Nate, Jen and Matt approach the East Tower of Yakushi-ji. The only original 8th-century structure at Yakushi-ji, the East Tower is famed as one of the finest pagodas in Japan.
On Tuesday, I headed out to Nara with Nate and our friends Jenn and Matt for a day of sightseeing. I’d been there a few times before, but was more than happy to return to the beautiful former capital of Japan.
Nara reigned supreme from 710 to 794 and, according to trusty old Wikipedia:
“The temples of Nara remained powerful even beyond the move of the political capital to Heian-kyō in 794, thus giving Nara a synonym of Nanto (南都 “The Southern Capital”). ”
We spent the day traipsing around the city, feeding (and being fed on!) by the ridiculously tame Nara deer, taking in the fall colors and basking in the temples and shrines that make up the UNESCO World Heritage Site known as “Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara.”
Entering the Kofukuji Temple complex
Nara deer are, as I mentioned above, exceptionally tame. They are also rather un-Japanese in their manner, a fact illustrated on signs sprinkled throughout the city:
Jenn illustrates a common progression of deer-feeding merriment:
Things start off innocently. A lone, seemingly-docile deer nibbles charmingly at one of a stack of “shika sembei” (deer biscuits) we have purchased from a nearby vendor.
But next thing you know–attack! The deer come from all directions and the victim is left to fend off the butts and bites of the bullying mammals while her cohorts offer no assistance but the service of photo-documentation.
Despite the deers’ intimidation tactics, Jenn proved admirably unflappable and went on to become something of a deer whisper–a veritable Snow White!
We all had our moments with the deer, even well-dressed women in Kimonos.
This photo (plus the two of Nate above and the one of the Kasuga Shrine path below) were actually taken this summer, so the leaves had yet to change color.
The approach to Kasuga Shrine
Why so many deer in Nara? The legend is that one of the five gods of Kasuga Shrine (that holy mouthful-of-a-god Takenomikazuchi- no-mikoto) landed atop Mt. Mikasa-yama one day. His mode of transport was a white deer and as a result deer have since been said to be the sacred messengers of Takenomikazuchi-no-mikoto. They are also designated National Treasures, and feisty ones at that! The shrine itself is tucked up in the trees, and at this time of year that meant bright reds and oranges from both leaves and architecture.
Another one of them thar green-leaf summer shots
One of the main attractions of Nara is the Daibutsuden (Great Buddha Hall) which lies within the Buddhist temple complex Tōdai-ji. The whole situation is truly amazing, from the outlying, towering Nandaimon (Great South Gate)…
…to the grand Daibutsuden‘s facade…
…to the giant bronze Daibutsu (Buddha Vairocana) and accompanying statues that are housed within…
I should pause here to make note of some interesting superlatives. The Great Buddha Hall we see here is actually the third version of the building. After the first two burned in fires, the current structure was erected in 1709. Wikipedia notes that “although immense—57 m long and 50 m wide—it is actually 30% smaller than its predecessor.” Despite its comparatively diminutive stature, the current Daibutsuden still holds the title of the largest building in the world made primarily of wood.
Seems to me that if you are going to boast the world’s largest building, you might as well fill it with the world’s-largest-something-else. Looks like the Japanese and I are on the same page, since Tōdai-ji‘s Daibutsu just happens to be the world’s largest bronze statue of the Buddha Vairocana. From Wikipedia:
“The Great Buddha statue has been recast several times for various reasons, including earthquake damage. 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).”
Some numbers for the measurement-hungry:
Height: 14.98 m (49.1 ft)
Face: 5.33 m (17.5 ft)
Eyes: 1.02 m (3.3 ft)
Nose: 0.5 m (1.6 ft)
Ears: 2.54 m (8.3 ft)
The statue weighs 500 tonnes (550 short tons).
As I mentioned above, the bronze behemoth isn’t the only statue in the hall, and the (relatively) smaller figures only add to awesome atmosphere of this special place.
*Note: Nate and I took the photo below for The Provincetown Banner, Outer Cape Cod’s newspaper.
Along with the statues, the Great Buddha Hall houses an intricate diorama accompanied by the following description:
“This is a reconstruction of the original temple area of Todai-ji on the scale of 1 to 50. A group of specialists lead by Shun’ichi Amanuma. a doctor of engineering, made this model during the Taisho period (1912-26) on the basis of old documents including Todai-ji Yoroku (“Todai-ji Digest”) or Shoso-in Monjo (“Shoso-in Archives”). One can see that the Daibutsu-den of those days was wider than the current building and, moreover, that there were two pagodas to the east and west that reached a hundred meter in height.”
And if the diorama isn’t interactive enough for the curious visitor, there is always the nostril-pillar! What??? you ask. Well, one of the pillars inside the temple has a rectangular hole going through it’s base. This hole is said to be the same size as the great Daibutsu‘s nostril, and the brave soul who can make it through will be granted enlightenment in his/her next incarnation. Jenn, Matt, Nate and I wasted no time in lining up for the experience, and it looks like we are all on the road to a heightened awareness come the next go-round.
All that nostril-squeezing tired us out, so we headed home. Some of us kept our composure on the train ride. Others of us, according to Nate’s camera, didn’t.