that includes the hall of the great buddha. Started in 710 it wasn’t completed till 798 when the capital had already shifted to Kyoto. It was a massive undertaking that nearly sent the country broke. The temple is of the Kegon School of Buddhism which is based on the Flower Garland Sutra which believes in worlds within worlds.
Daibutsu-Den – The Hall of the Giant Buddha (rebuilt 1709) is the largest timber building in the world and amazingly is only two thirds the size of the original.
The first sight of the hall is magnificent, humbling and exciting.
Daibutsu. The Great Buddha.
The Bronze Daibutsu contained within is 15 metres tall and made of 437 tonnes of bronze and 130kg of gold. Originally cast in 746, it took eight casts and three years to complete and is one of the largest bronze figures in the world today.
Fittingly the Daibutsu is the image of the Cosmic Buddha who gave rise to all the worlds and their buddhas. Life has not been easy for the big buddha who literally lost it’s head twice during earthquakes and fires. If you look closely you can see the difference in colour.
Seated on the left of the great buddha is Kokuzo Bosatsu, bodhisattva of memory and wisdom – a favourite of students. There is a supporting cast of cosmic buddhist figures to support the Daibutsu.
A favourite student activity encouraged by their teachers involved students launching themselves through the 50cm wide hole in a supporting column at the back of the great Buddha. If the student fits through the hole (the size of the Buddha’s nostril) they are assured of enlightenment. Hands are extended overhead as if diving and strategically placed helpers push and pull, providing great fun for everyone.
Deer Biscuits 150 Yen.
Entrance to Todai-ji Daibutsu-den 500 Yen.
Todai-ji Museum near the Nandai-mon (gate) 500 Yen.
JR Train from 710 Yen. Kintetsu Train from 620 Yen. Read more about available trains here.
Ive linked to Nancie’s Travel Photo Thursday at Budget Travelers Sandbox
Go and say Hi to Noel over at Travel Photo Discovery for Travel Photo Monday
This post is linked to Corinne’s Weekend Travel Inspiration at Reflections Enroute