Thursday, July 23, 2009

Japan '08: Nara

Street near Nara Park.

About midway through my group's time in Japan, we activated our Japan Rail Passes, used the passes to reserve tickets on the shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto and back, and headed west to the Kansai region. The ryokan where we were staying in Tokyo kindly offered to store the bulk of our luggage, so we weren't dragging around 50 pound suitcases of loot from Akihabara. Our first activity was a day trip to Nara, which was the capital of Japan from 710 to 784. Nara wasn't torched in WWII, and you can't throw a rock there without hitting a national cultural treasure or UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Rice fields from the train between Kyoto and Nara.

We got to Kyoto Station about as early as could be expected, for a vacation, and then took the JR Nara Line to Nara Station. The scenery between the two cities is fairly bucolic, with groves of bamboo and rice fields in the middle of harvest. The yellow flowers at the edge of the field in the photo are some goldenrod or other (Solidago sp.), a beloved native wildflower here in New England, and invasive pest in the Far East, apparently. Consider it payback for Kudzu.

My friend Ray was feeling seriously under the weather when we arrived at Nara, but decided to keep going, and managed to soldier through. Many of the famous sights in the city are located in Nara Park, to the east of the station. Considering Ray's delicate condition, we decided to take a taxi to the far side of the park, then work our way down hill, back to the station.

Looking west over Nara from Nigatsu-dou.

Yours truly in front of Nigatsu-dou.

The taxi driver suggested that we start in the Nigatsu-dou ("Second Month Hall") area of the Toudai-ji ("Great Eastern Temple") Buddhist temple complex, and was even nice enough to show us around a little bit. Nigatsu-dou is high up on a hill, with a good view of the city from a balcony that you can walk around. There were student tour groups everywhere in Nara and Kyoto; I don't know if it's always like that or if they only come out at certain times of the year. Some of the kids had an assignment to approach a foreigner and find out about his or her stay in Japan, in English, so Sujith and I (not so much Ray) were waylaid several times a day and asked: "Where are you from?," "What is your favorite Japanese food?," and a couple of other simple questions.

Hand washing fountain to the side of Nigatsu-dou. It was shady and cool in this area, and there was a quiet room where you could take a break and have some tea.

Sangatsu-dou / Hokkei-dou.

Sangatsu-dou ("Third Month Hall," also known as Hokkei-dou) is just next door to Nigatsu-dou. It is the oldest structure in the Todai-ji complex, built around 740-747 CE. For a small fee (around $5), we entered the hall to see the collection of Buddhist statuary inside, much of which also dated to the 8th Century. No interior photography was allowed, I think primarily to protect the ancient paint on some of the statues from harsh light from flashes.

Stairs in Nara Park, between Sangatsu-dou and Toudai-ji Temple.

Shop selling shika senbei (deer crackers) in Nara Park.

Nara Park is crawling with deer, which are semi-tame (they're mostly blasé about people, but don't seem to appreciate close contact) after many centuries of protected status. The deer aren't confined in any way, and meander out into the city to some extent. There was one, which I really wish I had gotten a decent photo of, standing at a bus stop with a bunch of people like a commuter. Concession stands all over the park sell special deer crackers, and usually have a few hungry deer hanging around.

Toudai-ji Temple: Daibutsu-den ("Great Buddha Hall").

The present Todai-ji is gigantic, and supposedly the largest wooden building in the world, but it is still only a 2:3 scale reproduction of a larger edifice first completed in 752. The present incarnation of Toudai-ji dates from 1709. The chairs in front of the building were being set up for a concert; the Buddhist sect that built Toudai-ji is now extinct, and the complex is now to a certain extent given over to secular purposes.

Daibutsu, the Great Buddha (main body and options*).

Inside of the big hall is the 500 ton brass Daibutsu. It's hard to get a sense of the scale of the Daibutsu from photos: it's bigger than it looks.

After checking out Todai-ji, we wandered back out into the city, and took a bus back to the train station for the return trip to Kyoto and our ryokan. The Nara segment of my Japan adventure was definitely rushed, and I would like to return at some point to see more of the sights, particularly Kasuga Shrine and its associated gardens.

*Joke stolen from Lucky Star.

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